“In every girl’s life comes that moment when she craves to be a woman. Rosy’s desire was blooming like a rose. Dreams from beyond her caged body were driving her crazy. And in the garden of her body, her aching youth bore into her insides.”
-Alankrita Shrivastava, Lipstick Under My Burkha
A woman peruses a shelf full of different kinds of perfumes in a store. She stops and smells one by Gucci. She is fully clad in a burkha, only her eyes visible. Walking over to the lipstick section, her hands hover over the mass of lipsticks in front of her, lined up neatly. She chooses one, and after surreptitiously glancing over her shoulder, noiselessly puts the lipstick into the folds of her burkha, walks past the billing counter, and eventually outside into the mall. She then travels via bus to a college campus, where, in the washroom, she removes her burkha and applies the newly acquired lipstick. Thus begins Alankrita Shrivastava’s film Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017), a story revolving around four women in Bhopal as they explore their desires, pleasures, heartbreaks, and sexuality.
Plabita Borthakur in Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017); Prakash Jha Productions
When Lipstick Under... came out in 2017, it garnered attention because of the censorship battle that the film underwent. The Censor Board refused to certify the film, citing the reason that “… the story is lady oriented, their fantasy about life. There are continuous sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society, hence film refused”. Shrivastava's response to this was firm. She maintained that censorship on such a film was an assault on women’s rights, and that the Indian audience should be made privy to stories told by and about women.
When it finally released a few months later, reviews surrounding the film mainly talked about how feminist (or un-feminist) it was. Some of these reviews went into detail about how showing desire, sexuality, and the “secret lives” of women were bold, but not feminist enough. This kind of reasoning highlighted that the understanding of feminism is thought to be universal, objective, and “one size fits all”, when in fact there are various kinds of feminisms that people embody and believe in. To show the pleasures and desires of women is a rare sight on screen, so for it to be shown by a woman behind the camera does much for the world of cinema, and for women making cinema.
An essay by film studies scholar Laura Mulvey, titled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” laid out a useful argument that has stuck for years since it was published (in 1999), about the “male gaze”. In the essay, Mulvey wrote that Hollywood portrays women on screen not as subjects, but as objects of desire. This heterosexual gaze operates in three ways: by the man behind the camera, by the viewer, and by the characters within the frame. It assumes women to be spectacles, to be looked at and fetishized. Since its inception, the theory has been criticised as well, because of its lack of an intersectional approach, but has persisted as a valuable lens with which to look at the portrayal of women on screen. Many contemporary feminists in response to this, have tried to imagine what could be a female or feminine gaze. For instance, Zoe Dirse, a documentary filmmaker, says that having a woman cinematographer and a woman as a subject in front of the camera changes the way women are viewed: they cease to be mere fetishist objects of desire, and instead, are seen as thinking individuals in control of their own actions. She also suggests that feminist filmmakers generate feminist elements in their films. Researcher Natalie Perfetti-Oates wrote an article in 2015 which focused on the heterosexual female gaze and the rising male objectification in Hollywood chick flicks like New Moon, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Fool’s Gold and Magic Mike. These films portrayed the male characters primarily as sexual objects, in turn reversing the male gaze. But she criticises these films too, because instead of promoting gender equality, they portray the male leads purely as sex objects for female audiences, and actually work to enforce gender inequality further. It’s pretty much the same thing as a male gaze, where first the women were objectified, it is now men who are at the receiving end. Recently, Joey Soloway (creator of the TV series Transparent) adapted Mulvey’s theory to a female gaze, which they defined as something that also happens in three ways:
The Feeling Camera: a subjective camera that attempts to get inside the protagonist, particularly when they are not cis male, that promotes “being in feeling” rather than the action of “looking at”
The Gazed Gaze: shows the viewer how it feels to be the object of that gaze
Returning the Gaze: where the object tells the viewer how they feel when they are seen – “I see you seeing me”
According to Soloway, “protagonism is propaganda for privilege to be protected”. What they mean by this, is that by capturing the protagonist’s place for so long, the cis male has maintained a privilege over other gender identities. But through the female/feminine gaze, this privilege can be generated to other marginalized identities as well. In our society and films, the desires of men are taken to be the rule, while the desires of women are something from which we must evolve. The male/masculine gaze shames women’s desires and labels which desires can be acceptable. In post-liberalisation Hindi cinema, an overarching theme has been gender and patriarchy. Women’s bodies are the foundation for the strengthening and transmission of Indian ideals. In an earlier piece on Mohabbatein, I wrote about how gender was the central axis around which the tension between tradition and modernity is played out. This is a fairly common pattern to be found in Hindi cinema.
