Lipstick Under My Burkha short-changes women’s dreams

Ratna Raman

Maybe such stories are true of lives women lead in small-towns but is LUMB supposed to be a documentary on the graphic horrors of being a woman in small-town India?

This was a film I definitely  wanted to see, because Pehlaj Nihliani,  abysmally low on  ideas and vision and using words obsolete in the English language such as  a ‘lady-oriented’ film ‘had clamped down  upon the film and kept  its producer  on tenterhooks,  by  swinging his censure scissors with abandon  and refusing to award  any category to the film.

 The film was graphic and the four central women protagonists proved themselves to be compelling actresses. Having said that, the film struck several dissonant notes and left me bemused.  Lipstick Under My Burqa (LUMB ) makes for a tantalising title.  Lipstick represents colour, adornment and self-love perhaps, but certainly embellishing the lips forms part of the solahshringar that constitutes the pedagogy of female adornment in India. Lipsticks are accessories that highlight and make attractive. Women use them as fashion accessories to enhance the shape and colour of the lips. The burqa, traditional attire worn by Muslim women in public is meant to both cover and protect the wearer.  Unlike the lipstick, it can easily become a symbol for repression and camouflage. Yet, such concealed adornment is supposed to represent hidden female desire.  As the title and as props, lipsticks provide a superficial allure while burqas obscure and obstruct perspective in the course of the film. 

A raucous realism surrounds the four women residing in an older part of Bhopal within a large residential building that houses several families. Buaji, played by Ratna Pathak Shah, a widow in her fifties, is in complete command when it comes to running the household, dealing with property sharks and handling the sweet shop business routinely.

 Shirin Aslam is a burqa clad young woman, with three small boys. Her predatory husband, back from the Gulf, has no job and hopes to earn a huge commission by selling Buaji’s property to a moneyed builder. Shirin uses the anonymity provided by the burqa to continue her job as a salesperson. Her work life is under wraps and when she is offered a promotion as a sales trainer, she is under pressure to discuss longer working hours with her husband who is now based in Bhopal.

Leela, a young beautician, is raised by a mother, a nude model at an art school for over seventeen years. Leela masterminds many extravagant schemes to earn money with a young photographer whom she also desires. Her engagement to a stolid young man, the least offensive male in the film, makes little impression on Leela, much to her mother’s dismay.

Young Rehana enrolled at a college, is a Miley Cyrus fan and a tailoring whiz-kid hard at work in the evenings, at her father’s tailoring unit.Rehana leaves for college attired in a burqa and dreams of being part of a music band. Singing Led Zeppelin at the audition, she catches the eye of the male band leader as well as the ire of his girlfriend.

 By themselves, these are innocuous beginnings and possibly lived by women in the length and breadth of India.  Women in their fifties do have access to erotic pulp fiction and can desire young men. The word cougar is slang, indicative of an older woman desirous of a young man.  Married women with small children can aspire to work, both for self-fulfilment and the money despite Mira Rajput’s disdain. Young women too can dream of a career in successful entrepreneurship or of singing in a band.

The desires set up in the film are not new or extraordinary. Yet, a pulp fiction storyline whose central character is a lipstick wearing Rosie, exploring her sexuality, sets the prevailing mood of the film, and eventually subsumes all the stories that could have been. At crucial points in the movie, all the women characters dress up in red lipstick, almost clinching the issue.

 The representation of the burqa as a symbol of trickery and deceit is worrying especially in the communal times that we live in.  Ringing a doorbell, Shirin enquires if the fake necklace she holds in her hands belongs to the woman living at that address. Asking for water, she wheedles her way into the house, requests nimbupani, enters the kitchen and points a gun at the mistress of the house, only to dispel her fear by saying that the gun is a pest repellent.  Next, she opens a cupboard and points to dead cockroaches on a shelf which she had previously transferred from her handbag and clinches a deal. This instance starring super saleswoman Shirin is meant to be comic but remains dubious. Rehana uses her burqua to steal lipstick, copper designer dress and boots at a mall, run apparently by idiots with no CCTV in place. Highlighting the burqa as oppressive and as a camouflage for theft and deceit is objectionable and regressive. Incidentally, a memorable history around the burqa, has been documented in both fiction and film.

Rehana steals regularly in order to belong to the swish set at college. The representation of undergraduate life is on predictable lines.  Here smart girls drink, smoke, dress in designer clothes and party all night, sleep on bonnets of cars and get pregnant while ostensibly running audition clubs for western music. Rehana is televised in a demonstration where she connects the right to wear jeans with the right to life (jeena ). Such simplistic portrayal of university life could provide a new source for right wing groups and their leaders to further heighten their misconceptions regarding Indian universities, which are currently reeling nationwide under calibrated attacks.

