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Tag Archives: film critique

'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.

Wonder Woman: Love, War, and Ideology

wonder woman

Wonder Woman’s journey to the big screen has been long and tedious—the process of creating a live action Wonder Woman film has been in the works since 1996, with several projects being initiated and then shelved over the years. It was only in 2015 that the project began to come to fruition. Patty Jenkins was confirmed as a director, and the production process began. It finally saw a worldwide release in early June.

The film combines elements of Greek mythology with modern history, and is set in the World War 1 era. It serves as a prequel to Wonder Woman’s appearance in Batman vs. Superman, and seeks to explain her origins and character evolution.

It’s an extremely multidimensional film that deals with a lot of thought provoking themes—here are some that really stood out to me:

Moral Ambiguities

The idyllic landscape of Themyscira, an island home to female warriors called the Amazons, is disturbed when American spy Steve Trevor’s (Chris Pine) plane crashes onto the island. Diana (Gal Gadot), princess of the island, rescues him. It is revealed that Steve has classified information with him regarding weapons that the Germans are using, information that he has to get back to his bosses in London. Steve’s description of the devastating war (World War 1) leads Diana to conclude that the god Ares is behind it—Ares is the enemy of the Amazons. Her solution is to seek out and kill Ares, which she thinks will stop the war. Diana thus leaves Themyscira with Steve, without even giving the other side [in this case, the Germans] the benefit of the doubt. [spoiler] The fight scene between the Amazons and the Germans on Themyscira’s shores, where the Germans (they lose in the end) fight and kill many Amazons, including Diana’s aunt reinforces the idea that Germans are the evil enemy, both in the minds of the viewers and Diana, an idea that she doesn’t question at all [end spoiler]. Even when she reaches London, she doesn’t try to gather more facts about the war or try to gain a more holistic understanding of the war—she just assumes that the Americans are good and the Germans are bad.

When Steve reached the island, he was bound by Hestia’s lasso (one that makes its captive tell the truth), so it makes sense that she believed what he had to say about the war. However, there’s a difference between believing that someone is telling the truth and believing that what they’re saying is morally correct, or subscribing to their ideology. She automatically assumed that Ares had to be someone of German origin without trying to get both sides of the story.

Films always reflect the context they were created in, so either intentionally or unintentionally, they end up projecting a certain point of view. This is something that is evident in Wonder Woman, and something that got me thinking about how comics and films can be (and have been) used as tools of propaganda. Undoubtedly, the political landscape influences artistic expression. This article, for example, talks about how superheroes in comic books gained resurgence during the Cold War era due to their use of political symbolism, and how some characters that we see on screen today like Iron Man have extremely anti communist backgrounds in the comics. As far as Wonder Woman itself is concerned, people have pointed out how it touches upon topics like weaponization and American ideology. Further, her costume too contains American symbols—it has hints of red and blue, and looks like it has an eagle built into it (see below).

JL_Wonder_Woman

When Steve lands on the island, his perspective of the war is the only one that Diana hears, and she thus assumes that the Allies were in the right and the other side was wrong. When destruction is occurring at a massive scale, the lines between good and bad, objective and subjective get increasingly blurred. Based on the beginning, I assumed that Wonder Woman would go the propaganda route. However, the movie addresses the ambiguity of concepts like ‘good and bad’, ‘right and wrong’ really well through the reveal of Ares’ identity. It drives home the point that it’s hard to see concepts in binaries. This idea is further reinforced by Diana’s declaration that all humans have both good and bad in them, but it’s the power of love that overcomes all.

Love

Like most superhero movies, this one contained a romantic connection between Diana and Steve. They worked really well as a team and had a really good relationship otherwise, so this something that I thought was an unnecessary addition to the plot. Her romance with Steve was definitely a secondary part of the story, but the entire exchange with Ares (interspersed with a few flashbacks) made it seem like it was (specifically) her relationship with Steve that gave her strength and helped her understand the potency of love. There was no mention of the love that she’d received from her family, the Amazons or even from other members of her team. While it definitely felt like romantic love was her driving force, considering the fact that Diana and Steve were teammates before lovers, we can give the movie the benefit of the doubt and assume that the love she felt for him could’ve stemmed from camaraderie and teamwork as well. However, should love have played a role at all?

[spoiler] As was revealed during her altercation with Ares, the purpose of Diana’s very existence was to be a ‘god killer’, something she was training to become her entire life [end spoiler]. Adding the idea of love took away from her strengths and capabilities as a warrior. It also overshadowed the fact that Diana’s quest, since the very beginning, was always motivated by a sense of duty and justice. It was never about love in the first place, so why make that such an integral part of the plot in the end?

The addition of the love element, while making her seem more ‘human’ and relatable, has its downsides as it can lead to the essentialization and internalization of traditional gender roles that typify women as being ‘emotional’.

This article puts it perfectly- "In the end, Wonder Woman concludes that “only love can save the world.” While this may be true, I’ve never heard any other superhero say so. Why couldn’t Wonder Woman fight for justice and eliminate bad guys without having to in the end make it about love? Perhaps a more interesting question is: Why don’t male superheroes do the same? While people argue that women are “feminine” and naturally more inclined to love, this thinking quickly slides into dangerous assumptions like women are more cut out for caring for children and processing feelings.”

A Feminist Superhero?

Wonder Woman’s quest is to end war by ending the God of War himself. Her intentions are extremely noble--she wants to save the world and protect innocent human beings. However, she has no way but to achieve peace through means of violence. [spoiler] Diana herself is a literal weapon, the ‘god killer’ [end spoiler]. Waging wars to “secure peace” is something that’s common even in the real world, a contradictory concept that none of us are unfamiliar with. In some circumstances, violence may be necessary and may bring about peace, but the devastating impact it leaves behind on both sides cannot be ignored. While it is impossible to generalize feminism as a whole, most feminists are against violence and the hierarchies and devastation it creates, and are pro cooperation, peace and freedom. Thus, can there be a feminist superhero? Especially if that superhero uses violence to achieve her goals, as noble as they may be?

Of course, not all women call themselves feminists, and thus having a female lead doesn’t make a film feminist, but whether Wonder Woman can be called a feminist icon or not is definitely something to think about.

The film definitely does express its disdain for certain kinds of weapons (chemical weapons in particular) and maybe its way of trying to tone down the weaponization was by adding the ‘power of love’ aspect, but as discussed earlier, this has a tendency of reinforcing certain tropes. Clearly, there’s no easy way to comprehend and address such concepts.

As a whole though, I really did like Diana’s character. What makes her such a joy to watch is that when she wants to do something, she’ll do it without hesitation. She is independent, strong and an extremely skilled warrior (something that she is acutely aware of). It is the only way she knows how to be. The fact that she can just go ahead and actively work towards achieving her goals without second guessing herself or having a million obstacles holding her back is empowering. It’s something that we as women cannot relate to, but aspire towards.

Seeing a woman being able to do that feels special—especially when we get to see her from a ‘female gaze’. Patty Jenkins’ direction ensured that powerful shots took precedence over the more sexy and objectifying shots that we normally see women on screen through. As this post points out, there was no attempt to make Wonder Woman (or the Amazons) look sexy, or to make them seem more palatable to a male audience.

As a film, I would highly recommend it. The cinematography was beautiful, the themes it sought to address were intriguing, and it left me feeling (slightly) invincible.

 

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