Man has this intrinsic sense to rebel when he is pushed to the precipice. History has told this time and again. When Queen Antoinette asked her subjects in the closing years of 1700 to eat cake if there was no bread, the impoverished French rose in revolt, and in the ensuing bloody uprising, she lost her life, her head placed on the guillotine in October 1793.
In a way, I was reminded of man's rebellious streak when the other day Ekta Kapoor's Balaji Motion Pictures released what seemed like a damning poster for the upcoming movie, Lipstick Under My Burkha (Lipstick Waale Sapne). The visual shows a middle finger cocking with a slogan: It takes balls to be a woman.
The graphic picture and the message are being seen as mocking the Central Board of Film Certification – which delayed granting screening permission to Alankrita Shrivastava's riveting Lipstick Under My Burkha, a tale of four women living in Bhopal. It will open on July 21 after a very long and exhausting fight the director had to put up.
The board was determined to maul the movie, and finally after Shrivastava petitioned the tribunal, Lipstick Under My Burkha was allowed to be exhibited with an adults-only tag and a few so-called voluntary cuts, which the helmer had to agree to.
And Balaji Pictures has come out with a second trailer which is as provocative – tracing the sexual repression of four Bhopal women.
I saw the work at the end of 2016 at the Tokyo International Film Festival, and found nothing remotely objectionable in it. Come on, look at the sadistic violence that is allowed, for instance, in Tamil cinema today.
The other day, I watched Uru, where the husband and wife get into such a vicious bout of fight. They literally brutalise each other, and the scenes of their blood-soaked bodies are just nightmarish. Yet, Uru walked away with a UA certificate, which means anybody above 12 can watch along with parents. (In any case, certification is meaningless, for many theatres look the other way when children walk into adult-only shows, desperate as they are to sell tickets in the face of rising costs and dwindling footfalls.)
Lipstick Waale Sapne has nothing, nothing of this sort, no graphic violence, no graphic sex either. Yet it was given a hard time – only because I suspect the movie's four women dared to dream, dared to liberate themselves from the suffocating shackles of male dominance. They were admirably gutsy, and conveyed in no uncertain terms that the freedom to think and act could not be the birthright of the male of the human species.
And here is a look at their dreams. Beautiful Rehana (essayed by Plabita Borthakur) hails from a family of tailors, goes to college and is enamoured of all things feminine. She cannot of course buy them, but she can steal, and shoplifts with a devil-may-care confidence hidden beneath a veneer of disarming innocence. And she does this only, only to win a place among her snooty college peers and a boyfriend, who eventually turns out to be a cad when she is caught.
The second woman in Shrivastava's celluloid world is Leela (Aahana Kumra) – who when forced into a marriage with a man she abhors, takes advantage of a brief power outage on the day of her engagement to have a quickie with her photographer-boyfriend. Clearly an act of defiance against her parents, against a society that pushes women into the darkest of spots. But her story has a happy end.
Not, though, Shirin's (Konkana Sen Sharma), who has three little sons and a husband. He treats his wife with unimaginable brutality, forcing Shirin to go through a series of induced abortions. He will not use a condom, for that will rob him of his pleasure. So what, in the process, his wife has to suffer pain and humiliation and her doctor's displeasure. What is even worse, the husband blows a fuse when Shirin finds out about his mistress, and he stops her from working as a salesgirl. Shrivastava lays bare a man's hypocrisy with honesty.
The fourth woman in the narrative is a 55-year-old widow, Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah) – a darling of the “mohalla”. Addressed reverentially as “Bhuvaji” (aunt), she loves reading pulp fiction, and when she meets a handsome swimming coach, she begins to fantasise about him. She telephones him and pretends to be a character from one of the romantic novels she has read. Usha becomes Rosy, has phone sex with the coach – and clings on to the hope that she would find romance by the pool. But tragedy strikes her one day, when the truth is out in the open, and Usha finds herself on the streets, having been mercilessly forced out of her house and abandoned by her essentially male neighbours – who perhaps owed their very home and hearth to her. The coach, who was instrumental in letting the cat out of the bag, slinks away.
Lipstick Under My Burkha is one of the most interesting works I have seen in recent months, and it provokes – not titillates – us into thinking about an India where women, despite all the trappings of a modern society, continue to be bullied by men.
Most women suffer in silence. But some like Leela are gutsy enough to rebel and run away. The ones like Rehana slip into slime – desperate as they are to be accepted and loved. The Shirins of the country fight a losing battle, trying to exert their right as a wife, while Usha can only find respect and societal acceptance as an elderly aunt. And if she dares to dream of love and warmth, she is shamed and shunned – perhaps much in the same way that windows in ancient times were!