Beneath the Veil – Lipstick Under My Burkha and Debates around the Uniform Civil Code (UCC): Debaditya Bhattacharya and Rina Ramdev


*Disclaimer: Even as news pours in of Pahlaj Nihalani’s ouster as CBFC chief, consider this essay an earnest tribute to the man who is ‘alleged’ to have beeped sense out of Indian cinema. We repeat, merely ‘alleged’ – since we go on to prove otherwise.*

Let us start out with a basic methodological premise – that forms and effects of ideological mensuration cannot exhaust the life of cinema, or even be adequate to an understanding of the ways in which a film-text lives. To that extent, the ferocious debates around how much or how little of Lipstick Under My Burkha qualifies as feminist material have only generated a fair share of readings. While acknowledging the need and value of these aligned readings, we would also urge a look at cinema’s ‘coming into being’ as something more than an image or a text or a performative medium. Often, in our haste for neat hermeneutic closures, reading a film as cognitive-critical material could tend to a negation of the very relationship between the cinematic object and the everyday. The site of a film’s meaning is necessarily in excess of its narrative unfolding as viewing experience. It lies in the negotiations of its object-world – which includes the plot, the actors, the techniques of representation, the exhibition-settings, the infrastructures of distribution and marketing strategies, discourses around its production and release, celebrity-scandals or pre-release promotions, box-office statistics, publicity routines and review ratings, as well as non-audience expectations – with the other object-worlds of thought, feeling and belief. With that note of ‘methodological caution’, as one might call it, we would argue that a movie like Lipstick is also more than just a story of four women as desiring subjects, grappling with their own bodies to secure the most intimately ‘fundamental’ right to dream.

Watching this film at an urban multiplex in Delhi is a stark reminder of the hyper nationalism currently consuming streets and hallways. Large war scene paintings on the Mall’s walls scream out the familiar rhetoric of soldiers and borders, raised to fever pitch with a particularly aggressive poster that declares, “If you don’t stand behind our troops…please feel free to stand in front of them”. The run up to the film also has commercials like the one for a tile company that blatantly fetishizes the nation and its ‘mitti’. The possibility of the sexualized and gratuitous presence of women in advertising being replaced by the nation, qua Mother India, is clearly on the anvil. Commercial advertising is followed by government agendas being tom-tommed through vignettes of welfare schemes, readying as it were for canned applause. And then the playing of the national anthem arrives in glorious culmination of the entire gamut of audio-visual jingoism that preceded it. While a multiplex space in a metropolitan Kolkata had its viewers follow up on the anthem tune with spirited cries of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, a young school-going spectator in Aligarh was viciously abused (how else but by charging her of having ‘Pakistani’ origins!), for looking at her phone during its playing, an act grievously ‘disrespectful’ of the anthem. Spectators at other multiplex-destinations (in Bihar) reported, much like everywhere else, of men giggling away noisily and muttering maa-behen gaalis under their breath whenever Leela demanded ‘sex’ from her partner, or Shireen resisted marital rape, or a fifty-something-old “Buaji” masturbated to a phone chat with her swimming instructor.

While the CBFC piously objected to Lipstick Under My Burkha’s “contagious sex scenes”, its “fantasy above life”, red-flagging it as “lady oriented”, it also slyly hinted at the film being “a bit sensitive touch (sic) about one particular section of society”. In the potential political cleaving between ‘ladies’ and ‘one particular section’, the Board’s own masculinist, majoritarian anxieties could perhaps have found in a pitched battle between the two, a cunning resolution through a complete banning of the film. That it did find a release, albeit with a year’s delay and a 27-cut censoring, is not a fortuitous playing out of present day history, but a reminder of the beleaguered fatigue that now shadows a community. And yet, almost every bit of critical wisdom surrounding the film has revelled in identical modes of textual analysis, alternating between unguarded celebration and reserved condemnation of its feminist ‘credentials’. In our reading here we would also like to explore how a film like this – given the material-physical contexts of its reception, as well as its indexing of the oppressive structures that undergird community norms of ‘womanly’ behaviour – contributes to the current Hindutva-sponsored political debate around demands for a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) and Muslim personal law reform. How does Lipstick – riding as it does on the structures of audience-response pre-empted by an aggressive-nationalist public sphere! – relate the question of gender-justice to personal and family law within community contexts? In this, does Shrivastava suggest a reformatory agenda at all? Or does she instead signal towards a ‘uniformity’ of the national ‘community’, as effectively guaranteeing rights and safeguards for women of all castes and religions? In short, what is the politics of the film beyond textual-representative evidence – that is, in terms of its insertion as an object into the contemporary moment of discourse? At a time when the redemption of Muslim ‘sisters’ from the civilizational barbarity of ‘triple talaq’ has become the legislative priority of the Hindu right-wing, must the film remain ‘innocently neutral’ as a circulating public archive? It obviously cannot, and – as we go on to show – it self-consciously chooses not to.