The women characters are typecast as victims of unmitigated circumstances.   Let us assume the worst; maybe such stories are true of small towns and of the lives that women lead there. But was LUMB supposed to be a documentary film on the graphic horrors of being a woman in small-town India?

 No, not really. For this reason, the film continues to disappoint. A small girl at the end of a school line helping Usha Buaji negotiate an escalator by holding her hand cannot be the only promise that a film can offer to women firmly ensconced in the twenty-first century. Oddly, the friendship between the women in the film is functional and superficial and is restricted to help in buying a swimsuit, waxing pubic hair, dropping someone off at a secret party or salvaging a daughter’s makeup on her engagement day when the said daughter is indulging in horseplay with her boyfriend.

We are no longer in the 1970s and this is too little too late for 2017. Buaji ‘s room is invaded and, her clothes are rummaged through and a swimsuit and some pulp fiction are seized. Buttressed by a nasty accusation from a tearful and rude young coach, she is thrown out of her house. This is overkill, two stories dovetail into one; the exploited hapless widow and the shrewd business woman survivor merge into the older archetype of the harassed woman who is invoked less and less, even in Bollywood. Buaji is reduced to whimpering powerlessness, her belongings are thrown out and she is manhandled by men who have usually grovelled in her presence and remained routinely dysfunctional in her absence.

This is not trenchant criticism. Buaji’s sexual awakening, possibly a well-kept secret in conservative India, is treated with little or no finesse. The comic overtones border on caricature and the object of her desires is an uncouth and callow youth, borrowed possibly from Desperate Housewives, where older wives routinely make out with their youthful gardeners and plumbers. The film does not address female desire in a nuanced manner. Buaji’s erotic life is projected as comic and odd and mock-worthy and the audience responds to it in like fashion.

Shirin is a victim of brutal marital rape, her ‘lady parts’ are affected, she has had abortions and a husband unwilling to use condoms or meet the gynaecologist. Shirin marks territorial rights through a showdown with the other woman.  She never brings up her desire to work, her promotion, health or fidelity issues with her husband. In fact, she wistfully remarks that she is not able to hold the interest of a single man, unlike fictional Rosie.

 Despite rough and shabby treatment from her boyfriend, Leela cannot have enough of him. She wishes to escape Bhopal and live a liberated sexual life in lieu of a stolid and boring arranged marriage. Leela shares her mother’s perception of men as ultimate providers and pleasure givers and remains unable to frame life choices independent of heterosexual men. Rehana’s college mate, knocked up and hospitalised for an abortion, avenges the theft of her boyfriend by getting Rehana arrested for shoplifting. Rehana’s outraged father brings her home from jail and slams the door shut on her university education.

Sexual exploration was handled with great sensitivity in the film Masaan.  LUMB , on the other hand,  provides a graphic account of the dangers of unbridled promiscuity and heterosexual violence that cuts through class and community. Apparently, pleasurable or plural sexualities continue to be an unlikely option for Indian women.

Such short-changing of women’s dreams and a reduction of possibilities, sexual and otherwise is rather disturbing. All four women humiliated severally by patriarchy, move into Rehana’s stitching room with mannequins, share a smoke and finish reading the last section of Rosie’s  story, wherein Rosie constricted by ‘salahe’ yearns to escape. The cigarette smoke possibly clouds and numbs their minds further by reducing oxygen levels.

Better solidarity was demonstrated by the women in a rural village who flung chilli powder at the marauding officer in Mirch Masala to help Smita Patil escape.  Ishkiya‘s Vidya Balan flirts seductively and holds her own with two men in a provincial and conservative small-town. Fire revealed two women turning to each other in order to channelize their desire when faced with obtuse husbands. In caste and class ridden India, infinite aesthetic strategies including self-pleasuring, have lent themselves effectively towards an articulation of female desire.

 What if an empowered Buaji, had told off Shirin’s husband and supported her decision to work? Could Shirin have confided in Leela or turned to her gynaecologist for help?  What if Leela and Shirin had counselled Rehana? Could happier possibilities have emerged? The film attacks patriarchy but remains unable to envision the world outside of heterosexual desire.  It documents relationships between men and women that are undesirable, perhaps, even undesired. The most disturbing aspect of the film is the fact that the suitor Leela’s mother finds for her daughter must be co-opted as a desperate measure, as the only evidence of a decent male.

 In Alankrita Srivastava’s universe, there are no good men and her un-empowered women do not and cannot fight back. Earlier vulnerable women wept wordlessly on celluloid. In LUMB, they suffer stoically and read aloud the endings in pulp fiction, huddled in unventilated rooms which slowly fill up with stale smoke.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY-AUGUST 2017