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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.

ON TOPIC: ZUBAAN MELA IS AROUND THE CORNER. WE ARE FRAZZLED.

The Zubaan office has seen major upheaval and rearrangement over the last week. Books, shelves, and cheese(s) have been moved. We are bemused, befuddled, and often lose our way between the door and our desks. Still, we rounded up the best of the feminist interwebz for this week's On Topic, for the benefit of our faithful readers (who should all come to the Mela).

Some well written and pertinent things we have been reading:

  • A fresh and well-researched take on how imperialism uses the rhetoric of feminism to justify itself:

    Do women, their freedom, their clothes and their marriages provide some crucial avenue into establishing hegemony, a method of representing the foreign invaders as good? The most compelling reason for this enquiry is that South Asian and Afghan feminisms are tainted by an imagined complicity with colonialism and imperialism. Making explicit just how aspects of women’s lives – their clothes and marriages – have been put into the service of Anglo-American imperial projects of domination, and how little these projects have had to do with those actual women, is a step towards lifting the weight of imperial complicity on Afghan feminism.

  • Shared on the Zubaan Books Facebook page, we feel the need to once again point to this brilliant and incisive article on being Dalit, woman, and upwardly mobile in Bengal:

    ...I was told, rather absurdly by a professor that there are no Dalits in West Bengal. I had responded with a wry smile and had nothing to say. It is my contention that there are no Dalits in West Bengal because of the simple fact that Dalits are not allowed to exist. You can be a casteless Brahmin, Baidya or Kayastha. On the other side of the equation, you can be an untouchable/achyut waiting to be emancipated (accultured) by upper caste casteless radicals or you can be a scheduled caste employee perpetually embarrassed for enjoying the "privilege" of affirmative action…When I identify myself as a Dalit I am making a claim and seeking recognition for that discrimination, prejudice as well as that resistance. But inadvertently by identifying myself as a Dalit I am also doing something more. I am challenging a practice of "division of labourers" that is endemic to West Bengal. This is the division between emancipators (which includes writers, intellectuals, social activists, doctors, economists, trade union leaders, Naxalite leaders) and the to be emancipated (which includes peasants, workers in factories and homes, taxi drivers, rickshaw pullers etc).

  • In part of a series on gender (read them all!) on Medium.com's Matter, Laurie Essig tells us why we've got gender all wrong:

    ...what frustrates me is that “born this way” protects straight and cisgender persons from ever being one of us. They cannot be infected with our queer desires or queer gender presentations. In this worldview, we all enter this world with a stable gender identity and unwavering sexual desire. Identity is simple.

  • An MIT student shows how stereotypes of gender and race are destroyed by most sensible research studies.
  • A linguist tells us why criticising women's speech is not only unhelpful, but also misogynistic:

    This endless policing of women’s language—their voices, their intonation patterns, the words they use, their syntax—is uncomfortably similar to the way our culture polices women’s bodily appearance. Just as the media and the beauty industry continually invent new reasons for women to be self-conscious about their bodies, so magazine articles and radio programmes like the ones I’ve mentioned encourage a similar self-consciousness about our speech. The effect on our behaviour is also similar. Instead of focusing on what we’re saying, we’re distracted by anxieties about the way we sound to others. ‘Am I being too apologetic?’ and ‘Is my voice too high?’ are linguistic analogues of ‘is my nail polish chipped?’ and ‘do I look fat in this?’

  • A profile on the West Bank's first woman taxi driver:

    Ahmad became interested in cars at a young age - but even then, she understood that it was not considered a "normal" interest for a girl. She watched her cousins work on their engines when she was a teenager - never asking questions, but taking mental notes instead. "I can work on my own car [now]. I watched and watched, [and] now I know about cars. I can take even apart the carburettor," Ahmad said.

  • A young Muslim girl in America coped with racism by listening to Green Day. "This language, imprecise as it was, was my first political vocabulary."
  • TW: Sexual harassment, stalking. The editor of Khabar Lahariya writes about the sexual harassment she and her colleagues faced, and the difficulty they faced in getting the police to do anything about it:

    When...I said I wanted to file my FIR against this man, the SI said I should just switch my phone off if I didn’t want to talk to him. I said I couldn’t, that I needed to use my phone. So get a new SIM card. But people have this number and call me on it. So if he abuses you, abuse him back. Get the men in your house to do it. The calls will stop...He sounded like so many other men I knew. Let go of this desire to control your life, and everything will be ok. Really? One phone stalker was going to get me to let go of everything?

  • On the Munnar women's agitation in Kerala:

    Two aspects of the Munnar mobilisation need to be recognised. One, the protesters openly stressed the gender aspect of the mobilisation — Pembila Orumai (Unity of Women) is how they called themselves. Two, the protesters were part of the organised sector and members of trade unions...The women were discovering agency and identifying trade unions as a male preserve, a trend increasingly visible in women dominated work sectors.

  • On the attack on the women's train, Matribhumi, in West Bengal:

    Some women passengers reportedly said that many among the aggressors happened to be men they travelled with regularly. They expressed their utter bewilderment at the familiar dhoti-clad bhadrolok...turning into such a violent rabble of attackers and raring to assault them; an all-woman train was all that it took to rip apart the veneer of the ostensibly progressive Bengali man…Bengal prides itself on being a matribhumi state as opposed to the pitribhumi states of the Hindi heartland—a matriarchal society, not a patriarchal one. It is not uncommon to hear ordinary Bengalis, as well as political leaders representing the state, wax eloquent on Bengal’s gender equality, its respect for women, its past historic traditions of social reform, the iconic personalities of male reformers such as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Ram Mohan Roy. But the bitter truth is that Bengal, much like the rest of the nation, has rarely seen women in any role except that of a mother or sister. Regardless of the shades of radicalism that have defined its politics, individual autonomy has been conscpicously absent from public and private space,  and the conversations around gender have been stripped of any radicalism. Patriarchal roots, instead of being removed, have been inadvertently nurtured.

  • On the unpaid and unrewarded labour of being an online feminist, and how community needs to mean more than likes, comments, and shares:

    The think piece industrial complex exploits the young and digitally-native, provoking those of us who are fed up, feminist, and accustomed to unpaid intellectual labor into snapping back on public forums. This organic tone of immediacy and frustration has been made into a reproducible product for click bait and ad sales. Each article's tagline claims to be more feminist and more urgent than the next. As it pluralizes feminism, it also threatens to dissolve the importance of community restoration and regeneration, and the need to slow down and reflect, in addition to snapping back.

  • On institutionalised misogyny in education, and how the school or college campus becomes a site for controlling women in India.
  • Mira Jacob, author of The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing, writes about getting a book published as a person of colour in the U.S.:

    Here is the thing about how discrimination works: No one ever comes right out and says, “We don’t want you.” In the publishing world, they don’t say, “We just don’t want your story.” They say, “We’re not sure you’re relatable” and “You don’t want to exclude anyone with your work.” They say, “We’re not sure who your audience is.”

  • On what a #feministfail Katti Batti was:

    Today’s cinema may be a lot more open about lovers being in a relationship (or rather, not pretending to have sex behind bushes anymore) but everything is still coated with a generous layer of misogyny.

  • Speaking of movies, have you heard of 141 I Love You? (It has lesbians and animated heart shaped balloons.)

See you at the mela!

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