Lipstick under my Burkha (LUMB) first raised eyeballs with its run-in with the censors for being “lady-oriented”. Since the hype over its heroic release has settled, it has been conspicuously attracting fairly large audiences, but also received criticism for its ‘flawed feminism’, its women not being ‘rebellious enough’; ceding the battlefield gauzed in cigarette smoke rather than ‘smashing patriarchy’. My piece mainly responds to this critique emanating from a certain reading of the film.
LUMB based in rururban Bhopal, has four women of different age groups, two Hindu and two burqa- donning Muslim, all inhabiting the same fortress–like, century-old building, and leading double-lives. The college-going Rehana loves rock music and harbours ambitions of becoming a singer as she tailors and repairs burqas in her parents’ shop during the day, and shoplifts fancy clothes and cosmetics from malls. Leela runs a neighbourhood beauty parlour and works towards setting up a business for offering services to honeymooning couples with her photographer Muslim boyfriend; a venture that has no takers in small-town Bhopal. Her widowed mother, has meanwhile, fixed her marriage with an affluent young businessman who has promised the mother deliverance from decades of debt as well as a house in the same neighbourhood. Leela flits between both the men, is unabashedly sexually adventurous and demanding, many a time the over-sexed body craving defiance against parental and societal injunctions and expectations. Shireen, a mother of three boys, is an enterprising, out-performing saleswoman earning a decent salary, a fact that has she has to conceal from her husband who has returned unemployed from Saudi Arabia and rapes her almost every night, ravaging her body with his lust and his seed, while remorselessly indulging in an extra-marital affair with an affluent bored housewife on the sly. The oldest woman is a fifty -plus widowed entrepreneur matriarch, ‘Buaji’/ Usha Parmar who reads soft core in Hindi and as she fantasises about the escapades of its protagonist Rosie, falls for a young swimming instructor with whom she initiates phone-sex, resulting in some onscreen humour as much a product of the audiences’ ageist presumptions as clever dialogue. Importantly, it is this swimming instructor who had awakened her to her name and feminine identity when he refuses to address her as ‘buaji’(auntie) which is what she blurts out in a confused moment of self –identification, pointedly hinting at the incapacity of many women to envision themselves outside of relationship categories. Usha takes swimming classes while she moonlights as a ‘respectable bhajan singing satsangi’ again poignantly reminding us that one cannot imagine an elderly woman claiming for herself even the right to a hobby. Her ‘reputation’ hinges on a voluntary disavowal of sexual needs and desires, and ‘pious widowhood’. Meanwhile, Rosie’s escapades in the novel, recounted as a voice –over throughout the film act as a fairy-tale counterpoint to the women’s real lives, and ‘Rosie’ which incidentally rhymes with rosy, the tint of naive optimism, becomes the fifth character in the film, a symbol for everything that the four women long for or even as ‘disembodied desire’. The film concludes when all these double-lives are exposed, Rehana shamed for her thieving, and the ageing Usha for her amorous dalliance. Rehana is disciplined by withdrawal from college and thrust into matrimonial oblivion while Usha is ejected from her home which was jointly held with her extended family. Leela is spurned by both her lovers while Shirin is raped again as punishment for her successful work-life.
LUMB has been lauded (and reviled by the censor board chief) for its assertion of sexual desire and autonomy of Indian women, the film actually seems to be in line with a small but steady stream of films which are unveiling the narrative of surging female ‘desire’ and its problematic denouement on screen, be it the slut- shamed single, working women triad in Pink or the brutalised yet feisty, exoticised rural trio in Parched. Interestingly, all these films though made in Bollywood Hindi chose evocative English language titles, despite not being avowedly made for foreign audiences. It, however, helps that there is proliferation of images of the desiring Indian woman, the art of Sam Madhu or the erotic poetry of Rupi Kaur.
And yet each character in LUMB have been faulted for not being adequately confrontational of its ‘male oppressors’ who are admittedly one –dimensional and caddish. However, each one of them nurses dreams, and dreaming itself is a powerful act of rebellion, and so is nursing ambition. None of them feel guilty about their choices or subterfuge, Usha never once thinks of her dead husband as she mentally cavorts with the swimming instructor nor does Shirin think much about hiding her income and ambition from her husband. The women take ownership of their bodies, breaking free from religious, societal and sexist conventions and minor acts of rebellion punctuate the narrative for example when Shirin coyly suggests that her husband use a condom and the ‘unveiled’ Rehana speaks up in favour of jeans and azaadi at the risk of blowing her cover. Also, it is important to recognise that empowerment need not be only about the way women make choices but in also how they feel about the choices they are forced to make. None of the women make peace in their minds about the corner they are pushed into, they are at different levels of negotiation with their own worlds.
More importantly, the film is feminist because of the gentle, heart-warming female bonding that one glimpses throughout, and not just its ending when the women smoke, laugh and read the torn pages of Rosie’s ‘lipstick desires’, and blend into a world where they exist as women alone. Earlier, Leela takes Rehana to a late-night party venue on her scooter, Shirin without a hint of vulgar curiosity helps the struggling and embarrassed Usha pick up a swimsuit of her size and when Leela while waxing Shirin’s thighs, in empathetic voice enquires of her if she has ever experienced a loving touch down there, Shirin’s mild rebuke forces a silent retreat. And finally, what stays as a lingering memory at the film’s conclusion is Shirin’s and Leela’s shielding of Usha from her angry relatives and taking refuge in Rehana’s shop rather than their blowing away circlets of smoke. The shared smoke is more about sharing an experience and finding reassurance in each other. And thus the subversion goes beyond the clichéd connotations. While I agree with all other raconteurs that neither the lipstick (in its provocative and cheeky publicity poster) nor the cigarette is an adequate symbol of empowerment, they both linger in the mind stubbornly, reminding one of the bitter-sweet struggles waged across generations.
Written and directed by a woman director, Alankrita Srivastava whose first film was the chick flick Turning 30!!, LUMB is definitely a woman’s take on the world. Its music has been composed by the Pashtun -Pakistani singer Zebunnisa ‘Zeb’ Bangash and lyrics penned by Anvita Dutt, suggesting sufficient feminine involvement in the film. But that the film was eventually released in India through the successful intervention and muscle of the czarina of Indian television industry, Ekta Kapoor , whose heft in the industry has been actually built producing absolutely regressive and anti-feminist content, one should forsake thinking of a ‘feminist minimum’ in the actual distribution and reach of the film!
By Dr. Namrata R. Ganneri
Dr. Namrata R. Ganneri is Assistant Professor, Department of History at the SNDT College of Arts & SCB College of Commerce & Science for Women, Mumbai.