After a delay of seven months for the most arbitrary reasons (thank you, Censor Board), the much awaited film Lipstick Under My Burkha has finally hit the theatres. Fortunately, it does not disappoint. It clearly articulates the unfreedoms of women in both Hindu and Muslim families. It deserves applause for boldly discussing the sexuality of women. However, the movie is not as "lady-oriented" as the CBFC accused it to be; it is a sharp mirror meant for all of society. Not only women but men too need to watch it. There is much to reflect on, realise and react to.
We alone shall have agency over our bodies and sexualities; nobody else can dictate what we must wear or do.
I argue that there is a lot to the film beyond the discussions and portrayals of sexuality. Be it the young Rehana Abidi who steals from showrooms under her burkha or the old Ushaji who is inspired by the fictional character of Rosie (from an erotic novel called "Lipstick Wale Sapne") and joins a swimming class, there is a reason why these women resort to such extreme ways. The viewer cannot blame the characters for behaving in certain ways which might be construed by some as immoral; they are compelled to because they are victims of the patriarchy that is so firmly engrained in their family, colony and community. Rehana steals expensive apparel and accessories because her parents do not allow her to wear anything but a burkha. Shireen continues to work as a saleswoman despite her husband's objections because she finds it difficult to run the house with his paltry income. Despite being committed to her boyfriend, Leela agrees to marry Manoj because he purchases a house for her mother. Buaji flirts with her young swimming coach over the phone and masturbates because her widowhood has condemned her to desexualisation and solitude.
These women are not wrong; it is their reaction against how they are treated by society. The strong bond among the four protagonists reinforces the need for all women to unite and understand each other's concerns before expecting society to do so. When Buaji feels embarrassed and avoids being caught buying a swimming costume for herself, Shireen is understanding and helps her choose the most suitable one. Further, when Shireen visits Leela's spa, the latter sympathises with her for having a husband who doesn't love her. Towards the end while the swimming coach informs Buaji's family that she had been flirting with him all along, she is thrown out of the house. Shireen, Leela and Rehana take her inside Rehana's house and they all laugh over the erotica Buaji had been reading. None of these women judges the other. They empathise and encourage each other to continue dreaming.
We embrace our femininities and are not ashamed of it. We are Rosie but not without the thorns for those who cannot respect us.
Shireen's strained relationship with her husband characterises a lot of marriages in India. He cheats upon her and forbids her from being financially independent. He quarrels with her even during intercourse. Neither does he love the children. Shireen longs for love, appreciation and warmth which she never gets from her husband. On the other hand, Ushaji seems to have forgotten her own name as she is "Buaji" for the entire community. She is never perceived as someone with her own dreams, imagination, and wishes. She cannot tell anyone that she is off to her swimming class and hides her costume in her bag.
The essence is simple but not simplistic—there is a Rosie in each one of us. The more we are controlled and restricted, the more we shall rebel, sometimes in the most extreme ways. We alone shall have agency over our bodies and sexualities; nobody else can dictate what we must wear or do. We want to be equal partners in marriage and sex, not just comfort cushions or machines for procreation. Dear society, we no longer want to wear our lipstick under the burkha you have imposed upon us for centuries. We embrace our femininities and are not ashamed of it. We are Rosie but not without the thorns for those who cannot respect us.