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When Bollywood veteran Ratna Pathak Shah essayed the role of a 55-year-old widow who reads erotic pulp fiction, often referred to as buaji, she brought to screen a rarely discussed topic — of a middle-aged woman with sexual desires. Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha was screened as part of The Indian Express Film Club at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi last week. The critically-acclaimed film won the Gender Equality Award at Mumbai Film Festival and accolades at the international film circuit.
At the discussion post the screening, Bhavdeep Singh Chadha, a social media freelancer, said, “I remember reading Mills and Boon during my school days. My little sister had given them to me. I also read Fifty Shades of Grey in college. But it is considered wrong when women read such books. Maybe the problem is in the way society thinks.” Responding to his observation, Shubhra Gupta, The Indian Express film critic, said, “Yes, Ratna Pathak Shah plays the role of Usha, a woman who is in her 50s and hides and reads such books. But the moment her relatives barge into her room and discover these books, they say, ‘Ye kya ashleel kitabein hain?’ But what is cheap in this? This is the rightest thing ever.”
Set in a small neighbourhood in Bhopal, the film produced by Prakash Jha, revolves around four women between the age group of 18 and 55. There’s the middle-aged Usha Parmar, who wishes to learn swimming and falls in love with her swimming instructor. Then there is the young beautician Leela who runs a beauty parlour and wants to travel the world with her lover. An ardent fan of Miley Cyrus, college fresher Rehana Abidi, in charge of sewing burkhas at her family store, takes off her burkha and transforms into a jeans-wearing student in college, without the knowledge of her parents. Lastly, there is the burkha-wearing housewife Shireen Aslam, a mother of three, working as a door-to-door salesgirl behind her husband’s back. Her dominating husband prevents her from using contraceptives, which pushes her to emergency contraceptive pills and abortions.
The film ran into trouble with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). It was refused a release in January last year for its explicit scenes, abusive words and audio pornography, which Shrivastava described as “an assault on women’s rights”. Gupta said, “It is a film and a treatment that we haven’t really seen in Indian cinema. If women laugh too loudly, people will look at them. If they breathe too deeply, people will look at their chest. From the time a girl grows up, she’s told, ‘Aise mat karo’. We don’t hear, do this. This is one way of articulating it.”
Talking about the message in the movie, Janhavi Shah, a student from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University, said, “The movie was a process that the director wanted us to see about four women, their lives and the men they were involved with. Protest is a very luxurious word. Not every woman from every background can come and protest on the streets. I can turn up on the streets and it would be a headline in the paper the next day. I have that luxury but not those who can’t even turn up for themselves. For example, Konkona Sen playing Shireen took up a job without her husband’s consent. That was a sign of protest and empowerment.”