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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.

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.

 

Dreaming Alone, in the City: Review of Parvati Sharma's Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love

There is always a point in a collection of short stories where its poetic threads reveal themselves, where the silences in each narrative slowly disentangle, where the reader’s patient quest to seek a broken thematic bridge across the various chapters, peaks. What is it, after all, about these Stories of Love that binds them together, that makes sense for the meticulous file-organizers and genre-classifiers of the day? Is it the nature of conversations — between characters, within characters — themselves, or the absurd, beaten, mocked, loved thing called Love that sleeps restlessly in every story? With some careless, misplaced interest then, I venture to seek some semblance of the weft and warp weaving through each love note in Parvati Sharma’s The Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love.

Sharma’s stories, published in 2010, echo a startling understanding of what it means for characters to be completely incomplete in their motivations, actions, and desires, and to leave things as they are, so to speak. What launches one’s relationship with her satisfyingly curious and satisfyingly calming, patient prose is her first short story in the series, “Re: Elections, 2004”. Here, Sharma treats the memory of the unnamed protagonist’s past love with haunting care and a sense of incompletion that characterizes most of her characters, as much as it does this electorally apathetic yet politically self-conscious one. As she hesitantly reveals to the reader her distant electronic communication with her ex-partner Fatima, she navigates her relationship with Monica, her current romantic partner, her affectionate neighbours longing to parent her in their kids’ absence, and strangely, by extension, the 2004 Delhi elections. The protagonist, here, is unable to vote because she hasn’t registered for her ID. There is something about Sharma not allowing her characters access to larger spaces of national belonging, not because of any structural disadvantage they may suffer from — they are after all all middle to upper middle-class urban actors — but a warm carelessness and hesitance that seems to hang, heavily like the smell of urban trash, in the city and its bodies. So it is that not being able to vote sparks an onslaught of traumatic dreams and painfully self-conscious pauses in the protagonist’s speech. Here, the unnamed protagonist invites the reader into a mind formally invested in silencing her views for the sake of superficial stability in her relationships.

While electronic communication between Fatima and the narrator reflects the urban resident’s longing, specifically, for lost love, it also comments on the regimes of modernity — voting, citizenship, political evils, genocidal language, emails — that somehow create her practiced yet visceral reluctance to communicate. There is something to be said then about Sharma’s protagonists’ fractured love lives and their morbid, absurdly cathartic dreams that eventually transform the relationship a queer body arguably shares with the urban space and its political life. Parvati writes in dream-tongue, “ …the war is almost over; only Fatima and I remain… She turns and draws a two-finger gun, we shoot simultaneously. The war is over. Almost.” (16) The unending, non-existent war between former lovers codes the protagonist’s simultaneous guilt and sense of betrayal in her “one and only recurring dream” (16), as well as her interactions with bodies of nation and modernity i.e. elections, and the bloody vote.

The recurring dream then, is a trope that slyly masks the everyday of several stories. “The Dead Camel”, the second story of the series, becomes the rare image of animal death that first haunts the protagonist but later seems to aid her spiritually in self-knowledge and disappointment, in foreseeing and healing heartbreak. In this instance, She wants to confess to her lover, who’s just cheated on her: “It’s funny but I always imagined you, everytime you wanted to save some injured cat or bird, I always imagined you lugging the great big yellow truckload (the dead camel) in your arms to the nearest vet… And I loved you for it.” (34) Yet, all that comes out of Sharma’s silently hurting protagonist is “You”. The unsaid has so much power — a resting, immobile kind — in Sharma’s characters’ interiority, their act of dreaming, and their resultant lack of communication, especially with their lovers.

The Dead Camel, by Parvati Sharma
The Dead Camel, by Parvati Sharma

This thematic thread punctuates the urban space as well as the sexual proclivities of characters in certain stories. Often, the reader is thrown into a second-person point of view in stories like “Words Strung Out To Dry, Flapping Wetly In the Dark”, where the mightier narrative of incompletion, with lovers not quite “severing ties till the last minute”, is interlaced with an air of dread: the reader is made to enact the character’s role among trees, “crowned with vultures”, scattered “charred remains of phooljaris”, and “dead trails of rockets” (35). Diwali is immediately alluded to something close to death, and the dying. The body that is reading this text is now carefully placed “at the far end”, with an industrial  “air nipping” at the arms, “trying to remember” something (35). Much of Sharma’s storytelling reads like the body’s struggle to retain memory, to recall, to recollect and when convenient, ultimately, to forget. What does it mean then, to witness death imagery — Sharma’s description at this point being somewhat reminiscent of Anita Desai’s deathly portrayal of child’s play in “Games at Twilight” — in a text filled with the tension between keeping memory alive and covering its tracks with quiet footsteps? How do we finally reconcile her remarkable feat of written prose, at once languid, indulging and graceful, that also at times manages to read like spoken word with beats for musical punctuations (“Now: you are thirty-nine, thirty-two, leaving the Diwali debris unswept behind”)? Often, it seems, the text succeeds in negotiating the character’s spoken voice with the writer’s written one, a space, perhaps, more commonly referred to as “thought”.

In the heartbreak and loss suffered quietly and unremarkably by each character, these narratives casually queer our understandings of tenderness, desire and Love (with a big L). In more than a few stories, characters navigate the urban space and their sexual proclivities through dreams, visions and almost mythical sights. What emerges as a beautiful anomaly among all these narratives — coloured by notes on queer intimacy, affection and intergenerational conflict — is the character Mrs. Ghosh’s feverish reflections on her life now, and life then. Sharma writes “Mrs. Ghosh Goes to Goa” with a particularly ironic, fabulistic tone, about a homemaker who we see passingly, on the regular, yet don’t quite know. Mrs. Ghosh keeps things to herself, and it often seems that her constantly questioning mind informs her quiet, removed and observant exterior. There are no tears, no joys, no proclamations and no confessions in Mrs. Ghosh’s story. Just a desire to reach out, outside her sphere and seek — though this would seem to her vulgar — conversations and connections with strangers, be it her taxi driver in Goa or her new neighbours, whose love-making presence by the window both scandalizes and repulses her.

It is then the secret sighs, giggles, joys produced by one’s own body that Sharma — with her inclination to familial, spousal, and generational domesticity — is interested in. What can only be termed as a memorable moment in her collection is her penultimate story, “The Quilt”, which features two unnamed women making love as they laughingly quarrel about the meaning, intentionality and significance of Ismat Chugtai’s Lihaaf as foundational queer literature, and by extension, a queer cultural phenomenon. Ending this tale of sincere laughter and Love, Sharma concludes their quasi-intellectual feud: “She pulled the razai back on us. We giggled in the close darkness. The quilt’s light cotton cover settled gently on our naked skin. It pressed out the cold air”. It is then with playful desire, tongue-in-cheek jibes at Chugtai’s queered celebrity and for the sincere love of giving female intimacy “time” and “space” on ink, that she both manages to destabilize dominant discourses on female desire as well as pay a lighthearted, intertextual, and rather profound tribute to The Quilt, forever a foundational presence in South Asian queer aesthetic.

Sharma’s preoccupations with the intimate seek to question broader structures of the urban community, modernity, family, and legend. In many ways, her several characters’ shameless sexual life and their shameful dreamscapes are politicized with a grief, an incompletion and a hilarity so charming that it settles and absorbs quickly, crisply, like her fiery prose on paper.

Aaditya Aggarwal

Parvati Sharma's book, 'The Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love', is available for purchase here.

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