When Lipstick Under my Burkha first screened at the Mumbai Film Festival in the fall of 2016, it caused an uproar that elevated the film to an international scale. Director Alankrita Shrivastava presents an uncensored perspective of female sexual desire and scandal that strays from the demurely normative romances typically portrayed in mainstream Bollywood films.
Viewers become well acquainted with four women in Bhopal, the capital city of Madhya Pradesh. There’s Rehana, a college student who wears a burkha to appease her religious parents, but also uses it to fulfill her dream of looking like Miley Cyrus by stashing stolen cosmetics and apparel under its dark folds. Leela, a beautician, is in passionate love with her business partner, Arshad, while unwillingly planning for her loveless wedding to a good Muslim boy hand-picked by her family. Shireen is a burkha-wearing sales woman who hides her profession from her cold husband, but whose wit and strength is recognized by friends and coworkers alike. And there’s Usha, a widow known by all as Buaji (Aunty), whose lack of sexual gratification leads her to anonymously engage in erotic phone conversations with her swimming instructor—he, of course, thinks that he’s talking to a young woman from one of his classes. Each of the women’s strivings for liberation, erotic fulfillment, and agency are overlayed by Usha’s voice as she reads passages from a romance novel called Lipstick Dreams.
The film succeeds in not casting the blame of female oppression on religion or culture alone. Rather, the oppression of female sexuality is anchored in fears of economic ruin, threats to fragile masculinity, and most importantly—log kya kahein gey, what will people say? The film eschews a Western liberal ethos that would posit the burkha as oppressive. Instead, the womens’ multifaceted usages of the burkha are highlighted in their attempts to live more fully.
And finally, the lipstick that unites these women in their desire for sex, love, and life is symbolic not of a feminine femininity, but instead an unabashed solidarity that they can wear on their faces. Regardless of being seen by others or not, the lipstick is proof of their empowerment for themselves, and themselves alone.
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Noor Asif enjoys thinking and writing about art, film, and culture. She has a Master’s in Art History and hopes to continue to pursue studies of South Asian and diasporic visual culture and literature.