All I Dream, All I Desire
“These photos are our ticket to success. Let them work their magic, we’ll be roaming freely in the mountains, relaxing by the beach.”
“Where all will your lover boy have to follow you?”
“I’ll show you all of India.”
“Ye photos na, lottery ke ticket hain. Ek baar baat ban jaaye, hum pahadon mein ghoomenge, samundar kinaare aish karenge haaye.”
... Love karne kahan kahan jaana padega?”
“Poora India ghumaungi.”
Vikrant Massey and Ahana Kumra in Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017); Prakash Jha Productions
In the movie, Leela’s (Ahana Kumra) exchange with her boyfriend Arhad (as quoted above) signifies how much she wants to leave her current place of residence and travel to mountains and beaches, none of which are available in Madhya Pradesh’s Bhopal. Leela’s dreams aren’t pure fantasies though. She is entrepreneurial, in that she thinks of a business plan that she tries to pitch to various investors. We later get to know this is because her marriage has been arranged with another man and she hopes to escape from that by starting her own business. Her desires aren’t just sexual, she wants the freedom to travel, to love the man she wants, and to escape the patriarchal institution of an arranged marriage. She is shown throughout the film to be confident and resolute; she drives a scooty and has her own beauty parlour as well, signalling that she is financially independent. Yet, our society infantilizes women who are unmarried, no matter how old they are. Marriage is seen as a milestone, a social sanction – that without it, life would be incomplete. Policing a woman’s body becomes the way through which this is done, and this holds true for older women as well. Usha (played by Ratna Pathak Shah), who is called “Buaji” throughout the film, is a widow, and the landlady of Hawai Manzil building where all the protagonists and their families reside. She secretly reads a pulp erotica called Lipstick Dreams, and as she progresses with the book, so does the film.
“Only the shadows of men ever reached Rosy’s window. Her burning desire never to be satiated. Because the key to the door was lost.”
Through their desires, the women court risk at great personal cost. But as most women in India would agree, loitering and taking risk comes with a certain pleasure, of getting away with what you want in a surrounding where your actions are surveyed and curbed. Usha decides to join swimming classes, and while the action of buying a swimsuit seems embarrassing for her, she manages to find help from one of the four protagonists, Shireen (played by Konkona Sen Sharma). Shireen’s life, out of all the others’, seems the most repressed. She is the only one of the four to be married and has three children with a husband who spends most his time travelling and has unprotective sex with her whenever he is back home. The toll this takes on her body and the consequent pain is borne by her alone; she develops an infection, and it is clarified that she has had abortions before. She tries to become financially independent by working as a salesperson, earning a promotion, and making life easier for her family. She wins a microwave at office and bakes a cake for her family, and decides to tell her husband about her working full time, but his reaction is to disregard her completely. For him, Shireen remains someone with whom he can satisfy his sexual needs whenever he wants and who can bear his children. Rather than seeing Shireen merely as an object of desire, however, director Alankrita Shrivastava gives her much more agency beyond merely existing as a distressed wife. As viewers, we know that through her work as a saleswoman, she has access to other people’s homes and can easily take matters into her own hands. This is implied by the way she conducts herself while at work, always professional and extremely convincing, and also at the gynaecologist’s, where she goes on her own to get regular check-ups done, mostly owing to the unprotected sex.
