Lipstick Under My Burkha is about four women living in Bhopal, India and their quest for freedom from various patriarchal social shackles that confine them. All four women live in a building aptly called ‘Hawai Mahal’ (Palace of Empty Dreams). These women are of varied ages: ranging from a young college student to an old widow. All four live some sort of secret life, one that is not acceptable by their society. Usha (Ratna Pathak) known as ‘buaji’ (aunty) by everybody in her neighbourhood, is an older widow who loves reading erotica and hides pulp fiction in her religious books. She consumes erotica imagining herself as protagonist of some of these books. The young college student Rihana (Plabita Borthakur), an aspiring singer embracing Miley Cyrus and Led Zeppelin, and a Western model of liberation, is struggling to fit in with her upper-class Westernized peers. Rihana’s parents own a tailoring shop and she spends most of her time there sewing burkhas and at times secretly making outfits which she designs based on what she sees in fashion magazines. She wears a burkha to college, but once there she immediately removes her burkha to showcase her jeans and bold lipstick. Pushed by peer-pressure, Rihana lives a double life: one at home confined by her parents’ rules, and the other at college trying to blend in with her upper-class, partying, dancing, drinking, smoking friends. Shireen (Konkana Sen) is another burkha-clad Muslim woman, an abused wife whose Saudi-retuned husband rapes her every night, refuses to use contraceptives, and has an extra-marital affair. Shireen, on the other hand, holds a secret job as a sales person, and is very successful at it. But, she is unable to stand up against her husband, has three children and has had multiple abortions. Lastly, Leela (Aahana Kumra) runs a beauty salon, dreams of big cities, and is not shy in expressing her sexual desires. She loves a photographer, but her mother, who works as a nude model to earn a living, would prefer that she marry a wealthier young man she has chosen for Leela. The film’s narrative and the stories of the four characters are held together by a background story of an erotic fiction, Lipstick Waley Sapne (Lipsticky Dreams), that Usha is reading.
Fighting against day-to-day repressions these women seem to be out to steal their happiness. Whether donning short skirt and high heeled boots under her burkha, or secretly working as a sales rep for a company, having socially forbidden out-of-wedlock sex with a boyfriend, or having tele-romance while sitting in a bathroom with tap on to drown sounds of desire, these women know what to do, but only in secrecy. The patriarchal forces of their society are vigilant. When their secret lives become public, they all pay a price. For example, the men in Usha/buaji’s neighbourhood depend on her sharp tongue to defend them when government officials try to tear down their property. They are willing to accept her independence as long as she stays within the boundary set by them for older women. When they learn that Usha had secretly been taking swimming lessons from a young instructor with whom she then had phone sex, she is ousted by her neighbours who ransack her house looking for erotica. Similarly, Rihana’s father not only gets angry at her when she is caught by police for shoplifting, he stops her college education and asks her mother to start looking for a groom for her. Shireen’s husband, on finding out about her job, rapes her and warns her to not step out of the house: ‘you are a wife; be a wife; don’t try to be the husband.’ By the end of the film, the audience doesn’t see much in terms of resolution for these women. After all four women have been outed for their various ‘transgressions’—secretly holding job, cheating on a fiancé, reading erotica, shoplifting—they all sit together smiling, chatting and smoking. There is no real sense of empowerment visible as all women are brought down by the patriarchal forces. All the men, when they find their authority or masculinity challenged, resort to abusing the women, both verbally and physically. In fact, it seems to be a triumph of the patriarchy, where independent women are disciplined for their short-lived escapades.
The film has rightly been criticized for being Islamophobic in that it presents Muslim men as oppressors, instead of addressing the issue of a pervasively patriarchal culture in India, whether one is Muslim, Hindu or other. On the same note, the ‘burkha’ in the title seems, too easily, to represent all Muslim women as oppressed. The two burkha-clad women in the film are oppressed by misogynist and sexually violent Muslim men. Rihana’s father, who is stereotyped as a bearded man wearing traditional salwar-kurta and a cap signifying his Muslim identity, makes her work at the sewing machine all through the day, and ensures that she does not step out of the house without her burkha. Shireen’s husband uses rape as way of punishing her. Shireen’s husband’s extra-marital affair plays on the stereotype of Muslim men being hyper-sexual and having multiple wives/concubines. Such caricature depictions of Muslim men and women are rampant in India especially when they are constantly fanned by political figures including the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who in his various election campaigns in Gujarat joked about Muslim family structures as ‘Hum panch, humare pacchish” (Five of us, and our twenty-five) playing on the government’s family planning slogan of ‘hum do, humare do’ (we two and our two). Modi was implying that Muslim men have multiple wives and do not practice family planning. Srivastava’s film furthers such stereotypes. It is quite unfortunate that a film director with a desire to fight patriarchy and misogyny typecasts the largest minority of the nation, Muslims. At a time when India is seeing rise of sectarian violence under the current BJP-led government, the film may add to the existing stereotypes about Muslims.
Some reviewers have suggested that the burkha is symbolic of patriarchy and the lipstick of liberation. And if this is what the film director intended, it is quite short-sighted. To use the burkha symbolically is to take a narrow view of women’s choices. While in the context of the film, the burkha worn by two of the Muslim characters may work as symbolic, it fails to take into consideration the many Muslim women who do not wear a burkha or those who wear it by choice. To take a piece of clothing which has already been politicized globally—think France and Canada in particular—to represent oppression is not a feminist move.
The film is full of cliché. One issue to consider is the representation of liberation. Does liberation for these women need to be inherited from upper-class Westernized Indians? The only way that Rihana is able to empower herself is by becoming part of the upper-class elite culture which demands that she wear jeans and lipstick so that she can be part of the ‘hip’ and ‘modern’ group. And her only option to achieve this status is to steal. She uses her burkha to hide stuff as she goes from one shop to the other stealing what she needs to be part of the upper-class society. University students are shown fighting for the right to wear jeans; drinking and dancing is a sign of liberation; and the four women at the end of the film bond over smoking. It is time for filmmakers to move beyond showing drinking and smoking as symbolic of empowerment. In a country where a woman is assaulted every twenty minutes, where domestic violence rates are high, where male-female ratio is so imbalanced that now men are resorting to buying wives from neighbouring countries, are we still supposed to be debating women’s right to smoke? While it may be true that many women in India, Muslim and otherwise, are living under extremely repressive conditions, to showcase only middle and lower-class women, two of whom are Muslims, is to present a skewed version of reality.
One must admire the acting of the four lead actors. All four actors’ performances are remarkable. Ratna Pathak Shah is a veteran theatre and film personality and she does not disappoint. Konkana Sen has by now found a strong footing in the industry and performs to the expectations. The two newish faces in the industry—Plabita and Aahana—both are charming and strong actors.
Dr Asma Sayed is a professor of English at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Canada. She researches and writes about South Asian literature and cinema.