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The Madhya Pradesh tourism department advertisement invites potential visitors: “Hindustan ka dil dekho (Come see the heart of India)”. Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha does just that, taking us to the heart of Bhopal and of four women — two Hindu; two Muslim — and the desires that take root there. Only two of these women, Shireen (Konkona Sen Sharma) and Rihanna (Plabita Borthakur) actually don the burkha; for Buaji alias Usha (Ratna Pathak) and Leela (Aahana Kumra) the burkha is a metaphor for the social restrictions they have to conform to. Much as wearing lipstick is a metaphor for their unfulfilled desires and aspirations (A nod to Satyajit Ray’s 1963 classic Mahanagar?).
Watching the film last Friday at a multiplex in south Delhi, I was a tad amazed to see a full house. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk had also released on the same day, and Sridevi-starrer Mom was still going strong. This was quite likely the effect of how Ms Shrivastava’s film, produced by Prakash Jha, had run the gauntlet of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) earlier this year, which had refused to clear it. In its justification, the CBFC, chaired by Pahlaj Nihalani, had said the “women in the film are shown in bad light, particularly targeting women of certain community which might hurt sentiments.” Following this, Mr Jha and Ms Shrivastava had appealed to the Film Certificate Appellate Tribunal, which cleared Lipstick... with 11 cuts and advised the CBFC to give it an “A” certificate.
I also wondered why the film had been refused certification in the first place. Yes, it has some sex scenes, and some cuss words, but nothing we have not seen or heard before on the silver screen in India. The film is well-made, the script is tight, the issues it deals with are pressing, the acting is very good, and it does push the envelope considerably. But, surely as far as feminist films in India go, its edginess is not a shade on The Bandit Queen (1994), or Fire (1996), or Bawandar (2000), or Water (2005). (All these films had also sailed into troubled waters with the censor board.) Lipstick... funny and sad; but definitely not revolutionary as far as dealing with its central subject — women’s desire.
Mr Pahalani himself is no stranger to women’s desire, though its depiction in his own films can only be ascribed the adjective “lewd”. His 1993 film, Aankhen had Shilpa Shirodkar inviting Govinda with the wildly popular song “Khet gaye baba, bajaar gayee ma; aleki hu ghar ma, tu aaja balma (Father has gone to the fields; mother to the bazaar; I’m alone at home; come over sweetheart). Another film, Andaaz (1994), had Juhi Chawla urging her husband, played by Anil Kapoor, “Yeh maal gaadi mujhe dhakka laga (Push the freight car.)” What problem a board led by him could have with a more subtle film beats comprehension.
Of course, prudishness about sex continues to be a persistent problem in this country, but here is some data to show how the times are changing. Though Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code prohibits the sale, distribution, possession, and circulation of obscene objects — defined as “object, shall be deemed to be obscene if it is lascivious or appeals to the prurient interest” — the sexual wellness sector is growing at a rate of about 35 per cent since 2014, according to a report by market research firm TechNavio. This will continue till 2019. The market size is about $227.8 million; the global market is about $22 billion. Clearly, Indians are more having sex, whether they confess to it or not.
The real transgression in Lipstick...’s narrative was not the sex — but in the depiction of a harmonious social fabric which is fast disappearing all over India. (The CBFC makes no mention of this, so one must assume this had no bearing on its decision.) At Hawa Manzil, the house owned partly by Ushaji where all the other characters are tenants, is a sort of mini-India, where Hindus and Muslims are nonchalant neighbours, participating in each other’s weddings and festivals. The climax of the film is on the night of Diwali, where people from both communities take part in equal enthusiasm, reminding one of the Ganga-Yamuna tehzeeb, or culture of communal harmony, which was the mainstay of Hindi cinema till very recently, finding its most successful representation in Amar Akbar Anthony (1977).
In her article "Bollywood and the business of secularism" (The Hindu, April 16, 2017), Sohini Chattopadhyay argues, “Despite its Amar Akbar Anthony halo, the film industry’s secular credentials appear shaped more by commerce than ideology.” Her arguments are forceful and the examples she provides are undeniable: For instance, the three Khans (Shah Rukh, Aamir and Salman) have mostly played Hindu characters, even when they do act as Muslims on screen, their characters lack different shades; that famous Muslim stars of yesteryears invariably took on Hindu names — Yusuf Khan became Dilip Kumar; Mumtaz Jaan Dehalvi became Madhubala, and Mahjabeen Bano turned into Meena Kumari.
All this is true, but it ignores the fact the primary motive of communalism is always commerce. The architects of communally polarised societies are motivated not by any intrinsic hatred for the other; on the contrary, they invent the hatred to justify their commercial purposes. So what harm is there if Bollywood’s secularism is prompted by its own commercial desires? In fact, in our times, when religion has become such a belligerently contested space, what better motivation to sustain a culture of secularism if not commerce and economic well-being? A film like Lipstick... is proof of the pudding.