Lipstick Under My Burqa Or The Oppressed Muslim Women Of Bhopal

As if we needed more of that

Image: YouTube

Lipstick Under My Burqa didn’t go down too well with the Censor Board chairperson, Pahlaj Nihalani. He thought the film was too ‘lady-oriented’. After watching the film, it seemed to me that the correct critique would have been ‘burqa-as-a-sign-of-oppression and I-think-I’m-high-and-forgot-the-point-of-the-film-I’m-making.’ But then, one can’t expect Nihalani to think that. He is busy trivializing sexual harassment, no?

Not that bad but…

To be honest, the film is an earnest effort. The director [Alankrita Shrivastava] tried hard. She succeeded, to an extent in that it is a welcome respite from the usual Bollywood shit. The film is about four women. And that alone deserves an applause in our country.

The problem is that the director has resorted to usual Muslim stereotypes and Islamophobia to tell the tale of these four women. For the life of me, I can’t understand why she had to do that. Not getting it? Well, let’s delve. Into the film. Don’t worry, no spoilers, because it’s not a film based on twists in the plot. Nor on surprises. In fact, I still haven’t figured out what the film is based on.

Still from the film: YouTube

Lipstick or burqa

So there are these four women: Rihana, (Plabita Borthakur) Shireen, (Konkona Sen Sharma) Usha, (Ratna Pathak Shah) and Leela (Ahana Kumra). These women are bound by the patriarchal forces around them but are trying to break out of it in ways they can.

  • Rihana likes to sing.
  • Shireen likes to earn a living.
  • Usha wants to have sex or a male partner and
  • Leela likes to have sex with her boyfriend and later with her fiancée. And get out of Bhopal

Do you notice something strange here?

You might not, if you are extremely comfortable with Muslim stereotypes.

Muslim women are all oppressed. Yes, Usha is also scared of the other members of the family even when she seems to have money. But when it comes to the Muslim women, it’s as if they are battling with patriarchal forces from a different century. The males are abusive and families barbaric, much like the Hindu right wing view of Islam. Whyyyyyy!!! Even an aspiring child filmmaker has better ideas!


Rihana’s family makes a living by stitching burqas. She is a thief. That’s right. She does not like to wear a burqa when she goes to college, so she, as though it’s the most logical thing, steals clothes and shoes from shopping malls.

Are you serious? As if this country didn’t have enough of Islamophobia. You had to show a Muslim woman who steals and later gets arrested for it. Her (barbaric) Muslim parents are there in the film just to curtail her freedom. They stop her from going to college. She hooks up with a boy – Dhruv –  but when he finds out that she had been stealing, forgets how to speak. Yeah. He literally walks out of the frame and it seemed like he was saying ‘I don’t even know why I was put in this film.’ But really, why was he put in the film?


Shireen is the epitome of the oppressed Muslim woman stereotype. So conforming to those stupid notions,

  • Shireen’s husband works in Saudi Arabia
  • Shireen has three kids and everyone knows that she is always getting pregnant when she doesn’t want to. There is even a dialogue which asks ‘Do you want to do something in life other than making babies?’ All you, who go ahead with the Muslim families have too many children thing, do you have any kind of statistics to prove this? In fact, your leaders seem to be asking women to give birth to more and more children so that a Hindu nation can be built. Why hasn’t anyone made a film on one such family?
  • Her husband is a rapist. (Can’t be called that, I guess, because ha ha in this country marital rape is not rape and is sex, ha ha.)
  • Her husband sleeps with another woman.
  • Her husband is conservative. He doesn’t like his wife earning a living.
The Abusive Muslim Husband – A still from the film: YouTube

Usha and Leela

Usha is the eternally aunty-zoned woman. Since she is old (for women, 55 is ‘old’ in Bharat) and a widow, the general public can only imagine her as an aunt or an elder sister. Little do they know that women can have sexual desire at 55. In fact, little do they know that women can have sexual desire.

So Usha reads soft porn. She learns swimming in secret. She has phone sex with her swimming trainer.

Leela part is a little weird. Is she supposed to be a woman who likes to have sex or is she someone who wants to get out of her house? I am not sure if the director herself knows answers to these because till the end these questions are not resolved.

Women against women

This stereotype has found its way into a film that tries to break away from the conventional. Isn’t that just sad? I mean for ages, patriarchy has been telling us that we are our worst enemies, while the truth is that women being agents of patriarchy is part of patriarchy. [Read this really nice essay on the phenomenon where you will find what ‘patriarchal bargain’ is all about.] Surely, in 2017, when you are making a film, if you were to show how this sort of patriarchy happens, through women, you would have thought it relevant to show the psychology of it?

No, instead you have,

Women who

  • fight for the right to wear jeans [when in famous universities, the fight is to end moral policing, sexual harassment, atrocities against Dalits and Muslims] Nice job trivializing such struggles by students of the nation.
  • get jealous – this was the funniest part, really. I mean, first there is this guy by the name Dhruv, who is just there to say Led Zeppelin. Then there is this woman who is like ‘I’m either pregnant or drunk.’ [Question, can’t you be both at the same time?] We see that she is not too pleased when she sees Rihana and Dhruv in a relationship post on Facebook. Please also note that she was in a hospital in this scene. I think the director wanted people to note that. Later when Rihana gets caught by the police, this girl is like, ‘You understood how I got pregnant?’ What on earth! I mean how does that add up? Everybody knows how someone gets pregnant. If they don’t there is Google. It just doesn’t make any sense, her pregnancy, Rihana’s arrest and this Dhruv boy.
  • get jealous even when they are being abused by the man. Shireen finds out that her husband is cheating on her. Yes, in abuse people do behave in ways that are otherwise highly improbable, but the scene in which Shireen goes to the house of her husband’s second love/subject of abuse, and says a lot of sentences with sexual innuendos, that’s just too much male-talk.

The point

There is none. Art seeks to change. Art seeks to provoke. Yes, Pahlaj Nihalani did get provoked but come on, he is not the ideal target. The general public is. In the theatre, when Usha, the 55 year old woman wore a swimsuit, people giggled, just like the mean young women at the pool in the film. The idea, believe it or not, is to tell those mean girls and the audience like them, to call it quits and get a life. But does the film do that? Sure, all the women, harassed, beaten up, thrown out, assemble in the burqa tailor shop and smoke cigarettes but women’s empowerment does not happen through smoking. If that was the case, the next ban would be on cigarettes, duh!

For a film that talks a lot about the dreams that women have, shouldn’t there have been at least one that came true? Forget it. Maybe you didn’t want to give false hopes. But ever thought what people would take home with them after watching the film? Listen to this line from a review: ‘Lipsticks, in the film, are these desires while the patriarchal society is the Burkha.’ Really? If critics think this, imagine what the general public would. Next time, can you please find a befitting symbol of patriarchy, like a dick? The thing that men think gives the right to oppress women? Just give it a thought. Radical, ain’t it?

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