The plot line of Lipstick Under My Burkha (directed by Alankrita Shrivastava) revolves around 4 women, each from a different age group and each leading very different lives. A mother of 3 children, left alone to fend for herself; a widowed woman who attends Satsangs; a 20 something year old ambitious woman finding her place in society; and a college girl trying to find her own identity in an oppressed environment.
Each one of these characters are first introduced as very “desi” women, from different backgrounds living in a small town, full of dreams. However, through the course of the movie, we discover the real, sexual, and bold side of each of these 4 women. All of these women have a veil, under which hides their actual thoughts, wants and needs. The title, “Lipstick under my burkha” can, therefore, be seen as the needs and wants of women under the veil of society, where they only lift this veil when no one is looking, somewhere they would not be judged.
All four women, each from different age groups but each going through their own set of problems, have their set of insecurities that they face in and against the society, and with themselves. While one is insecure about her age and lusts younger muscular men, another feels inferior and is reduced to a mere object without any say in her own home and relationships. One of them is morally confused and will go to any extent to conform and be accepted and to find herself. Another is stuck between choosing an ambitious, business oriented life and becoming a wife of a relatively successful man, for better commodities and lifestyle.
All of these insecurities are veiled – their secrets endeavors – parties where they smoke, drink, dance, or swimming classes and chats on the phone with an attractive man, saleswoman avatar and big business plan. All four women try their best to run away from their patriarchic views and ideas, and in conclusion end up veiling these feelings, ideas, thoughts and behaviours. Each woman hiding her own ‘lipstick’ or pleasures to safeguard themselves from society.
The men in Lipstick under my Burkha are shown are power-holders in society. Through the movie, each man is portrayed as having the final say in the women’s lives. While a father wants women to wear her burkha and hide her dance moves and music talent under it, a husband wants his own pleasure and rapes his wife while also cheating on her.
Every woman’s sexual urges, needs and sometimes even her choice (to not want to marry) are shoved under the carpet. Even something as regular as menstrual cycles and beauty parlour visits are hushed down. It’s almost like the society should not know that a woman has sexual urges and feels the need to fulfil them while she goes around doing her everyday chores. In society, a woman is meant to be sex-neutral. Having sex or sexual feelings, makes a woman impious and unacceptable. But the same society also wants the woman to conceive once she’s married, otherwise, she’s called names!
But unlike our society, this movie has given women the agency. An agency to be independent, bold, do as she feels and most importantly, to fantasize. A female gaze is portrayed, a woman (of any age) looking at a man lustfully is accepted. This ‘agency’ includes any kind of independence –her vocabulary, physical actions, need for sex, reading an erotica, masturbating, working, going to her own husband’s mistress and revealing herself as the wife. Where, instead of conforming to societal roles and gender roles, women do what they think is necessary for themselves.
This movie talks very openly about a woman’s sexual self-discovery. When something as simple as menstrual cycles are not talked about openly in India, talks about masturbation or sex is out of boundaries for any Indian woman. A woman is seen as someone who cannot be sexual or ask for pleasure or even pleasure herself. It’s almost like they are socially programmed to avoid sexual feelings. Therefore, in a culture where women are not allowed to talk about sexual subjects, it seems like the only other place they could occupy was that of sexual objects!
Sccepting the prohibition of sexual subjectivity for women, the society acknowledges a place of women as mothers and wives and a sense of meaning as guarantors of cultural harmony against a landscape where otherwise women’s worth is debatable or clearly absent.
A very hard-hitting scene in Lipstick under my Burkha which stuck with me was when one of the characters is caught having sex with her boyfriend at her own engagement (with another man!). Her mother barges into the room and slaps both of them. After which, she calmly goes ahead to fix her lehenga, reapplies her lipstick and send her back out to get engaged – no questions asked. The next scene shows her standing next to her fiancé, taking photos with the family, while her mother keeps a watch on her.
A paper by P. P. Amrutha et al. called “Male Representation in Female Oriented Movies a Study Focused on Parched and Lipstick under My Burkha”, stated that men are negatively portrayed in female oriented movies. It says that men are always seen as the antagonist in these movies and this gives the society a “negative image”. (P.P. Amrutha, 2018) However, in my opinion, it is the society and patriarchy that is shown in it’s true light in this movie. Our society holds certain ideologies that give men and women certain gender roles, and any individual going against these “roles” is scrutinised and put own by society. This applies to everyone. Women, however, seem to have a lot more restrictions put on them which makes them incapable of free speech and action.
In this movie, just like in real life – women also play a major role in patriarchy and sexism. Most women laugh at others or will shut them up when it comes to matters of sexuality or something more “private”. Mothers force their children into marriages, female doctors laugh at a woman who has to get multiple abortions, and aunties judge the women on every action she takes. We don’t realise this, but women also are enablers of patriarchy – we teach younger girls to cover themselves, we talk about our periods in hushed voices, we give them dolls and pink skirts. All of this enables gender roles and patriarchy!
In conclusion, I would like to say that Lipstick Under my Burkha raises some important questions about many ideologies and gender roles in society. It opens our eyes to many different issues that prevail in middle-class Indian families. While many of us live a modern life, most of the women in India are still not allowed to work, have sex, to study, to wear jeans without having to veil it under disguise. It calls for a women’s rights to freedom – verbally, physically, mentally and sexually. More than anything, it allows us to think that even though women have come up in this world today and made their way towards empowerment, there are still a lot of women suffering who need help. Feminism should work, but on all the levels of society instead of just for the high or middle classes. Each person should have the right to live freely, openly and boldly. There is an urgent need in this society to talk more openly about the sexual and mental well-being of women.
Sarika is the Content Head at The Thought Company. As someone who opted for English Literature and Gender Studies in her degree college, she believes that media we consume can make a difference in a person’s life.