Image credit: newslaundary.com
From what we know, making Lipstick Under My Burkha was no easy feat for its creators.
The Censor Board’s initial refusal to give it a rating on the premise that it was a ‘Lady-oriented film’; the general populace’s utter lack of interest in watching a film manned (oh, the irony) by four leading ladies without a copious amount of misogyny and song-and-dance routines, and; our country’s sheer ignorance when it comes to women’s sexuality – all stood in the way.
However, as is so often the case, the pressure that surrounded the release of the film and was originally meant to stifle it, only helped create a healthy buzz around it and eventually, helped its audience discover what can only be called a cinematic gem.
The film revolves around the interlinked lives of four Indian women, all living within the walls of the Hawai Manzil in Bhopal – a conservative, lower middle class community. They are;
Usha (Ratna Pathak), the old matriarch who runs an award-winning halwai shop and the three renters; Shireen (Konkona Sen), who is stuck in a loveless marriage with three kids and a tyrant husband, all the while trying to succeed professionally; Leela ( Ahana Kumar), who is about to be married to a man she does not love while being constantly pulled by a financially unstable yet charming lover and; Rehana (Plabita Borthakur), who has just entered college and hopes to take off her burkha and be accepted with the ‘in’ crowd.
Each of these women come from a different age group but still happen to have one thing in common – a desire to live beyond what they have been confined to.
The story begins with the supremely talented Ratna Pathak Shah (who plays Usha) narrating Rosy’s story, a story of dreams and lust. While we are kept wondering who Rosy is. We realise that each one of them could be Rosy even when it is, in fact, a narration of an erotic novel that Usha has been reading.
What I love especially about this narration is that we all know a Rehana, a Leela, a Shireen and possibly an Usha or have been them in different stages of our lives. Constantly, we are reminded about how women can dream big but converting that into reality is another ordeal in itself.
Speaking of Usha, her story is one of the most important parts of the film and probably the most lovable. In a day and age where even young women are only beginning to talk about their carnal desires, the story of a senior, widowed woman lusting after her younger swimming instructor touches a chord. We see Usha, in the guise of being Rosy, reach orgasm while speaking to the one man who does not see her as ‘Buaji’ but as Usha, the woman.
Even this should be lauded as reaching brave, uncharted waters for Indian cinema and helping accept the fact that older women too are sexual beings.
Shireen’s life is yet another heart-tugging story of the sacrifices a woman makes to keep the illusion of a happy marriage alive, even with a husband who does not want his wife to have any agency – be it at work or in bed.
Shireen is left begging her husband to use a condom to prevent further abortions and pregnancies (which he refuses), an infected uterus, a secret sales job and a cheating, unemployed partner. Shireen’s ordeal includes a scene where her husband rapes her and it leaves you unsettled. But I cannot stress enough how important a scene like that is for a Bollywood-obsessed country that does not even believe marital rape exists and thinks that sex is a duty a wife must fulfill – willing or not.
We must applaud the makers of LUMB for highlighting this serious social issue while also doing what we can in our capacity to address it.
Meanwhile, Leela is seen having to choose between two very different worlds, an unsteady life with her lover or a dependable fiancé whom she doesn’t love but is going to gift her struggling mother a house.
She is constantly seen trying to balance both but failing miserably. She has dreams of travelling across the country, especially to Delhi, which she shares with her lover – a small-time photographer. On the other hand, her to-be husband is content living right next door to her mother.
In a later scene, the four women are seen discussing how great it must be to have two men who desire one woman, to which she replies saying the situation only leaves the woman stuck in two lives.
Even we, as an audience, cannot make that decision for her because there is too much at stake – happiness for a mother who has spent her life modelling nude for art to give her daughter a better life, versus her own contentment.
Being closest to Rehana in age, it was obvious that I would relate to her the most. The need to fit in and be something despite having an extremely conservative upbringing and overbearing parents is something I have seen in overwhelming amounts in my own life as well as in lives of many acquaintances.
Rehana goes through an internal struggle in shunning the burqa so that she can wear what other college-goers enjoy. She wants to be with her drummer boyfriend but he doesn’t know she’s a shop-lifter. At the same time, she has no idea that he upped and left after being responsible for a pregnancy. Her speech at a protest rally against banning of jeans resonates deep within and the irony of it all is not lost one bit.
In one of the later scenes, her father asks her why she is ashamed of the burkha and she does not reply, leaving us wondering if she has chosen to be proud of her garb or still dream of her idol, Miley Cyrus’ outfits. Not being Muslim myself, I would be overstepping to decide for her in my imagination or talk of what goes into making that decision. All I can say is that, wearing the burkha is a choice of the burkha-wearers alone and this conflict must be a reality to many.
Which brings me to my one complaint. My biggest criticism with the film is that neither of the two leads who donned the burkha are Muslim women and nor is the director.
It seems unfair to portray the stories of a large population without having even one actor represent that community and have inputs from her. In that, the struggles talked about – although realistic and thought-provoking – cannot be taken as an accurate portrayal.
Also, a couple of segments of the film where a land war is being waged on the womens’ home seem incomplete and slightly out-of-flow with the rest of the narration. Although it does prove that Usha is respected as the boss woman and yet cannot make certain choices when it comes to her own life.
Lastly, some may say that the men in the story were a little one-dimensional, but to that, I’ll say that their characters were still more fleshed-out than those of most women in films with a leading male ensemble.
Other than those, Alankrita Shrivastav’s direction is effortless, with an inherent expertise and care that comes with such a brilliant passion project. All actresses make you feel a range of emotions from empathy to anger to frustration to the constant underlying sadness of resigning to one’s fate. The dialogues are poetic, with the biggest and most profound lines lying in the conversations being held amongst the protagonists and the narration of Rosy’s erotic love story.
But my absolute favourite part of LUMB wasn’t within the film itself.
As I sat and watched with a friend – a couple of urban privileged young women who always knew that women’s sexuality is an untouched yet important subject – we were surrounded by young couples, gangs of men, mothers with their young children, even grandparents. Never in a million years did I ever think that I could go out and have the conversation that was playing out in front of us with the very people I was now surrounded by.
In that itself, this film is a success because it hasn’t just opened dialogue in all age groups, all communities, but it has been instrumental in that dialogue being carried from the progressive young to the conservative old to the progressive old to the conservative young.
Maybe, when my mother watches LUMB, I will be able to sit with her and talk about sex the way I can with people my age and not feel like it is an anomaly. In some ways, this all was made possible because of the controversy surrounding the films release and the CBFC wanting to silence it.
LUMB is one of the very few Indian films to depict us women harbouring and nurturing sexual desires that men have and watch on the big screen multiple times, every year. Therefore, it was really important that the release of this films be treated as a BIG deal and get the anticipation it so well deserves.
So for that, I thank you, Mr. Pahlaj Nihalani – you didn’t mean it, but by initially refusing to give the film a rating, you gave it free advertising and mass appeal!
In an indirect, almost foolish way, you enabled one of the best, most honest and revolutionary Indian films that I, and thousands of others, will be talking about – for years to come!
About the Author:
Kaavya Pillai is a 24-year-old writer and intersectional feminist who enjoys reading, forests, pop culture, and her own humour, because no one else will.