Lipstick Under My Burkha: A Brave Effort by Five Indian Women
“Humaari galati hi hai ki ham sapne dekhte hain…”, laments one of the four protagonists in Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha. This line is etched in my mind because of its stark, cold echo in our society. What the movie aims to do is tackle the denial of essential human rights; the dream of being free from discrimination and inequality.
Cheekily juxtaposing an everyday beauty product and the burkha in the title to indicate undercurrents, Lipstick Under My Burkha portrays the lives of four Indian women (Ratna Pathak Shah, Konkona Sensharma, Aahana Kumra and Plabita Borthakur) in silent, individual struggles to unshackle themselves from the clutches of a common patriarchal community.
While it was ironic that the filmmakers fought the CBFC’s allegations against the film’s release for six months, spreading more awareness about the film and the importance of feminist ideologies of expression and freedom it stands for.
What’s exceptionally striking about the film is that nowhere does it lie about these situations and struggles of women being treated as second class citizens in their own homes and country. These honest, heart-wrenching portrayals, just like in reality, have no easy answers. The rebellion will take time and effort, but it’s only once in a while, at least in India, that a film comes around and shatters the entitled male gaze that’s common through Bollywood. Thus, this brave effort is nothing short of a spark in the darkness that’s shrouding it.
Excerpts from an interview with the star cast and director:
Do you think the CBFC row acted like a boon or a bane? What do you think would’ve happened if the initial response was positive?
AS: One thing I’m very clear about is that I don’t think anybody wants censorship. It’s something that’s imposed upon filmmakers. Especially, in a case like mine where they were completely refusing to certify the film. But, the fact that it happened, where they decided to ban the film…I feel like the good thing that came out of it was the conversation it started in the public sphere about the male gaze vs female gaze and the representation of women in cinema and female sexuality in popular culture. Reviewing the fact that as a society, we are constantly consuming and creating content through the eyes of men and how everything has that heteronormative gaze.
I felt wonderful that we got so much support for this film, even though it hadn’t been released. Yet, people were still standing up for it. Just look at our cinema! What does it reflect of our society and what are the kinds of things it perpetuates…where stalking is love, and there still exists something called the “item song” from the 70s and the kind of objectification of women that’s still there. They could turn down and refuse the certification of Lipstick, simply because it comes from a female point of view. So, anything that’s created for male-fulfilment is okay but anything that talks about unique and intimate female experiences is not okay. That means there is no leveled playing field especially in a country where there are so much violence and discrimination against women. Popular culture has no space for women, and that’s very telling of a society.
How did you create these characters? What was the process like?
AS: Honestly, they’re all fictional and imaginary characters with a lot of truth to their experiences. I have a repository of women’s stories because I’m constantly having intimate conversations with people and I know the lives of so many women. So, subconsciously, something is always there in my mind.
For instance, when I was thinking about Konkona’s character, I remembered my landlady, who is Muslim and wears a burkha. I noticed that when she was with her husband and she wouldn’t say much. One day, she came to visit me for some paper that needed to be signed. Instead, she began talking about her business plan and I saw this very different, interesting side to her. The whole idea is that whoever’s lives you imagine, their lives aren’t always like that.
Ratna Pathak Shah
The title of the film borrows from the ideas of liberty and religion. How much more tough do you think it gets when women who are already oppressed have to also deal with the burdens of caste and religion?
RPS: It’s a triple whammy. And only recently have even sociologists started looking at the problem in its complexity. Ek toh, we don’t like to analyse our society, unlike the rest of the world who are constantly trying to find out what’s right and what’s wrong and they are doing hundreds of little surveys here and there. We don’t like to do that. We like to do a GDP survey to show that the government is doing very well. It can be extremely limiting at one end of the pendulum. The other end is even scarier. You could be completely unaware and just keep accepting it as your fate. And you adapt. As Indians, we all just learn to adapt to anything. Samuel Beckett says that ‘I get used to the muck as I go along’.
I think with education, comes a sense of self, at least. And I’m hoping that that will motivate more people to think deeply about what we’re going through. And I can see it, I can see it in our conversation, I see it when I talk to friends of my kids. And I can see that there is a churn, that they’re questioning and not accepting things. The bottom line is that as girls and women become more economically independent, their position will change. A lot of them will face great resistance and great ugliness, no doubt about it. The struggle will be terrible. But, I don’t know if it’s possible to do it any other way.
Do you think conventional ideologies of liberty and women’s rights will be hard to let go of? Do you think the older generation will be able to embrace the new?
RPS: I think art cannot change society in any significant way. There’s no one on one or cause and effect relation there… ‘Bahut acchi picture dekhi, ab meri zindagi badal gayi! Aisaa toh nahi hone wala, right?’ But it informs about the general mood. It stays with you and you think about it. You question things. Art does help in that. And most importantly, art records today as it is in a way that almost nothing else can. Films reflect today. That’s the purpose of art. But, not everyone is making art. A lot of people are just making money. So, we must separate the two. Kyaa karein?
Can you describe what made your upbringing so unconventional and progressive?
KS: I had a single parent, and my parents always shared an amicable equation, so I didn’t have to deal with a lot of acrimony or hostility growing up. My mum is also a very strong woman who’s lived life on her own terms. She didn’t adhere to what society expected of her. I think that she was a great role-model for me. She let me watch whatever I wanted to from an early age. She didn’t say you can or you can’t do that. And she gave me room for friendship, from a young age. She took me into confidence, guided and gave me that respect. So, I didn’t ever feel any need for rebellion. The other thing that my mum did, which I really appreciate now is that she hardly spoke about people. She never criticised people or spoke about their lives. So, I still feel uncomfortable doing that. You just don’t know about what other people are going through. That’s an important thing.
You’ve played many roles throughout your career. Was this liberating in any way?
KS: When I read the script, I liked it so much because it really gave me a glimpse into the inner worlds of these women. And I never even thought that people are going to have a problem with it or thought so far ahead. For women, there are so many constraints, especially if you look at older women, and their desires are never shown as if they’re not supposed to have any. And that doesn’t seem like something which we want to examine at all. In this film, we’re dealing with that. Because popular culture dictates that it is acceptable and normal for older men to desire younger women. But it’s not so much with women unless it’s made a caricature of, which is unfortunate.
Do you think society just has a problem with the idea of femininity or consider it the weaker end of the spectrum?
AK: My friend who is also my stylist was telling me about how now everything is becoming ‘fluid’ and we can dress however we want to. But we cannot be labelling ourselves like, I can only dress like a girl and you can only dress like a boy. Even I’ve judged my friends when they’ve worn a patiala, but later, I started appreciating it this. We must start policing ourselves to not judge. We can’t be sitting in cardboard boxes.
I’ve seen how Ratna and Naseer have worked and collaborated all their lives and it’s been such a beautiful effort. And today, Motley is what it is because of both. They both envisioned a theatre space like that, but they worked collaboratively and not individually. There must be a sense of co-dependency and respect for one another.
What kind of impact did this film have on you as a professional and as a modern woman?
PB: Honestly, I’ve always wanted to work on great content. When I got the script, I realised it was my calling and something I really wanted to do. We had workshops, and it wasn’t just about going there, looking pretty, and saying my dialogues. It helped us look at the other characters, from a different perspective altogether — to be able to understand people on the inside. And I think that equality would be achieved that day when men are okay with sitting at home and taking care of their families while women work.