My Mirror column:
Under the easy symbolism of burkhas, lipsticks and cigarettes, Lipstick Under My Burkha is a film that’s urgently needed, astutely told and deeply felt.
In a country in which arranged marriages remain very much the norm, romantic love is the fantasy for which real people go to the cinema. Love is our grand narrative of choice, even when the romance is not epic but everyday. And yet, these depictions of love -- invariably heterosexual, almost always battling social obstacles to get to the end-point of marriage -- are too coy to speak of physical desire. If the sexual self is allowed to exist, it must be folded into the romantic, and ideally subsumed by it. You can want love, but to want sex is taboo. This is true even for male protagonists, but it is most certainly true for women, who must remain objects of desire rather than desiring subjects.
Of course, things are changing, slowly but surely: in recent years, we have glimpsed desiring women on screen in the most male-centric narratives, like Anurag Kashyap’s DevD; in films seeking to radically alter our perspective on sex, like Margarita With a Straw or Haraamkhor or Anarkali of Aarah; or character-driven dramas with other social concerns, like Masaan. But Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha still feels astonishing.
Perhaps it is the fact that her women characters are, none of them, aiming for marriage as the happy-ever-after. If one is pre-marriage, another is post-marriage; one has a marriage that offers her only humiliation, and the last doesn't want the right marriage. The 55-year-old Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah) has long been husband-less and has no desire to be controlled by a man again. The teenage Rehana (Plabita Borthakur) wants a hundred things that she feels life behind a burkha can't give her -- and marriage isn't yet one of them. Shirin (Konkona Sensharma) already has a marriage, complete with three children and a sexually exploitative husband who refuses even to use contraception -- it is one she would quite happily do without. Even Leela (Aahana Kumra), on the verge of a marriage that would secure her family’s future, cannot make herself see in it the shape of her present.
Perhaps it is that these women do not circumscribe their desires by what is expected of them; they do not want what they are supposed to want. Or perhaps it is just the frankness with which Shrivastava's characters experience sex and sexuality -- even when they are not speaking of it. One of the useful devices Lipstick's script uses in this regard is to bookend the tales of these 'real’ women with the voice of a properly fictional one called Rosie, who lends her purple prose to each narrative in turn. While she remains trapped between the covers of a steamy Hindi paperback, the unexpurgated quality of Rosie's desires forces us to contend with our squeamishness.
We are so unused to women speaking of sex (or even being acknowledged as wanting it) that sexlessness is the norm -- except within the approved bounds of grihasthashram, when it is duty rather than pleasure. And so whether it is Leela’s ravenous lust for her scruffy photographer boyfriend (the gorgeous Vikrant Massey, last seen in A Death in the Gunj), or the long-celibate Usha's fierce attraction to a man much younger than herself, these are not just unsuitable boys but unsuitable desires. I found particularly moving Shrivastava's telling of Usha's tale: how the physical proximity of a physically fit male body mingles with the giddy excitement of being reminded that she needn't be Buaji to everyone -- the evocative power of merely using her name makes one realise how women are boxed into their relationships, literally losing themselves.
But as the film makes clear, in a country where a widowed old man is generous when he 'considers’ a 40-year-old as a second wife -- and where we have been brought up to giggle at the merest thought of a spinsterish Lalita Pawar believing herself wooed, even by a man of her own age -- what hope can we hold out for Buaji?
Rehana and Shirin's desires are less obviously couched as sexual -- freedom to dress as they please, drink, smoke, work, wander the world, and be treated as an equal. But the sex scenes between Shirin and her husband (Sushant Singh) are the film's most horrifying -- because that stifling experience, of being reduced to being a forced provider of sexual services, is likely the norm for more Indian wives than not.
Given the depressing realities with which Lipstick deals, I am glad to be able to report that it is not itself depressing. The right to pleasure is serious business --but what is serious can also be pleasurable. The film ends with one final nod to romantic fantasy, which I loved. We might have picked the wrong man to be our sapnon ka raajkumar, suggests Shrivastava, but isn't the dreaming what keeps us alive?
Published in Mumbai Mirror, 23 July 2017.