Konkona Sen Sharma in Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017); Prakash Jha Productions
It is important to note that the dreams and desires of the women in Lipstick… are not purely sexual. They want to live a life of freedom and choice, even if that choice is wrong or potentially dangerous. Rehana (played by Plabita Borthakur) wants to wear lipstick and jeans, but her shoplifting habit eventually puts her into jail. She is chastised by her parents for dancing at Leela’s engagement after Arhad’s camera starts to focus on her because of her energy. This attention on their daughter induces anxiety in Rehana’s parents, who emotionally abuse her by insinuating that having fun would bring dishonour to her and her family, and that she should be focusing only on studying and not dancing. Rehana doesn’t say anything but after they leave, reverses a poster in her room that says “Education is the key to victory” to reveal a Miley Cyrus poster and then continues to dance. But she dances to her own enjoyment, murmuring lyrics to a song; the pleasure is not for the viewer to feel but is solely embodied by Rehana, thus evoking the “gazed gaze” that Joey Soloway talks about.
Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017); Prakash Jha Productions
The sex scenes that the censor board had a problem with are not made in a way that is pleasurable for a heterosexual viewer. The scenes are dimly lit, awkward, and uncomfortable (even for the people engaging in them). Shrivastava in an interview even said that according to her, sexual content is prevalent in Indian cinema, so the only reason the censor board could have a problem with the sex scenes in her film is because they don’t cater to the male gaze. In the same interview, Ratna Pathak Shah said that the only thing she had in mind about these scenes were if they were going to be shown in a way that are titillating. She then says something quite interesting: “The scenes are uncomfortable, it’s not easy. In any case for women, sex is not easy.” This concurs with what Dirse has been able to find in her research and what Soloway suggests: what would happen if women were given responsibility to tell the stories of women? Having a woman governing the equipment and storytelling of a film may in fact change the way these stories are told, which is what Shrivastava tried to do with the film.
Lipstick Under My Burkha entirely revolves around these women and their lives. From Shrivastava’s point of view, there seems to be no judgement about the kind of choices that these characters make. In fact, it is their own choices and the freedom to exercise them that have dire consequences. But isn’t that the whole point? The moment a woman becomes aware of her own body and takes charge of the ways in which she would like to derive pleasure of any kind, is when patriarchy and oppressive masculinity is threatened, and the apparent social fabric seems to tear apart. In Lipstick..., the inner lives of women are given ample screen space. Usha’s sexual desires find a place in her swimming instructor Jaspal, with whom she has phone sex while in the bathroom. In the swimming pool, as he helps her float and paddle, we hear lines from Lipstick Dreams, the erotica Usha is reading, implying that that’s probably what she is fantasizing. As the narration goes on, the camera slows down and focuses on Jaspal’s body, him usually wet and flexing his muscles. In this way, we are able to see a typical heterosexual female gaze with Jaspal as the object and Usha as Rosy conveying her inner thoughts. At various points through the story, Rosy from Lipstick Dreams can be considered as all of the protagonists, as they try to navigate their individual messiness.
There are also physical spaces that are meant for women only, like Leela’s parlour, Hawai Manzil’s terrace as all the women are getting ready for a wedding, the washroom that Rehana changes her clothes in, the gynaecologist’s clinic, and so on. The presence of these spaces offers comfort and relief to the characters; it is in here that they are able to express their desires. The world outside of these spaces is largely patriarchal and dominated by men, always posing a certain threat to the characters' will to be free. After the climax, when Usha’s desires are called “obscene” and her erotica torn up by her family, all four women gather in Rehana’s sewing room, converting it into another heterotopia, and start to read Lipstick Dreams anew, from the torn pages.
The burden of morality on women and marginalized bodies is well-depicted in Hindi cinema, but it is not often that their inner lives get screen time. Shrivastava’s film does not provide solutions to existing gender issues, she does not comment on women empowerment, and I don’t think that should be seen as the goal of the film. She simply shows how messy the path to live freely can be. But she does prove that finding pleasure in an oppressive society can itself be a radical act, because those who undertake the journey to find pleasures sometimes face violent consequences.