KOLKATA: Should an Indian woman of 55, who lost her family in the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, read soft porn pulp novels?

Yes, according to Alankrita Srivastava’s out-of-the-box film Lipstick Under My Burkha. But “no” according to the Central Board of Film Certification. It did not like the use of “audio pornography” and cuss words by women characters apart from intimate scenes of sex.

The film idels about how, even in a small-time city like Bhopal, with a mixed population of Hindus and Muslims living in harmony, four women are forced to lead double lives filled with a string of lies because of the socially conditioned patriarchal pressures they are oppressed by. These zero in mainly on their sexual fantasies and personal choices – in forms of dress, in choosing a profession she likes, in wanting to build a career and so on.

Whoever heard of Indian women of varying ages, faiths and cultures deciding to be subjects of sex instead of objects to satiate the fantasies of the men in the film and in the audience? This is precisely what sets Lipstick Under my Burkha apart from most of contemporary feminist statements on celluloid. It is scathingly honest, it is sometimes scary, and it is a lot of fun too.

The humour is as naturally structured into the script as is the satire and the scathing attack on the double standards of morality forced on intelligent, talented, spunky and creative women. You writhe in anger and you laugh at the double entendres. You are pained and then, you are happy when they are.

Strange that the CBFC has no problems with females performing sensual and sizzling item numbers with a male audience ogling at them, whistling, making cat-calls and even trying to feel them up. But make the woman the subject and all hell breaks loose. The bright colours that flash right through the film add to the spirit of the women, the earthy ambience of the neighbourhood and the colours of the city dotted generously with tall skyscrapers and shopping malls rubbing shoulders with the spirals of a masjid, the domes of a temple and old mansions like Hawa Mahal.

At the same time, it functions like another larger veil (burkha) that cleverly hides the pain of these four women. It also juxtaposes their pain and their grief against the joie de vivre of Diwali that is round the corner. The Bhopal setting gives the film a different feeling as we are not very familiar with the ambience and the life in this city.

The beautiful Leela (Aahana Kumra), who is love with the neighbourhood photographer Arshad (Vikrant Massey), is obsessed more by the sexual encounters they have inside bathrooms, or nooks and corners of the ancestral mansion owned by Buaji (Ratna Pathak Shah) than by thoughts of marriage.

Rehana (Plabita Barthakur) is a very young and sweet college girl who goes to college covered in a black burkha that veils the tight jeans and tees she wears underneath and changes to in the washroom. Her strategy for entertaining herself includes a bit of clever shot-lifting. Her parents run a tailoring outfit in burkhas and the only words they exchange with her are rebukes and orders. She aspires to be a pop singer fond of Zeppelin and dreaming of becoming another Miley Cyrus yet shyly joins the student group screaming against the ban on jeans in the college.

Shirin (Konkoa Sen Sharma) is a burkha-clad saleswoman with an excellent flair for sales. She is forced to do all this clandestinely because her husband (Sushant Singh), who uses her literally like a sex machine while he also has fun with another woman on the side, has come back from Dubai and is out of work. He assaults her with sex and rapes her every night while she slaves it out during the day and has to take care of three little boys, the others having been given up in a series of forced abortions. She loves her work but hates her husband. Yet, is caged within a prison called ‘marriage.’

Buaji is the central character because she is also the narrator reading out passages from a soft-porn novel aptly titled Lipstick Dreams with a sexy protagonist named Rosy. Alankrita Srivastava is one among the 9.1% women directors and 12.1% women writers in Indian cinema. She makes no bones about making her film one of the most outstanding social satires cloaked with a generous dose of sex in different forms emanating mainly from the four women.

Buaji has so deeply internalised her collective identity that she has to think before she can recollect her original name, Usha Parmar. She fancies the bicep revealing male eye-candy at the swimming pool and begins a secret telephonic conversation with him calling herself Rosy. The macho young man with more brawn than brains takes the female voice to be one of the shapely young female pupils in the swimming pool.

They all live in different rental flats inside Hawa Mahal which Buaji owns and is reluctant to hand over to real estate promoters. In fact, they all identify with the fictional character of Rosy in different forms; full of dreams to better their lives and live life on their own terms instead of living behind invisible bars of a prison not of their making.

The acting is brilliant and the only ‘good’ man is Leela’s very decent and gentlemanly fiancé who somewhat tries to lighten the evils of the rest of the men in the film. The music is good but the songs on the soundtrack could have been lesser than they are. The one drawback the film has lies in its inordinate footage that runs into 118 minutes of screening time which could have been edited by at lest 15 minutes to sustain the electric charisma of the drama.

The lipstick and the burkha are used as multi-layered metaphors in the film by one of the youngest women directors in Indian cinema. Lipstick has become one of the most widely used cosmetics since Cleopatra first stained her lips with carmine in 69 B.C.

"Even women who don't wear makeup wear lipstick," write Meg Cohen Ragas and Karen Kozlowski in Read My Lips: A Cultural History of Lipstick. Often referred to as hope in a tube, lipstick has captivated women (and men) since the earliest rosy stains forever linked lipstick and women's lips with femininity and sexuality. The film’s poster is imaginatively and boldly anchored on a female hand with the fingers outstretched, the middle finger replaced with an open lipstick.

The burkha, originally invented to restrict the visibility of women to the outer world and their mobility too, has another edge. Srivastava brings this across with the right dose of irony and humour. If the burkha invests women with confinement of different kinds, it also offers them the opportunity to express their emotions through facial gestures others cannot see. They can frown, smile, tease, grimace, stick their tongues out, or show their middle finger and even laugh silently under the cover of the burkha and no one would know.

A reprimand, an insult, could go unpunished because these are invisible. They could even take voyeuristic delight by sneaking peaks at other men without anyone knowing. On the other hand, they can shed silent tears of pain, of suffering, of helplessness, of loss because loud wailing is rendered needless.

Women who are not constrained by the burkha are constrained by the same limitations of movement and choice and dictation and any violation of the patriarchal expectation is severely dealt with.

This enforced invisibility, in the shape of a burkha, or, painting one’s lips with a lipstick unknown to the immediate family, for women who need not wear the burkha is also violence. Is the burkha a ghetto patriarchy has designed for women? Is it to ‘protect’ their women from the ‘dangers’ lurking in the world outside? Or is it one way of asserting ‘property rights’ over mother, wife, daughter and sister? Is it a political strategy to keep them within confines so that other men do not see them and they do not set eyes on men beyond the immediate family? Or, is it a form of protection for the men who, consciously or otherwise, feel threatened by the women who had mothered them, or slept with them, or looked up to them as father, brother, husband or son? Is it a form of first appropriating and then encroaching into their space – geographically, morally, emotionally?

“Our mistake is that we keep on dreaming and holding on to them,” says a frustrated Leela as she puffs on her cigarette while Usha Parmar picks up the shreds of the last three pages of her favourite book Lipstick Dreams and reads out the contents while the other three women listen and laugh away and try to cope with their dreams. The closing scenes remind us of Jafar Panahi’s brilliant The Circle (2000) which bagged several awards, including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival but is banned in Iran. Et tu, Mr. Pehlaj Nihalani? Words like “sizzle” and “sex” and “sensual” are exclusively for men. Really?