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'Lipstick Under My Burkha' Review: Marking the Political Terrain of Desire

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Lipstick Under My Burkha is no utopic film. Cited as 'ladies-oriented', it brings nuance to the very idea of desire, by portraying it as something fundamentally tied up with questions of identity and agency.

From the college fresher to the fifty-plus widow, the female characters all possess desires that they do not find adequate routes to fulfil. Burkha-clad Rehana, played by Plabita Borthakur, is a college fresher living a classic double life as she changes into jeans and rocks out to Miley Cyrus the moment she escapes her parents' watchful gaze. Aahana Kumra plays Leela, who lusts after her boyfriend even as her marriage to another man draws closer. One of the most powerful narratives is that of Konkona Sen Sharma's Shirin, suffering at the hands of an abusive husband while striving to achieve some form of independence. Ratna Pathak shines with her performance as Usha or Buaji, who reads erotica beneath the covers of her prayer books and spends much of the film gathering up the courage to, so to speak, make a move. By dwelling on the lives of these four women, the film underlines the hypocrisy that pervades society today with regard to conventional gender roles and sexuality –  the latter of which becomes a metaphor in the lipstick, which they don as they prepare themselves for battle.

The lipstick then also becomes a symbol of fearlessness, and the film spares no sexist double standards. But it must address the problem even as it adopts a critique, and something that the film repeatedly highlights is that desire can render women vulnerable in a way that men are exempt from. A woman visiting her lover's house unannounced may be a display of agency, but this act can transform into something else altogether when the threat of rape is posed. An older widow daring to think of a relationship places herself in an extremely precarious position, while her male counterparts would have to face none of the flak and ostracism that she would draw. The scene of Leela shooting herself and her boyfriend in the heat of the moment and referring to the video as a possible tool for her to use as blackmail turns a serious reality on its head. But as the narrative progresses, this gives rise to the question: what does a woman have to lose that a man doesn't?

In this vein, the film looks at the women who step out of the boundaries prescribed to them and are attacked by the very shackles they attempted to cast off. And these painful casts are what make sure that their sexuality is expressed not on their own terms, but on those of a powerful patriarchal society, if at all. It is on this tangent that the film rejects the adage of sex as something that either must be left to the imagination, or characterised only by glimpses of shapely bodies resting together. Because this imagination is precisely what Lipstick brings to a reality by laying bare on screen, where no one who watches can quite escape it. It does not romanticise such scenes, nor does it provides sensuous and airbrushed female bodies for 'aesthetic' pleasure. It revels, instead, in making its viewers uncomfortable, asking them to question this very discomfort and the hypocrisy that goes hand-in-hand with it. This is acknowledged further with the voice-over of Usha reading an erotic novel, which is sensuous, tantalising, and shows semblance of sexual fulfilment, possibility, and hope – unlike the lives of the characters on screen.

With its clever use of juxtaposition, the film draws attention to the political nature of such 'personal' struggles that women face, in order to, hopefully, start a conversation. And so it poses no solutions to the problems that the protagonists face – it only brings them to light and zooms in on them, touching on imperative political issues such as marital rape, reproductive health, and economic independence. As it dwells on these issues and their daily relevance to women’s lives , it is marked by some extremely powerful moments that, in very little words, speak volumes. That is the film's task, and it does it well.

These powerful moments in Lipstick are scattered across the arc, however, in its approaching climax, it is marred by a few messy scenes involving Rehana. The narrative reaches a point where it rushes through, leading to banal scenes of revelation that stick out unevenly in an otherwise decently structured film. As a whole, when seen in light of the other three women, Rehana's part does fall short. Her transgressions and their execution on screen are not marked by the strength that is required of the other women in their struggles. Even though part of the message that the film conveys appears to be that things only do get worse for women as they age, I did wish for her parts to be more smartly drawn in terms of characterisation as well as dialogue.

Finally, the film has garnered much attention with the Censor Board controversy pre-certification, and its offbeat marketing strategies after. But is there a dissonance between what the trailers and social media campaigns offer, and the actual film? Not an ideological one for sure. But if one goes into the theatre looking for the uber-liberating narrative of Queen or the incisive attacks of Pink, there will be disappointment. If one holds the aesthetic of Parched as a standard, Lipstick will not match up, precisely because its politics lies elsewhere, and it does a pretty fine justice to them. It does not pretend to be set in a scenic landscape, or provide aesthetic pleasure – instead it thrusts the viewer into the dark frames and uncertainty of four women residing in a small-town mohalla. There is a fearlessness required for a woman to wear her desire on her sleeve, and to be upfront about her sexuality, precisely because the consequences can be lethal. It is, all in all, an important film that must be watched, and must be reflected on for the perspective it provides and the ways through which it provides it. It is a story that implicates its viewers in a society that makes life difficult for women, especially as they age – and they are made to watch their desire drift further and further away.

