Film Review: Lipstick Under My Burkha
LIPSTICK UNDER MY BURKHA (2016) Director Alankrita Shrivastava
Written by Belle McIntyre
This could easily be entitled No Place to be a Lady. It paints a pretty bleak picture of the reality of life for a majority of Indian women in a patriarchal society. This film focuses on four decidedly different women of different class, age and religion - two Muslim and two Hindu. However, they have one thing in common - a streak of rebellion which, once it is acknowledged and given free reign, acquires a life of its own and will not be silenced. Alas, there are consequences and a price to be paid.
Supreme irony kicks in - as I am having one of those “girl wax jobs” which can only be described as something to be dreaded even more than a root canal. As a distraction for myself I start telling my practitioner/torturer a description of the film. There was a logic to this on account of the fact that this establishment being owned and operated by Indian women and also because one of the major characters worked in such a place. That is her day job. But she is a modern Hindi woman who is certainly not circumscribed by her job and is constantly hatching schemes to start her own business, often including her ne’er-do-well Muslim boyfriend, with whom she is having red hot sex as often as humanly possible.
When her ultra conservative parents get wind of this they immediately arrange a suitable marriage which shifts into gear with alarming speed and she is presented with a hand-picked husband who fits into the pre-ordained traditional order of things. That he happens to be handsome and reasonably modern makes it somewhat palatable. But when she is introduced to the extended traditional family into which she will have to fit her libertine persona she is completely freaked out and returns to the bad Muslim boyfriend like a heat-seeking missile for one last fling which they memorialize with a phone video. When the video appears inconveniently it puts the kibosh on the wedding and her future.
There is a young Muslim girl who leaves home wearing a hajib but dumps it to go to high school wearing jeans like all of the others. She has aspirations to be a singer and sneaks out of her ultra-conservative house to perform in clubs at night. By day, her time apart from school is working under her father’s watchful eye sewing burkhas. It a soul-destroying claustrophobic atmosphere. When she is found out her choices are dramatic - be chucked out of her home and have to fend for herself or continue on in the sweatshop until an arranged marriage is fixed. Her father is a nightmare of judgmental and ideological thinking.
There is lively married Muslim woman with several children whose husband’s work keeps him away from home most of the time. This has allowed for her to have a secret life as a saleswoman for products for the home. She excels at this and makes extra money of her own and has found an outlet for her energy apart from the home. Unfortunately, every time her husband comes home he forces himself on her roughly demanding sex even though her gynecologist has told her that the sex and any future pregnancies are deleterious to her health. Her husband is a selfish bastard who has been cheating on his wife for years. When she finds out and confronts him she is the one who is punished. It is shocking and awful.
The fourth woman is an older Hindu widow who is respected in the town and owns property which provides her with an income and a certain status. When she decides to learn to swim lured by the young muscular attractiveness of the pool instructor. He awakens in her long-dormant feelings of sexual longing. She has also taken to reading some fairly graphic romantic novels by the pool which feeds her fantasies of the young man. When she figures out how to engage him in long anonymous erotic phone conversations her imagination outstrips reality and she begins to believe that there is something potentially real. Her unmasking is particularly cruel and humiliating and painful to watch.
The plot somehow manages to contrive that all four of the women find themselves together right at the dramatic place in their lives from which there can be no turning back. All we know for certain is that they will have each other for support. Small comfort at best. The future is very unknowable.
The film has not been seen commercially in India, only in film festivals there and around the world. It was deemed “lady oriented, their fantasy above life”. It is clear why the male-dominated industry would not appreciate the reality depicted in the lives of these women. The men are, with only one exception, despicable misogynists. There are some changes pending in order to allow the censors to give it a rating so it can be released. When I finished my telling of the story my practitioner said it is totally accurate. That is the lot of many, many Indian women. Change is only coming very, very slowly. She then proceeded to tell me of her conversion from Muslim to Christian. So there is the proof that nothing lasts forever. Hope can take root.