Lipstick… Should it have made it to the screens at all?

BY MANJULAA| IN Opinion | 29/07/2017
Do filmmakers like Alankrita Shrivastava have the maturity to decide what their audiences will watch as Shabana Azmi contends,

 still from Alankrita Shrivastava's Lipstick under my Burkha


Shabana Azmi says that the American system of censorship is preferable to the current British system that our Central Board of Film Certification follows. According to recent news reports, “It’s so wrong to call CBFC the Censor Board in the first place,” says Azmi. “It is here to certify films; censoring any scene is not its prerogative. Instead we should adopt the American system, whereby filmmakers themselves yield and decide that they don't want a single cut but they realise that age appropriate behaviour is important.” She has been saying so for several years but no one seems to be listening. Just as well because if indeed they did, we’d be in a lot of trouble vis avis the kind of cinema that we get to watch.

Take the case of the recently released Lipstick under my Burkha. The CBFC had denied it certification for its “continuous sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society”, but then the FCAT overruled CBFC allowing the film an ‘A’ certificate after “voluntary and some additional cuts and deletions”. Alankrita Shrivastava’s second film is a difficult film to sit through. Not because it is particularly esoteric or exceptionally brilliant cinema which transports you to higher realm of thought processes, but because it has been over-hyped and when it fails to deliver, you come home trying to make sense of the disappointment.

Lipstick… is a film that brings to fore four women who in different stages of their lives want to live life on their terms and do so in the manner and fashion only they know how but by the end, their boundaries are set for them – ironically enough, by men!

So Ratna Pathak Shah is this 55-year old Usha Buaji, a stern matriarch who publicly commands those around her but leads a secret private life, fearing social ridicule in case someone finds out that she longs for sexual fulfillment - a craving she satiates initially by reading Mills & Boons and later by having phone sex with her swimming coach; College going kid Rihanna Abidi (played by Plabita Borthakur) habitually steals things like lipsticks, shoes and other personal items from showrooms in malls, apparently justified in her actions because her strict Muslim parents will not allow her any freedom to live the way she wants. So it is the burkha for her and the claustrophobic life that it defines. She lives a double life, sneakily stitching sexy party wear and college casuals while helping stitch burkhas as part of the family income and using her creations to party late nights and wearing a different persona in college.

Then there is the scheming and two timing beautician Leela (a feisty Aahana Kumra) who makes out with her boyfriend and films the act, on the night of her engagement to another man. Nothing morally wrong with that (our filmmaker will have you believe) because she sees her boyfriend as a ticket to freedom to a bigger city and better life rather than the drudgery and stability that a possible husband might provide in the small town she lives. Finally there is a nearly 30, Shireen Aslam (Konkona Sen Sharma) the breadwinner for her family comprising a Saudi-returned jobless, philanderer and chauvinistic husband and three young boys. Subjected to marital rape every night Shireen prefers to take morning after pills to avoid more pregnancies, rather than resist and get beaten up. She leads a double life too by secretly stepping out to earn bread as a sales girl in a company but is unable to tell her husband about it. All of them rebel in their own small ways and thus far the going seems good.  


Sexual overtones and reinforcing patriarchal thought

The chinks appear when you realize that all there is - by way of ‘expression’ or ‘suppression’, is sexual in tone. There is Rihanna who loves all things forbidden and who finds herself a casual boyfriend and is open to sharing the night with him after a party, returning home surreptitiously at dawn. Usha ends up having phone sex with her coach while pretending to be ‘Rosie’- the 20-something heroine of her fictitious story. Then there is Leela who is openly aggressive when it comes to casual sex – so much so that one night she steals into her boyfriend’s crowded family quarters demanding to have sex with him in his bathroom whereupon he snubs her saying, ‘Sex, sex sex.. All you want is sex. There are four others outside. Should I call them in?’

"Surely there is more to life than finding expression only through sexual satiation – either of the mind or body"


The film’s feminist thread starts coming apart when Usha’s boyfriend not only ditches her but does so without according her dignity,  and by humiliating her in front of her folks when he finds out who she is, saying, ‘Tum kabhi Rosie ho hi nahi sakti’ (You can never be Rosie) and her family throws out her stuff while abusing her – as though it’s a crime that a 55-year old is fantasising. Also when Leela decides to make peace with her fiancé after realizing that her boyfriend is using her even though he makes a half-hearted attempt to make her stay by offering to elope; and when Rihanna is handed over to cops for her illegal activities and later meekly goes home with her father, after being duly chastised. Shireen is physically suppressed by a bigoted man who when he finds out she has got a promotion screws her happiness (literally and figuratively that night) telling her to quit her job and stay at home. “Aurat ho… shauhar banne ki koshish mat karo.” (You are a woman. Don’t try and be a husband). One is not sure if Shireen returns to her job.

