'Why does our freedom scare you so?'

Madeleine Pownall watches Lipstick Under My Burkha.

An unapologetically feminist film, Lipstick under my Burkha has taken five months for the Central Board of Film Certification to allow it to be screened in Indian cinemas, after previously (and publicly) branding it as ‘lady oriented’ with ‘abusive words and audio pornography’. The film’s formula is relatively straightforward: take four women, follow their lives and highlight the injustices that they face. Throw in an ample seasoning of humour, a healthy dose of outrage and plenty of brilliant one-liners and something quite unique is created. Lipstick under my Burkha emerges as a social and political commentary that is written, directed and enacted by the women at the heart of the inequalities it discusses. Social media has branded it the #lipstickrebellion and this is rather apt. It is rebellious, and prompts the audience to consider a question asked by one of the female protagonists staring dead-pan down the camera lens: ‘Why does our freedom scare you so?’

The film follows four women, each attempting to find their own place in India’s patriarchal society. The story begins with Rehana (Plabita Borthakur), a bright-eyed college student who shoplifts lipsticks from the mall after school and dreams of Hollywood. By day, she dutifully plays the role of desexualised, obedient daughter working in her parent’s burkha shop. By night, she strips off her burkha (a rather obvious but effective symbol of her oppression) and dances on her bed listening to her idol – Miley Cyrus. Leela (Aahana Kumra) a slightly wilder and more passionate character, dreams of love and sex. Shirin (Konkona Sen Sharma), a mother of three living under the thumb of her manipulative husband, works as a saleswoman and is forced to hide her successful career from her tyrannical husband. These women continuously grapple with sexuality and identity, and are products of the shift from body-for-others to body-for-self that exists within Indian ideals (George, 2002).

These women’s stories are insightful and colourful. However there is one narrative that transforms Lipstick under my Burkha from an enjoyable film about oppression to a full-frontal political and social masterpiece. The story of Usha (Ratna Pathak) is the apex of the movie’s plot. As a more mature maternal figure in the community, she is assumed by all to be asexual. She refutes this, spending her evenings hunched over the pages of an erotic novel. Armed with a new-found sense of agency, she brazenly decides to start swimming lessons after becoming smitten with the local swimming teacher. This prompts a series of giggling late-night phone calls, and she delights in the anonymity of her lust. Gilligan (1982) discusses the interplay between female identities that are both maternal and sexual. Using Gilligan’s words, Usha attempts to 'restore sexual symmetry', finding a middle ground between the two (seemingly) mutually exclusive realms of motherhood and sexuality. However, as we later learn, these attempts are met harshly when her full identity is revealed.

In Woman, Body, Desire in Post-Colonial India: Narratives of Gender and Sexuality (2002), Jyoti Puri acknowledges that Indian women’s narratives are significantly shaped by their body and sexuality. Indeed, she also notes how women increasingly 'internalise, reproduce and challenge strategies of social control'. Lipstick under my Burkha has all the makings of a kick-ass feminist fantasy – until the ending. The characters eventually find themselves rejected from society, and (quite literally) thrown out of their homes. They rejoin and end up sat cross-legged together sharing a cigarette. This gives the ending of the film a rather solemn and sympathetic feel. Despite the growing evidence of a 'restructuring and reorientation of women's roles' in India (Dhawan, 2005), the prominence of female oppression is still very much real. 

I saw this film at the Bradford Literature Festival in a small but comfortable theatre in the city’s media museum. Surrounded by men and women in both burkhas and jeans, there was an overwhelming sense of community that rippled through the audience when the credits began to roll. I believe it is left to psychologists to trasform these messages into real social change. Lipstick under my Burkha won’t end female oppression, but it’s as good a place as any to start.

“This film is our film. Seeing Lipstick Waale Sapne, we dare to dream free.” – Shristi Malhotra for Feminism in India

- Reviewed by Madeleine Pownall, an undergraduate at the University of Lincoln. She blogs at http://thoughtbubblesblog.co.uk


George, A. (2002). Embodying identity through heterosexual sexuality-newly married adolescent women in India. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 4(2), 207-222.

Dhawan, N. (2005). Women's role expectations and identity development in India. Psychology and Developing Societies, 17(1), 81-92.

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