Same-Same but Different

I was in a non-committed relationship once with a guy. You know the one where you’re into each other and are sexually active but it’s not labelled? Yeah, that kind. These kinds of relationships usually have one of the members wanting more and the other one saying things like "I'm just not in the emotional place to have a relationship", or “What difference does it make what you call it? You and I know how we feel about it each other.” Anyway, why I was in that place is a long story, but the point is that it definitely wasn’t mutual. I was completely in love with him.

This guy was basically out of some Mills and Boon novel (but the modern kind, the one where the hero believes in the equality of the sexes, but not really)—he was smart, sexy, funny and loved to be in control. This need for control extended into the bedroom. I had never been with someone who loved to dominate before. If anything, I would have previously scoffed at the idea, what woman in her right mind would like to be dominated, right? Not really. As it turned out, I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed someone telling me what to do. I enjoyed following, submitting, watching my body being viewed as an object and knowing that it was capable to inspire such lust in someone. But there were also times where it left me confused, humiliated and broken. I felt like I was in an extremely vulnerable position and that I stayed in that position regardless of all my efforts to be otherwise. So I stayed in this rollercoaster of a relationship for a while till I realized how dysfunctional and unhealthy it was, and left.

After some time, when I’d had time to reflect on what happened there, I realized that not only had he played a role right out of a romance novel or film, but so had I. He was this romance hero and I was the independent girl who, despite all her notions of self-worth, loses it all in the face of this perfection! I became the muse that inspired him and helped him discover his hidden potential. As I helped him become less insecure, he did just the opposite with me. And because we weren’t exactly committed to each other, I felt less beautiful, less intelligent and just not worth it. It’s not like what happened in the bedroom helped. Why is it that my feelings about our sexual dynamic were so conflicted? I would work this out eventually but once I started a new relationship.

My next relationship was with a lovely, intelligent man. We contributed equally to the relationship, and we also enjoyed sexual powerplay of a similar kind as before. Sometimes we even switched things up, him playing the submissive and I the dominant role. And this time I wasn’t left feelings any of the negative and harmful emotions I felt previously. So why did I enjoy it all this time? Where did the difference lie? As I worked through the different feelings, I came up with a few ways in which the first relationship functioned.

The vulnerable, powerless position I was in sexually was the same as that which I occupied in the relationship on a whole. Since, I was the one in need for commitment and I was the one in love, I was submitting to his needs and demands, all the time.

It was not a choice I was making - not in terms of my feelings about the relationship nor about what happened in bed. I happened to enjoy sexual submission, but what if I didn’t? The only options were having this dysfunctional relationship that made me ridiculously conflicted about my feelings, or not having anything to do with him at all. That wasn’t really much of a choice.

I knew in theory that I had the freedom to say ‘no’ or ‘stop’ if it was leaving me with such conflicted feelings but I was scared of what the outcome of that refusal may be.

I enjoyed being sexually objectified because there were times it made me feel sexy or beautiful, but when you’re in love ad it’s the unrequited kind, it’s extremely painful to be rendered an object - something that is dispensable.

My sexual choices were construed by him to be a reflection of the way I wanted to be treated otherwise. So because I enjoyed being dominated or sexually objectified in bed, I must enjoy it in every situation, everyday!

In retrospect I realize I should have talked about these things. Maybe it would’ve made a difference or maybe it wouldn’t have, but shutting up about it definitely didn’t help. So in the second relationship, I talked about it. We talked about it. My sexual choices did not reflect the power dynamic of the relationship. My desires were understood contextually. It was empowering to know I could have desires of all kinds (and not be judged for them) and in fact explore and experiment the various possibilities. The bedroom became a safe space for me - one where I could perform and simulate situations that I wouldn’t want to be in otherwise. Where I could choose and create the narrative of my desires and understand those of my partner. And most of all, I knew that I had the freedom to say ‘No. Not today. Not right now. Not this evening. Not this fantasy.’

Shamini Kothari is currently pursuing her B.A in English literature from St. Xavier's College, Ahmedabad. She is interning with Zubaan (and is also called #1 - not by choice). She loves eavesdropping in public spaces and hates the word 'impregnated'.


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