Lipstick Under My Burkha, a Bollywood film about female desire, stirred a great deal of controversy in India before it was even released. The Central Board of Film Certification initially refused to give the film a release certificate because “the story is lady oriented” and includes “contagious sexual scenes, abusive words, [and] audio pornography.” The movie’s director Alankrita Srivastava and producer Prakash Jha appealed to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), and were granted theatrical release—as long as the movie’s sex scenes were cut. The “controversial” film was finally released on July 21 with a massive publicity boost, courtesy of the censor board’s initial ban. After all, we all want to see what we’re not allowed to see.
Lipstick Under My Burkha also presents an interesting question: What does female desire and fantasy in Bollywood look like when it is stripped of the multiple coatings of the male gaze? Over the past 10 years, a small cluster of Bollywood films, including Queen, Margarita with a Straw, Dev D, Chandni Bar, and Pink, have tried to sketch women’s narratives that try to venture into more realistic and darker territories, but Lipstick Under My Burkha abundantly spills out of the boxes that Bollywood has contained female desire in. Perhaps the state/censor board was terrified of this “lady oriented” film because it has the audacity to depict women’s personal, economic, and sexual desires as routine and commonplace.
The film revolves around the lives of two Hindu and two Muslim women who all live at “Hawai Manzil” (The House of Fantasies), a crumbling old mansion in Bhopal. There is the 55-year-old long widowed landlady Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah), a.k.a. Buaji (Aunty), who takes care of her grandchildren while battling companies that are trying to turn her mansion into a mall. Usha is also secretly into women’s Hindi pulp erotica and is consumed by the fantasies in her latest book, Lipstick ke Sapne (Lipstick Dreams). Shireen Aslam (Konkona Sen Sharma) thoroughly enjoys (and excels) in her job as a door-to-door salesperson, but keeps her job hidden from her abusive husband. Leela (Ahana Kumra) works at a small beauty parlor, and has a big sexual appetite and big ambitions. Rehana Abidi (Plabita Borthakur) stitches burkhas for her family’s tailoring business while trying to balance her desires for western clothing, peer approval, and rock music. Every day she leaves her house in a burkha, but quickly ditches it in a public bathroom, showing up at college in jeans, and sneaking out to parties in shoplifted dresses and makeup.
The lives of these four characters are not overtly interlinked, but they intersect at crucial junctures where each woman quietly lends a helping hand to another. A fantastic narrative trope that the film employs is the contiguity of a voiceover narrating the sexual awakening of “Rosie” (the protagonist from Usha/Buaji’s racy fantasy erotica) with the everyday lives of the four women. Where do we draw the line between desires that are real, and those that are chimerical? The film is hardly replete with sex or titillation and has barely any nudity except a 30 second shot of a bare back. The little sex in the film (quick intercourse, and a bit of masturbation) is not looking to arouse.
So, what is it about Lipstick Under My Burkha’s representation of female desire that the Indian state found so terrifying? The relationship between censorship, sex, and “morality” in Indian cinema is rooted in patriarchy, so suffice to say that representations of female sexuality must be non-threatening. Lipstick Under My Burkha is a Bollywood film that shows how women’s aspirations take contradictory and conflicting forms. A somewhat absent yearning in the film is the one that has long dictated the narrative arcs of most female characters in Bollywood: the culmination/resolution of romance with a man through marriage. Make no mistake, the women in this film want romantic love and they have many romantic fantasies, but these remain steadfastly outside the ultimate end goal: husband. Leela, for instance, is entirely unafraid of sex and her voracity for it frightens the men she is involved with. Shireen longs for economic independence, trying hard to manage her ambitions within the skewed dynamics of an oppressive marriage. Three children and three abortions later, her husband has little concern for her reproductive health or choice.
The spaces of the home, and the politics of the family are presented as some of the most fraught and anxious domains women can inhabit. But the world outside is not a free fall into delicious independence either—as the young Rehana realizes, her “cool” college musician boyfriend who’s so into her because she’s the only other Led Zeppelin fan he’s spotted in Bhopal, is actually a creepy scumbag. The film, however, really soars in its depiction of the colorful desires of an aging woman and her bid to explore them IRL: Buaji in her long sleeved floral bathing suit dives straight for the virile young swimming coach with the six pack. Spaces in between the home and the outside world, like the neighborhood beauty parlor are wonderfully depicted as those tiny realms in a small town where women can find avenues for camaraderie and difficult confessions. As Leela says to Shireen while waxing her, “You know what our biggest problem is? We dream way too much.”
Things that provoke the greatest anxieties are often those that hit too close to home. Bollywood’s prudishness with sex is legendary—no kissing, nudity, or explicit sex scenes are included. The desires of the stereotypical female figures of Bollywood films (until almost the mid-2000s)—the virginal/sexually unaware heroine, the vamp, the Hindu wife, and the mother—only exist to serve the male protagonist and male audiences. In popular cinema, Indian women have largely been denied real and adult portrayals of their everyday lived desires and fantasies. Innuendo was the most common safe tactic: song-lyrics were often bursting with them. Even Slumdog Millionaire included a nod to this long tradition: the song “Ringa Ringa” is all about a “bed bug” crawling up a woman’s body when she’s unaware and asleep—tickling and caressing—while she tries to coyly fight it off (but somehow fails). Until the 1990s, women’s sexuality was often framed through a bizarre and childlike innocence: The heroine dances in the rain or bathes under a waterfall in a sheer white sari, entirely unaware of her body. Or her sexual desires are forever “budding”—with suggestive dialogues and song lyrics about flowers, bees, buds, seeds, etc. She would always “sing” (via a playback singer) in a sugary sweet, high-pitched adolescent voice. For instance, in the 1999 blockbuster film, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (I Have Given My Heart Away), the female protagonist asks her boyfriend if she will get pregnant if they kiss in the library.
In the last decade or so, the sex/sexual titillation slot has often been filled with the “item song” where a female actor is erotically displayed through a sexually charged dance number with “bold” lyrics. As Ratna Pathak Shah, one of the actors in Lipstick Under My Burkha, said in an interview, “In any case for women, sex is not easy. And here’s a film that’s telling you so. And that is disturbing.” Lipstick Under My Burkha steers clear of all of the usual tropes, including making older women simply mothers and aunts without sexual desires. While younger women might stray, and can be brought back into the moral folds of the patriarchal nation, older women are its foremost principled guardians. This is one of the few Bollywood films that explicitly delves into the sexual fantasies of the neighborhood Buaji. These kinds of characters are often presented as long suffering, prudish, or even sometimes formidable (if she’s a matriarch), but definitely without any sexual aspirations.
Lipstick Under My Burkha tries to rehabilitate women’s desires outside the hackneyed tactics of innocence, marriage/heterosexual partnership, and/or erotic spectacle. So unaccustomed is India’s censor board to such an quotidian narrative of female desire that the film, quite ironically, struck them as a “fantasy above life.” In fact, it is the film’s ability (and courage) to tap into the everydayness of female desire and the resilience of women’s dreams that makes it such a thoroughly enjoyable, darkly comic, and ultimately a radically “lady oriented” film that India urgently needs.