Lipstick Under My Burkha is a film I wanted to watch but found no immediate need to. So despite having liked the trailer and read a few articles about the film, I never got around to watching it until today. And I’m glad I waited until now to watch it because it’s one of those films you need to focus all your attention on (also because I needed subtitles to understand what was being said).
If you haven’t watched the film or even heard about it, this isn’t the best place to be if you want the storyline. I’m not very good at remembering names or timelines. And this isn’t exactly a review of the film. But of course, major spoilers ahead.
As the movie came to an end, I realized that what made Lipstick Under My Burkha different was both its theme and how that theme was set in motion/portrayed. I haven’t watched a lot of films but this is one of those films that sheds light on women as they are without any of the subtlety. The film talks about female sexuality (yes, we aren’t objects that have no sexual needs, desires or urges). The film talks about the lengths women go to keep their families from starving. The film talks about girls who want to have fun and enjoy themselves but also have to live by the rules of their families.
And you’d think, ‘but this isn’t the first movie to talk about the ‘struggles of being a woman’?’ And true, it isn’t. There are so many films that talk about female sexuality, oppression, discrimination, domestic violence, etc. Lipstick Under My Burkha doesn’t bring us new shocking and so-far hidden stories about women.
But what it does is this: It portrays the woman not in the shadow of a man but as the protagonist. She’s in the spotlight. She has been given the mic and she doesn’t stay silent.
The characters live in a sort of apartment complex that is over a hundred years old and has definitely seen better days. The head or landlady, Usha, lives with her family and is loved and respected by her tenants. The erotica that she reads aloud carries the story forward. The fifty-something widow starts engaging in phone sex with her swimming coach (a young guy who thinks he’s talking to one of the young women at the pool).
Leela is engaged to a man she doesn’t love, an arrangement made by Usha. Leela and Arshad, a photographer, have big dreams about starting a business. The two are sleeping with each other and it’s not the nonsensical ‘making love’ we see in most films. On her engagement day, during a power cut, Usha finds Leela having sex with Arshad. Usha scolds Leela but then applies lipstick on her and sends her off to the engagement party.
Later on in the film, Leela and her soon-to-be husband are making out in his car. She starts unbuttoning his shirt when he says that their first time having sex should be special and should happen on their wedding night. This scene is important, I feel, because we see how Leela, the woman, wants sex but the man wants to make it some special union between a husband and wife. This is in contrast to the usual man forcing himself on the woman scenario.
Not that Lipstick Under My Burkha doesn’t have that kind of man. Shirin is married to a no-fun man who is back from Saudi Arabia. He is bringing no money to the table so Shirin starts working as a saleswoman. Her husband doesn’t know about this, and treats her like nothing but an object he has the right to fuck whenever he wants to. There is no affection between them. Shirin’s husband refuses to use a condom and so we learn that Shirin has had multiple abortions. She already has three sons.
Rehana is a college student who wears a burkha when leaving home and changes into jeans and tshirts when she gets to college. She loves Miley Cyrus, loves to dance and sing. She helps at her father’s tailoring shop. She lives two lives and in order to do so, ends up shoplifting quite a few things. She takes part in protests against a ban of jeans for female students.
There are obviously a few more characters in the film, the jealous ex-girlfriend who is also pregnant, the mistress, the mother who works as a nude model for artists to earn money for her family. But the film revolves around these four and ends with these four women.
And it’s amazing how, while the women’s lives and stories are shaped by men, those men are never the focus of the film. This, I feel, is what’s often lacking in ‘feminist’ films (which is apparently what people call films that talk about women in a positive or empowering sense). With this thought in mind, I went to the IMDB page of the film and scrolled down to the reviews. And the first user review made me roll my eyes.
The title of the review is ‘A feminist film where all (or most) men characters are rotten by default, but one that raises valid points! [+62%]’
The reviewer goes on to say, ‘While the film raises valid points on freedom of expression (in terms of occupational aspirations, dressing styles, sexual interests or taste in music even) when it comes to womenfolk, it does so at by portraying most of the men characters as vile/rotten/insecure. Is it so hard to make a feminist film without depicting the men as scoundrels (cheating husbands, jealous and instantly-dumping boyfriends, daddies who believe their daughters should be hidden away in boxes)? I think a feminist masterpiece would take shape only when women are portrayed (holistically) on/above par with their strong-willed (and well- written) better halves. That's when you feel a sense of genuine gratification.’
Of course, everyone is free to have their own opinions and sure, the men in the film are sort of props. They lack any depth and that is sort of needed in this case. In Lipstick Under My Burkha, the men don’t really matter. And while there are good men out there, there are also some pretty vile ones that we need to talk about. You see, men cheat on their wives but still manage to put the blame on the wife. Men don’t want their wives to earn money and take on what they think is their role in the family even if they don’t have a job anymore.
But it’s not only men who think sexuality, income, freedom, etc. are men’s territory. Women also think so. And Lipstick Under My Burkha doesn’t ignore these women. When Usha’s family finds out about her calls and the erotica she reads, it’s not only the men who kick her out of her house and shame her for having sexual needs ‘at that age’. It’s not only Rehana’s father who forces her into a life of the burkha, work at the tailor shop and no dancing, music, etc. It’ her mother too, who talks about shame to the family and whatnot.
And so the film is much needed to make us understand what a lot women go through in their day-to-day lives. Dealing with abusive and cheating husbands, social expectations of how you should behave at a certain age, cultural and religious limitations placed on your freedom, and the confusing and messy pool of love, sex, marriage, etc.
This is why Lipstick Under My Burkha is a film that you can watch despite its imperfections. This is why Lipstick Under My Burkha is a film that is needed, especially in South Asia where people can accept god into their lives but struggle to accept that women have sexual desires too.
As I said, this isn’t a review, so I won’t rate Lipstick Under My Burkha. And I won’t recommend it or suggest that anyone watch it. But I’ll say this. It’s nice to watch a film that talks about women without it being through men. It’s nice to watch a film that portrays women as they are instead of through the eyes of a man. And it’s nice to watch a film that doesn’t whisper or say but shouts, ‘women are sexual beings and they have the right enjoy what or who brings them pleasure.’