This happened in 2007. I was an undergraduate student in Delhi University and took up a part-time job. I was hired to assist a young female filmmaker who was making a documentary on college festivals. We were at a prestigious college shooting for the film. At some point in the evening, I found myself beside a constable of the Delhi Police.
He was staring at the woman directing the film as she smoked a cigarette. The cop turned to me and said: “Yeh to cigarette peeti hai, araam se deti hogi, kyun (She smokes! She must be very open to having sex, no)?"
Undoubtedly, that left me aghast. But my interactions with police officers and other "common" men afterwards often tested the limits of my disgust.
One of highlights worth mentioning was the time while I was watching Anushka Sharma-starrer NH 10 in an almost empty theatre in Patna.
The few members of the audience, mostly men, cheered as Anushka’s character was being beaten by men. They laughed every time she was abused or degraded. Then, as the end approached, Anushka’s character, after busting some balls, lit a cigarette on the screen and a voice from the back of the theatre screamed, "saali, randi (bitch, slut)".
So, it was unsurprising that when we were coming out from the theatre after watching Lipstick Under My Burkha last weekend, I overheard a man telling his wife/partner, “kya rikshawalon waali film thi”, which roughly translates to the film being meant for rickshaw-pullers, a comment as classist/sexist as it can get.
That man and many other men like him were definitely irked by the unhinged display of female sexual desire in the film. Also, as I had already seen, there is something about women smoking that deeply disturbs men.
Men don’t mind the sex itself. So much so, that even during scenes of marital rape and sexual assault, they giggled and laughed out aloud. That there was something wrong in what was happening on the screen was a point beyond them.
I am sure some of them might have even identified with the man on the screen.
The stories of male ego, the obsession with being the decision-maker, the assumed right to morally judge women, are all reflections of the misogynistic and patriarchal society that we live in.
It also highlights how women who express their sexual desires are often treated by men. Lipstick Under My Burkha is a timely and well-made film that reflects what plagues our society.
It is pertinent yet something we are not ready to confront. For these reasons, it becomes a very important film of our times.
As for the craft itself, the film stands out in all aspects. It is a very well-made film, one that has good actors at the top of their game. The characters are well-written and each brings a different dimension to the film.
The desires of "buaji" resonate with a generation that still spends its time finding themselves in stories of Hindi magazines. Leela is fierce and confident. It is heartening to see her desires and aspirations fighting with egos of men all around her. Shireen’s life is lived in many households across India.
Across religions, across class, women are stopped from working outside while decisions about sex and reproduction are often forced on them by husbands and families.
Rehana’s life is the testimony to the struggle between morality and modernity, customs and aspirations. Around these women are men, men who are blinded by patriarchy, with ideas of morality, and their own egos.
They do everything to kill their dreams. Nonetheless, these women survive, as do their dreams, in a small room full of smoke and conversations.
Unsurprisingly, many women have watched the film and fallen in love with it. Some even took their mothers or women of the older generation with them and most of them have come out identifying with some part of the film or the other.
Many men have also come out on social media and expressed their appreciation of the film. Of course, most men and the society guarded by them will continue to express their disgust or their displeasure at films like Lipstick.
There is only one way to change that. Make more films like Lipstick Under My Burkha.
We need more films in which women express their desires. In which, women have the choice over their bodies and their lives. As the CBFC chief puts it, "lady-oriented" films.
As more and more men watch these movies, there are bound to be conversations around gender, gender roles, relationships and aspirations.
Words have the power to demolish the patriarchal society which works to oppress women of all class, colour and religion.
It’s time we speak up through films, on social media and in person.