Ms. Representation: Women behind the veil

Lipstick Under My Burkha is an exploration of women’s relationship with their bodies
Ms. Representation: Women behind the veil

Lift the ‘veil’ of all the hype, the censor board hassles and all the talk about ‘boldness’, and Lipstick Under My Burkha is actually the universal story of women trying to make some space for themselves. In a crowded neighbourhood of Bhopal four women, living in cramped, claustrophobia-inducing households, dare to desire and deceive. 

Rehana Abidi (Plabitha Borthakur) is the daughter of a burkha-seller and is expected to wear one while she is away in college. What she wants however is to wear clothes like Miley Cyrus and sing. And dress and sing like Miley she does too. Even if it means walking into malls and leaving with stuff she hasn’t paid for.

Shireen Aslam (Konkana Sen Sharma) is juggling constant abortions, miscarriages, morning-after pills and marital rape with a job that she takes pride in, as a door-to-door saleswoman who knows how to charm the ladies of the household. She’s up for a promotion, too, and she should be happy except she is mortified, because her recent Saudi-return husband, Rahim (Sushant Singh), has no clue that she’s working. 

Leela (Aahana Kumra) is engaged to be married off to Manoj (Vaibbhav Tatwawadi) while she is in a relationship with Arshad (Vikrant Massey), a wedding photographer. Leela has a complicated relationship with intimacy. On the evening of her engagement, Leela’s mother walks in on her fumbling in the darkness with Arshad, trying to record a selfie-video while having sex, in the hope that it will stop her mother from forcing her into the wedding. Throughout the film one gets a sense that Leela is using sex to get what she actually wants: to be taken seriously, by her mother or her boyfriend or her fiancé.

Usha Buaji (Ratna Pathak) hides ‘Lipstick wale sapne’ (Lipstick dreams) in the middle of a ‘pooja’ book and is constantly reading about the book’s Rosy and her many dreams and desires, most of which are carnal in nature. She secretly signs up for swimming classes and has secret, steamy telephonic conversations with him, while calling herself, ‘Rosy’. 

All of the women have secrets they are keeping from their family. All of the women have problems with intimacy, in the sense that they don’t have the space to be intimate or aren’t receiving the kind of intimacy they so desire. Usha pretends to be someone younger, Leela is conflicted between the sweet fiancé and the thuggish boyfriend, Shireen lives dual lives while her body pays the price for her husband’s desire to control her, and Rehana is flitting in and out of roles – the burkha-wearing-obedient-daughter, the smoking-drinking, cool-clothes-wearing-party-gal, the-girl-who-helps-her-parents-tailoring, the-girl-who-steals-clothes-and-shoes…

The film captures the suffocating grip patriarchy has over women and their bodies, and the cramped spaces these women live in highlights this further. "What is it about women’s freedom that scares people so much?" Rehana asks at one point in the film, looking straight at the camera.

She might as well have been speaking to the censor board, our society, schools and colleges, families and friends. Controlling women’s sexuality has been patriarchy’s big pet project. And as Lipstick Under My Burkha shows, there are little rebellions taking place every day, everywhere across the country, even as women carve some space for themselves and their desires, however short-lived they may be, however much they may be humiliated for it.

Rosy, is a beautiful, funny presence throughout the film and offers an escape that brings all 4 women together, towards the end. Despite all of this, after all the controversies and hype, one cannot help but feel a little underwhelmed by the so-called triumphs of these women. One wishes the film were edgier and bolder, too. We are ready. We are waiting. Alankrita Shrivatsava, here’s hoping your next is all that.

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