(Spoiler alert: Read on if you don't mind spoilers)
Lipstick under my burqa - a powerful film that has forced me out of my blogging sabbatical. Because I have to talk about it. Not just because the movie deals with an unusual subject but because I’m appalled that we’d never get to watch it thanks to some uptight, out-of-times people who did not want it released. Another attempt to silence the voice of women, hush the reality, conceal from the world that women can have feelings - sexual, no less!!!
The movie explores the lives of 4 diverse women - across ages, professions and social strata. Yet, you wouldn’t miss how the plight of each woman is the same - trapped in her situation and confined by definitions that society binds women into.
Rehana is a college girl on the verge of adulthood but restrained by birth in her conservative family. She is expected to adhere to what people believe a girl like her should be - burqa clad, obedient and almost invisible, drawing no attention to herself. She steals and lies to keep up with the joneses in college but is back to her miserable life once she gets home.
Leela has a career as a beautician and runs a parlour but has to fight for her right to be with her boyfriend. Her mother, a widow, wants her daughter to get married since that is the only way a woman can have security and respect. And so she is stuck at the crossroad of whether to be with her boyfriend or do what her mother expects her to do.
Shireen, a mother of three, has no rights. She is fettered in her marriage to a man who uses her every night for his pleasure and that’s her only function in his life. She has no say in using protection and has silently suffered 3 abortions. Sex is also the weapon he uses to dominate her and punish her when she insists she wants to continue in a job she hid about from him. His ultimate warning to the sexually abused and beaten Shireen is - Don’t try to be a husband.
Usha, the 55 yr old widow, who has lived her life but is still not free to be herself. She reads erotica and also finds the courage to learn swimming in her small town. She finds a new self through these activities but does it in secret, because a woman is never free, at any age, to live the life she wants to.
And then there’s Rosy, the bold character from Usha’s erotic novel who has fantasies and yearns for a man. Her story is narrated by Ratna Pathak Shah and becomes the final voice of the narrator at the end.
I am guessing that Leela who has pre-marital sex to Usha, who reads erotica - were the main objections why the censor board did not want to release this film. Teenage rebellion is an age old theme. But portraying women as sexual beings is against Bharatiya sanskriti. It is too much for men to reveal the truth about themselves to the world - a man can use a woman for his pleasure every night because it is his right and it is right. But it’s not becoming of a woman to even think about it. She has to be shamed and thrown out of the house - like Usha is when her erotic novels are discovered by her family.
The stories of these women converge at the end when all four of them find themselves in Rehana’s house - co-sufferers who find solace in each others’ company. The younger ladies help Usha gather her stuff that’s been thrown on the street and get her indoors. Sitting in each others’ presence, they realise that their predicament is the same - whether it’s Rehana who’s yet to begin her life or Usha, who has already lived hers. Their deed of rebellion is to smoke a cigarette, probably meant to be a metaphor for their freedom - but within the confines of the room. These women can wear lipstick but only under their burqa, hidden from the world. Their real desires and true selves is something the world doesn't want to deal with.
This is not a Bollywood blockbuster. None of these women rebel and fight societal prejudices that force them to lead a double life. Or drive them to seek refuge in a little room with each other. The narrator’s voice ends the story with Rosy walking out of the door of her house to live her life, pursue her dreams. This gives us hope that these women too may find their way out into the world and be able to live the lives each one wants to.
What hit me the hardest about the film is how powerless and impotent these women are in their circumstances. Being born in a home with freedom and education is an urban privilege. How can Rehana fight the parents she is stuck with? The liberty to pursue one’s career and choose one’s life partner isn’t a right a woman in our society is born with. What should Leela do? Who should she choose? Once a woman is married, her own parents have nothing to do with her. And I feel the worst for Shireen, who despite being more able then her husband suffers ignominy in her marriage every day. Is it easy to walk out in her situation? And while I see so many women in their 40’s and 50’s finding a new lease of life and start afresh after their kids have moved out, that’s not something their rural counterparts can look forward to. How is Usha to live her own life and save herself the embarrassment she’s made to go through?
And each one represents an entire tribe of such women manacled to their lot. I really don’t know what to say to end the post. Anything I say wont make any difference to the plight of real women living such lives I’m so saddened to watch on screen. I’m thankful to Alankrita who had wrote and made this film. And fought to get it released so that the world could see the truth through this wonderful piece of work. Let's just hope that there will be a time when women can live and be who they want to be without being judged or punished for it.