Bollywood has recently been abuzz over the ‘lady oriented’ film Lipstick Under My Burkha. The film, which shows the stories of four women and their private struggles to get on with their lives despite their everyday oppressions and restrictions, relays a familiar subject. But the film does it with a difference. It shows the private lives of these women, the ones that exist in alcoves lonelier than their bedrooms—their minds. The woman-centric film received the Censor Board’s certification only after the courts intervened.
Four women, all of us
The stories of four women living in a mohalla in Bhopal intersect to present a wider view of the lives of Indian women. Ranging in age and marital status—a college-going girl, a young woman of marriageable age, a married mother of three, and a widowed older matriarch-like woman—each woman is seen living a ‘normal’ life, maneuvering and negotiating the code defined by tradition, culture, society and family. As their stories unfold, their psychosexual desires and needs, located within the events taking place in their lives, are treated with realism by the script. The college-going girl has her first sexual experience with a senior; the unmarried young woman is pushed to two-time and acts on her sex drive; the married mother-of-three grits her teeth while being raped by her cheating husband; the older widow is attracted to a young man.
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Of all these stories, the last one is perhaps the starkest. Her feelings stirred by romance literature, the grey-haired, widowed Usha Buaji, tentatively acts on her attraction towards a strapping young swimming coach. She overcomes her shyness to procure a swimming costume, hides it from her family-like neighbours, and takes lessons from the young man—all to come closer to him, naively expecting that the interest would turn mutual. Inspired by the young and amorous Rosy, the heroine of the romance tome, Buaji pretends to be her and draws the young man into a series of nocturnal phone calls. Their conversations progressively get steamy, and Buaji is ignited by passion and overcome by desire—leaving the majority of the film’s audience with no tools to process it other than by resorting to nervous laughter.
Old women don’t have sex!
The scene where Buaji is seen pleasuring herself while in conversation over the phone, in the privacy of her bathroom, will remain one of Bollywood’s defining moments. The character of Usha, performed with sensitivity and verve by the seasoned Ratna Pathak Shah, defies the stereotypical image assigned to the older woman in our culture.
Women’s lives, confined by their gendered roles of daughter–sister–wife–mother–grandmother, are expected to be stripped of any form of desire, even material, let alone sexual.
As a woman grows older, the patriarchal social design that constantly works to diminish her innate personality demands even more from her. She is required to embody only the values of service and sacrifice, through devotion to family, fear of God, preservation of tradition and more—perennially serving the needs of family and community. This classic Patriarchy 101 is amply reflected in the letter sent to the filmmaker by the Censor Board, headed by Pahlaj Nihalani, while refusing to certify the film for release. It described the contents of the film as ‘fantasy above life’, and the bathroom scene as ‘audio pornography’.
The terrible price that women pay for their desires and aspirations is not limited to stigma, ostracism and verbal assault, which are milder forms of censure when compared to the fear for life and liberty that many women live with every day, if not at home, then definitely outside. These threats are deeply ingrained since childhood, to ensure that submission to the patriarchal setup is subliminal. Even today, despite greater financial autonomy enjoyed by some women, the crippling status quo has barely changed—a large part due to women’s inability to achieve any real autonomy.
Lipstick Under My Burkha succeeds in highlighting the context in which such individual stories of awareness and rebellion exist in our country. Not one is triumphant in completely breaking away. How does one do it? Where does one go from there?
Moral codes apply only to women
While men are also expected to adhere to a code, any deviation from it seldom attracts attention and penalty like it does for a woman. Just like Shireen’s (Konkana Sen Sharma) philandering husband, whom she lets off the hook not just for practically raping her but also for cheating on her.
Couched in this socio-cultural setting, we are made to look at a deeply personal part of old Buaji’s life. Since we are taught that it cannot exist, the filmmaker must labour harder to show it—with the help of an additional layer of fiction. Fiction has for long provided the safe space for women to express their inner, real and larger selves. With fictional Rosy in the background, Buaji is propelled to follow her heart.
We are left confused when Buaji masturbates because we lack any understanding of its basis.
The rare occasions when the preferences and choices shaping women’s sexuality are conveyed in popular media, only the top layers are seen: comparative surveys (men–women or rural/small-town–urban/metro), the contrast over time (then and now), or through explanations of physiological changes that take place closer to menopause. The holistic experience, including emotional and spiritual dimensions of women’s desire and sexuality, is a topic of deep discomfort in a culture that thrives by denying women their right to self.
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Worse still is the absence of any interest in a woman thought to be past her prime—who completed her reproductive duties or was incapable of performing them. Many buajis of our society continue to be abandoned in Banaras or, if lucky, offered a corner where they are expected to become caretakers without a care to their selves.
Before lifting the thick shroud that hides the inner desires of our buajis, we would need to begin by chipping off the rocky mountain that lies on top. Blowing it up would be ideal, but then the lines between Usha and Rosy would blur, like they do do in Buaji’s mind. Are we prepared to reconcile the two images when they suddenly become one?