As a woman I fully appreciate the context Shrivastava builds and the small town India in which the film’s story is placed – Bhopal in this case. And why just small town India, fact remains that sexual repression in our society is rampant. That women can be sexually aggressive and openly expressive is not a thought that men  from the best of financial and social strata even acknowledge, let alone allow.

But Lipstick… would have turned out to be a different film if the women’s lives had changed or even moved towards that end. Even if it were left open-ended, it would have been brave but it closes on a note that reinforces patriarchal thought. The last shot of the film sees the four seated in a room, sharing a cigarette while reading Rosie’s story and laughing about the fantasy they all are a part of. It doesn’t give me the feeling of being liberated - merely the thought that men have yet again been allowed to get away with it.


Visual Treatment

Another aspect is that, cinema is not always about explicit minutiae, it also lies in subtleties. The issue here is not that the women are feisty and determined to live their lives. But why must the expression of that liberation be showcased in sexual overtones? Don’t get me wrong. I have no issues with sexual candidness and graphic scenes which celebrate a woman’s desires. But surely there is more to life than finding expression only through sexual satiation – either of the mind or body.


Indian audiences not ready

While the critics may laud the efforts of the filmmakers, the fact remains that the audience it is meant for, is just not ready to accept the crudity with which the sensitive matter has been highlighted. Women being sexually aggressive in the privacy of homes maybe a reality in our country but putting it up there on 35 mm screens is still not our society’s idea of public entertainment. Also, despite an ‘A’ rating, exhibitors have set aside ‘Women Only’ shows for the film. When was the last time you remember film shows being segregated based on gender? This is because families and even middle-aged married couples are finding it difficult to watch the film together! I know of families who went with their adult daughters to watch Lipstick… and ended up squirming before walking out halfway.

"In a society battling rape and molestation cases is it right to take away imagination completely and replace it with in-your-face visuals?"


Males members of the audience smirked and laughed when Leela went to her boyfriend’s house and said, ‘sex toh kar le’ (at least have sex with me) and he rebuffs her with a crude remark of bringing in some more men. That she slaps him for it and is slapped back didn’t help matters. ‘She deserves it’, was a remark I overheard. Forget other women, I wanted to wipe that smirk off with a slap of my own. Are our men ready for this? Doesn’t look like it. The larger picture is more dangerous. In a society battling rape and molestation cases (with statistics quoting one case in every 4 minutes in Delhi) is it right to take away imagination completely and replace it with in-your-face visuals? Sexual repression maybe the most obvious form of subjugation in a male dominated society but the onus of making it aesthetically presentable and yet communicating your point lies squarely with the director.


International audiences are different

As a festival film coming from India, Shrivastava’s hard work will no doubt be considered a very brave effort. But garnering acclaim in international film festivals is a different ball game since those audiences are exposed to a different kind of cinema. For instance, semi-nude women masturbating while having phone sex is acceptable behaviour (on and off screen) and it will not raise eyebrows. But here, it will likely send out the wrong signals.



Why Aesthetics is Important

As an example of aesthetic excellence while showcasing nudity, all you need to do is watch the French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Lover (1992). Set in Indochina of 1929, the film details an illicit affair between a teenage French girl and a much older, rich Chinese man. Featuring Jane March as the  teenager and Tony Leung as her lover, the film is a fluid, compelling montage of what a relationship can be. Though it has frontal male and female nudity apart from several love-making scenes, the physical proximity of the protagonists and its expression in cinematic prose can only be described as sheer poetry in motion.

"Sexual repression maybe the most obvious form of subjugation in a male dominated society but the onus of making it aesthetically presentable and yet communicating your point lies squarely with the director."


Closer home, take the case of Sridevi’s Mom, which deals with gang rape and the trauma it can lead to. Visuals of a large black car moving silently across empty city roads in the middle of the night, after a young girl is kidnapped, are menacing and haunt you long after. As audience you imagine the worst as the camera follows the car and gasp when the girl is thrown out into a ditch, half dead. It reminds you of a December night not so long ago right in the heart of Delhi which left the nation numb and outraged simultaneously. The power of cinema can never be undermined even when it is suggestive.

Some may argue that the context in Lipstick… demands a different treatment but my contention is aesthetics - the purpose of which is to invite you to relate to the protagonists and their travails, not shun them because of overt vulgarity. It’s not about taking a prudish stand in this day and age of internet penetration and exposure. It’s about whether you are mature enough to know whether your society is ready for it yet.


Box-Office Collection

But don’t take my word for it. The proof that Lipstick… may not be going down well with audiences lies at the box-office. Made on a budget of INR 12 crore it has barely recovered about 10 crores on day eight of its release. In these days of social media and quick word-of-mouth, where films break even and go beyond on day one, Lipstick… is inching towards a break even. If Ms Azmi’s suggestion were to be taken seriously, does a Shrivastava have the maturity to decide how prepared her audience is? Apparently not. 


The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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