Of the many failures that Lipstick has been critically consigned to – the eventual fate of its women protagonists and their lack of spectacular courage, a half-hearted radicalism of resistance, a needless confusion between the moral and the political, or an indiscriminate diatribe against all species of men as ‘actively’ patriarchal – there’s one that has taken on the aspect of a serious accusation. Many, among the journalistic and academic ilk, have maintained that the film is hinged on a popular-representative imaginary of Islamophobia – working itself out in the cinematic medium through available visual stereotypes and convenient narrative schemas of characterization. While addressing the plight of the two Muslim women in the film – one (Rehana Abidi) labouring under the injunctions of a conservative Islamist father swearing by the community claims of ‘imaan’ and ‘tehzeeb’, and the other (Shireen Aslam) raped by an abusive-adulterous husband for daring to go out and work – the pervasive rhetorical-visual symbol of the ‘burkha’ becomes a signifier of both oppression and mutability, self-abnegation and reclamation of desire. The ‘burkha’, it seems, is both the prison and its only escape – in that it allows these two women the right to transgress roles and appropriate desires.

Posited alongside a life of labour in burkha-stitching, Rehana’s dreamy-eyed adulation for Miley Cyrus and her hunger for the teenage joys of dancing and drinking are prone to be seen as blasphemous ‘un-Islamic’ perversions. Similarly, Shireen’s experience of routine sexual violence in marriage and her inability to seek divorce despite proof of her husband’s infidelity owe to a manipulated ‘contractuality’ of most Muslim marriages. Though, as opposed to the Hindu notion of marriage as ‘sacrament’, the nikah-nama legislates wedlock as a civil contract between consenting individuals – the terms and conditions that apportion the relative extent of ‘consent’ are often, in practice, decided by the man. Clauses 17 to 20 of the nikah-nama – which may potentially stipulate conditions for the wife’s right to employment, sexual divisions of labour as well as the woman’s right to divorce – are, in most instances of Muslim marriage, struck out by imams officiating the wedding. The debate on ‘triple talaq’ has hardly engaged with these deliberate elisions of practice, which are of course intended to weaken from within an otherwise-empowering notion of marriage as consensual contract. It is understandable that Shireen too, despite her strategic reserve of wit and amoral intelligence, is trapped into the subject-position of the wronged Muslim wife by the sly manipulations of personal laws governing marriage and property.

The film also brandishes, among its representational repertoire of Muslim men, the classic imaginary prototype of the “love jihadi” youth whose professional failures do not deter him from plotting an escape with his ‘working’ Hindu girlfriend. He repeatedly slut-shames her, only to finally dream of a passionate escape into some fairy-tale concoction of ‘Delhi and the hills’. All this would have arithmetically approximated to Islamophobic ‘unreason’, but for the fact that there is neither a demand for forced conversion in their conjugal fantasies nor is there any trace of discomfort with the woman’s economic independence. Contrast this with Shireen’s husband, jobless after a stint in Saudi and violently averse to the idea of a successfully-employed wife – and seeking in turn to swindle out a fortune through devious deals with the real estate mafia. But, if all these instances were to compound into a project of communal villification directed at a religious minority, there needs to be an allied cultural claim to enlightened majoritarianism. Do we find that here?

Quite on the contrary, the burkha’s dissimulative potential, its promise of anonymity and deferred recognition is put into clever play in the act of Rehana’s shoplifting. Even as stealing from malls and branded stores (like Gucci, Dolce and Gabanna, United Colors of Benetton) is the classic anarchist swipe against big capital and its profiteering, there is also a counter-circulative jeopardizing of its exchange economy in her risky, perilous feats. Forced into labour and the drudgery of working a sewing machine stitching burkhas for the small tailoring unit run by her parents, when she would rather be singing, dancing in college, Rehana’s shoplifting is an act of refusal and protest against capitalism’s demand that workers buy back the products of their own labour at a profit. In her taking of the goods she is able to stake the worker’s original claim and right while bypassing the system’s exploitative profit-making intent. The risky exuberance of her act is also the libidinal unmooring of wants that free market’s consumer culture disbars the worker (with her limited means) from. The burkha allows her nefarious access into malls and high-end shops that have notoriously been known to embarrass the non-buying poor. It’s the same invisibility that Ratna Pathak’s “Buaji” wishes for when she enters a shop in search of swimwear that leaves her exposed to the uncomfortable questions from the shop assistant.

