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.

Our heroes and heroines

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‘Human beings have neither kindness, nor faith, nor charity, beyond what serves to increase the pleasure of the moment.’ – Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)

A very bold, unconventional, beautiful, talented, and of course brainy career-minded girl meets a typical Indian man of pedigree and strong career distinguished by his six-pack, macho, handsome looks… ooh grey eyes. He’s married to a gorgeous woman from an equally powerful background, and has two young kids with her.

Hrithik, your world had to explode. Kangana, you should have known better. Sussanne, kudos to you!

You know why I loved having this conversation recently with friend of mine? – besides the fact that everyone is tired of discussing Kanhaiya Kumar and Anupam Kher. Because we both find ourselves on similarly feminist wavelengths.

Once in a while, you’ve gotta let your hair down. ‘Coz, look even Shobha De has put in her two-bit on this affair, saying Let’s hear it for Kangana. Interestingly, the affair itself didn’t make such waves as has its fallout.

I’ve still gotta hand it to Shobha De, who has rightly spotted the ‘heroism’ in Kangana, with the step she took after Hrithik sent her a legal notice. Kangana has put her career at stake. She’s an outsider. But more importantly, she’s outspoken. The domino effect on her career will be telling. And this is after she had supposedly hit her highest high with her performance in ‘Queen’. Kangana a risk-taker? Check! Oh yes. Track record? Check.

‘Coz… Hrithik. Check again.

Can you believe the girl who filled reams of newsprint with her interviews about how she couldn’t do conventional roles requiring her to run around trees was actually a real-life Cinderella, being chased by this married guy – however hot – who’s ‘no-no’ actually transformed into a ‘yes-yes’ in due course of time? It’s not like she was being offered an extra golgappa, was she?

Totally creepy, especially given the mud-slinging during Hrithik’s Barbara Mori affair while they were shooting for the film Kites.

I’d love to read out aloud the Virginia Woolf quote I’ve started my post with. Loudly. And slowly. Letting it sink in.

Moving on, Hrithik. Dude, you’ve come out looking like the typical Indian male – no hero goals from you! Just got no game. Indian men have never learnt to give, having learnt only to take. Adulation, praise, power, property, pleasure, happiness. They earn money and they brag. They ‘score’ and they brag. They cook once in a blue moon for their partner and they brag. They change a diaper and they brag. Bragging rights is all they’re after. This megalomania is culturally transmitted. But this is water under the bridge, sister!

I wanna say kudos to Sussanne. Got her own business going, got her own place, got two beautiful boys, her own friends, her life. Walked out in a glamorous haze, looking like a million bucks. Free. Any woman in her position ought to know that if it weren’t Kangana or Barbara Mori it would have been someone else. Isn’t it ironic then, that it’s ‘strong’, ‘feminist’ girls like Kangana who get caught in the net?

I see Sussanne as the real heroine in here. And I believe we’re banking on the wrong heroes and heroines. Sussanne, take a bow!

I remember a conversation – long, long back – with a sculptor with whom I’ve lost touch, on feminism. He was telling me the story of his old house-help who was still going on working, happily too, despite her advanced age. She hails from the Adivasi community back in North Gujarat, and years back, her husband had brought in another woman to live with him into the same house. She decided to look for work (or was she already working in homes, I don’t clearly remember now) and has since never stopped. When asked about what would have to be perceived as a humiliating situation back home, she replied matter-of-factly: I’m actually free now. With the second one coming in, I’m free of all expectations – of ‘satisfying him’, of bearing his children, of looking after the home; I can work, come and go as I please, make my own money. What more could I have asked for. Listening to her story became a defining moment in my life.

This woman doesn’t know the term ‘feminism’. But she knows freedom.