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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Watching Lipstick Under My Burkha is an empowering experience

‘They were trying to stifle my film which is about female experiences’

Screen grab from Lipstick under my Burkha.
Screen grab from Lipstick under my Burkha.

For a film that gathered 11 awards at international film festivals, Lipstick Under My Burkha nearly didn’t make it to cinemas in its home country – India’s Central Board for Film Certification rejected it for being “too lady-oriented”.

In a testament to director Alankrita Shrivastava’s triumph over the CBFC, the movie poster was designed to deliberately provoke: it depicts a woman’s hand, fingers pointing up at the sky, the middle one swapped for a tube of bright red lipstick.

When it finally opened in cinemas on July 21, the women-centric film played to full houses across India; a week later and it continues to draw the crowds.

At a Saturday matinee at a mall in Bangalore, the audience is mostly female and expectations are high. But Lipstick delivers what it promises, and there’s plenty of hooting, crying and laughing through the two hours’ running time.

It turns out to be a cathartic experience, for me because Lipstick so beautifully offers a glimpse into what women really want; and also for my friends, who experience forms of patriarchy that can make life stifling. Megha Raghavan, an IT consultant who is getting married in December – in an alliance arranged by her family that she was initially against – says it’s the best film she has seen in years and that she may take her fiancé to watch it.

“He’s very traditional,” she says, “and watching some of those scenes with him will be awkward, but it’s important that the men in our lives understand what we dream about. Marriage and children don’t even come close, but how do you even begin to explain this to them?”

A warts-and-all take on the secret lives of four women: a middle-aged widow seeking a frisson of excitement; an oppressed mother of three; a two-timing fiancée; and a silently rebellious teenager, Lipstick follows their trials, little joys and disappointments, all set against the backdrop of Bhopal, a city in central India.

Critics have praised the film as strong, powerful, funny, brave, and, perhaps most importantly, timely. The film makes an eloquent case against gender discrimination, but the irony is that its protagonists aren’t even looking for equality. They’re simply desperate for a few basic rights.

The right to confront your husband about his mistress. The right to wear jeans. The right to choose your own partner in marriage. The right to say “no” to sex. And a woman’s right to express her sexuality without shame, perhaps the biggest flashpoint in a country where female independence is seen as a vice, not a virtue.

For Shrivastava, this is a conversation that has been a long time coming. Rejected by the “patriarchal, very regressive” censor board, Shrivastava took her case to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, and Lipstick was cleared for release, but with some cuts and an “R” rating. This was a compromise she accepted. “I was determined to show my film in cinemas all over India,” she told BBC Radio 4 in an interview before its release.

“I was determined to depict this assault on women’s rights, especially as the censor board has double standards. There is a lot of sex depicted [in Indian films], but only to satisfy male desire, through raunchy songs and double entendre ... I just felt that they were trying to stifle my film which is about female experiences, and saying that women’s stories are not important.

“In Lipstick, these four women seem happy enough in their traditional roles, but the film subverts that and shows their desire for freedom. The reaction to the film in most parts of India and all over the world – even Cairo – has been heartwarming; women come up and hug us, and get very emotional.”

Juxtaposing the back alleys of the old parts of Bhopal with malls and newly-minted, gentrified districts, Lipstick is narrated by the actress Ratna Pathak Shah, a luminary of the stage, television and big screen. She also portrays the main protagonist, Usha, a 55-year-old widow who develops a crush on her young, muscled swimming instructor, and she brings a sweet dignity to the role, especially in the gently funny scenes.

Clad in a floral-patterned swimsuit, a plastic cap barely holding in her greying braids, Bua-ji (aunt), as she is called – her identity has been stamped out with the death of her husband – guiltily indulges in her delicious, one-sided fantasy, fuelled by the salacious Mills & Boons-type novels she devours in her free time.

Then there’s Konkona Sen Sharma, stellar in the role of Shireen, a frustrated housewife with three children, ruled by a boor of a husband. She is denied a career, but secretly pursues one nonetheless, and reveals a distinct ability in her job as a door-to-door saleswoman. Plabita Borthakur is understated as the quiet teenager Rehana, who, when not churning out burkhas in her father’s poky tailoring shop, is aspiring to be a singer, just like her idol Miley Cyrus.

The vivacious Leela, a betrothed woman with a “first-class” business plan and who is cheating – without any qualms – on her fiancé, is played by Aahana Kumra, and tackles questions of premarital sex and arranged marriages.

Perhaps the only unimpressive thing about the film is its band of one-dimensional, almost caricature-like male characters. But then, Lipstick isn’t telling the stories of men, but of intrepid women, whose lives are intertwined, not because they rent quarters within the same crumbling haveli (mansion), but because of their tentative stabs at freedom.