Lipstick Under My Burkha

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I have to thank the current watchman of the Censor Board of Film Certification in India Pahlaj Nihalani for pointing me to the film ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ (Lipstick henceforth) because otherwise, I might have avoided it.

Just like me, I am sure a lot many women (and men) were egged on to watch this movie after the fact that Mr. Nihalani had previously refused to certify it because he found it ‘lady-oriented’ and that it had dared to portray women’s ‘fantasy above life’.

When this controversy erupted, many memes emerged on social media, challenging Mr. Nihalani for using ‘lady-oriented’ as an explanation.

After watching Lipstick last week, I want to ask him what led him to think it REALLY was ‘lady-oriented’?

Was it Plabita Borthakur playing Rihanna Abidi, a typical college-going girl-next-door desperately struggling to fit in with the well-heeled ‘hep’ crowd? If so, I can’t even start counting the number of movies that have such characters.

Or maybe it was Aahana Kumra playing Leela, and her muddled love life – engaged to be married to one and in love (and to Mr. Nihalani’s chagrin, a sexual relationship) with another. Sure, we have truly come a long way in our portrayal of sex scenes, gone are the days when you saw flower bulbs slowly siding up to occupy the frame. Or, if it was a low-budget movie, then the camera panned up to reveal a ceiling fan.

Nowadays, sex is portrayed somewhat like it really is, busy, noisy, shabby, and often not pretty. Was that the issue here? I think not. For then, so many recent movies, just to name a few, Delhi Belly, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Ram Leela, etc. wouldn’t have had it easy. But they did. So it has to be something else. Could it be that Leela actually desired another man, and had no qualms about it? But then, I have to ask, what separates this Leela of Lipstick and that Leela of Ram Leela?  So no, it probably wasn’t that either.

In any case, how is this lady-oriented? Both the Leelas were all about the men they loved. Extremely comfortable about stepping outside of their comfort zones and vocal about what they wanted. Now that could be a problem but the Sanskari Bollywood has moved on. Why not CBFC?

Could it have been Konkona Sen Sharma’s Shireen Aslam – who has a secret life? Don’t get carried away. She is *just* a door-to-door saleswoman selling household novelties, nothing more nefarious than that. But, she must hide this from her Saudi-return husband who freely indulges his sexual peccadilloes – nice and plying with his girlfriend when outside and forcing himself upon his wife when at home. I wonder which part of Shireen’s story is ‘lady-oriented’ – A careerwoman in hiding? A woman trapped in a bad marriage? A victim of marital rape?

Grimly enough, both have their precedents in Bollywood. Shireen’s lady-oriented life is all about fending off attacks from her husband – emotional, psychological, and sexual. Isn’t this the opposite of lady-oriented?

Finally, could it be Ratna Pathak Shah’s Usha Parmar, a much older woman, a widow, known in the community simply as buaji? Buaji likes to be in charge of her business. She is a matriarch, and she has furtive desires. She usually explores these through her secret stash of books – a Hindi cousin of Mills & Boon, until she accidentally stumbles upon an object, a much younger man. She takes to projecting her desires on him.

Know what? Maybe that’s the real problem. In our industry, only men are allowed to go after younger women. Like in Buddha hoga tera baap, shaukeen, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Cheeni Kum, right back to Baton Baton Mein, even  Pati, Patni, aur Woh, we can talk about love but only when men need it from younger women. All the old women should just giddy up for a session of bhajan-kirtan. Except when they are in the Barjatya genre of family films – Maine Pyar Kiya, DDLJ… have had such aunty characters shredded to comic relief, ridiculously tip-toeing after old men who are themselves sidekicks to the hero’s sidekicks.

Usha Parmar isn’t that aunty. She’s different. She’s above Shireen, Leela, and Rihanna, who ultimately toe the line even with their minor acts of subversion thrown in the face of authority.

It was only Usha who had picked up the books with her ‘Lipstick wale sapne‘, and later on the phone, got her hair dyed, slipped into a sleeveless blouse. She was the only woman in a group of four who had her ‘Lipstickwale Sapne‘. Maybe that’s why her fall was also the greatest.

So, how is this film lady-oriented, really? All four women end up stepping out of bounds of tradition and societal restriction, all four women get punished for their transgressions.

Heck, this film is so lady-oriented, not one single frame could pass the Bechdel Test. It is all about the men, actually. And mostly, the kind you don’t want to see. It’s not lady-oriented, silly.

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