The analogical inclusion of a couple of Hindu female protagonists (“Buaji” Usha Parmar and Leela) within the diegetic canvas achieves more than a formal equivalence of patriarchal prejudice across communities. Lipstick goes on to clearly place a finger at the exact sites of gendered violence within Hindu codes of personal-familial legislation. That Leela’s mother is forced into working as a nude model in the city’s art studios, for 17 years since her husband’s death, owes to her inheritance of the insoluble debts incurred by way of marriage. Unlike the legislative provision for a dower (haq-e-mehr) in the nikah-nama – which substantively enshrined the wife’s right to maintenance via legitimate claims to property at the time of marriage – the Hindu woman is not only sold off for a dowry to her husband, but is also left to inherit the latter’s financial liabilities in the event of his demise. “Buaji”, on the other hand, is also etched into a complex matrix of Hindu succession and property laws. Though, from the very beginning, she seems to self-assuredly command ownership of the Hawai Manzil (with almost a sense of unimpeachable authority), the fact that she can be thrown out of her own mansion with impunity by her nephews – Ram and Lakshman – betrays the paradoxes within Hindu property laws. It becomes apparent that hers was a Hindu Undivided Family (HUF) – which, in the absence of a prior ‘partitioning’, would have legitimately led to a transfer of heirship rights to the two male coparceners alone. That, on a fateful Diwali night, the two ‘bhais’ in Ram and Lakshman must drive the ‘fallen’ mother-figure out of the house accurately completes the Hindutva apotheosis of “ram raajya” – as premised on a structural exclusion of the sexual ‘other’ and replete with possibilities of gender injustice.

Having delved deep into the networks of male privilege that bolster community laws and engender systemic forms of inequality across cultural-religious contexts, does the filmmaker in Alankrita Shrivastava hint at the promise of a UCC as an instrument of gender justice? Does the purported homogenization of the ‘nation’ through interpellative routines of ‘equal’ citizenship assure a resolution of the women’s question, and propose a historical corrective to centuries of discrimination? Far from it, Shrivastava suggests that a civil-rights imagination of ‘uniformity’ does not even invoke the register of historical justice, by merely subsuming the question of gender within a default norm of heterosociality. In fact, such a code of personal-social relations is rife with the possible repetition of heterosexist violence – in as far as it carefully avoids an engagement with gender or sexuality as essentially subordinate to undifferentiated ‘norms’ of national belonging. The idea of a Uniform Civil Code – the film’s ending suggests – is ranged against the fearful spectre of the desiring woman as an asymmetric subjectivity, a locus of undying difference seeking self-expression in and through her aged, veiled, battered but beautiful body. Such desire cannot be legislated, but – in its resolute non-coincidence with structures of belonging – it needs must stand out and shape the nation’s destiny as a necessary ethic of inassimilable disunity. That the film ends with a life-affirming moment of solidarity between four broken, laughing women – unceremoniously bundled into the same physical space – not only portends a revulsion against the world of everyday normality, community and uniformity, but heralds much more. In it lies a homosocial retreat from the norm of social re-production and a resolute assertion of an ‘other’ community as the only time of sexual justice. It is indeed through the affective relations of a regenerative community that the question of gender equality (not uniformity) must be broached, apart from and along with efforts at internal legislative reform. In this, the community itself might potentially become the source of legitimation of women’s rights to sexual-historical difference.

A single scene from the concluding sequence poignantly articulates this point. Distraught by the ruthless violence of her nephews, “Buaji” is helped into Rehana’s stitching-parlour by Leela and Shireen. As Leela reaches out for a glass of water to calm an agitated Buaji, she knocks off a burkha-clad mannequin head onto the floor. Rehana affectionately picks and props it up by her side – carefully adjusting the burkha, rather than (as most audiences would have expected!) stripping it off. As an extremely telling gesture of reinstatement, this montage of sorts returns the film to its title – but now, only to dismiss the apparent significance that we had ascribed to the burkha. Shrivastava appears to succinctly maintain that a single piece of clothing – the burkha or the jeans or the swimsuit – cannot exhaust the politics of her film. A simple rejection of the burkha or an unthinking surrender to commodity-fetishisms around western fashion does not entail much – for as long as there is the punitive policing of fathers, imams and khaap panchayats, or the incompunctious lies of womanisers like Dhruv Bose who sexually exploit seemingly elite-‘liberal’ girls into passionate charades. In this, the director decisively dismisses the tokenistic symbolism of a ‘jeans ki azaadi’ movement as little more attentive to the cause of gender justice than the regressive moral vigilantism of a community militia. It is only in exhuming a ‘different’ order of the community – as an act of rupture – that the woman might become both a subject of rights and a claimant for justice.

Not surprisingly, the two most powerful sequences in the film hint at the nascent formation of an alternative community of the ab-norm: first, when Leela scoots Rehana to her midnight party destination while sharing a cigarette through the deserted streets; and second, when Shireen helps Buaji buy a swimsuit for herself in the mall. Solidarity – and not a ‘uniform’ identicality of the pre-gendered, asexual ‘citizen’ – is recognised as the template for an intimate political reorganisation of desire, and community contexts necessitate no spectacular heroism of ‘revolution’ in order to enable an everyday imagination of gender rights. The closing scene of the shared cigarette between the four women holds the promise of a community to come – not necessarily signified through the ‘liberated’ act of smoking, but forged primally and enacted in a post-coital lighting up. This is a symbolic moment of jouissance, experienced in a palimpsestic recuperation of a “Christian” Rosie’s books of pleasure across the torn bodies of Hindu and Muslim women. Crucially however, there is no fantasy of a ‘universal’ sorority here – in that the dismembered book-pages and covers contour the truth of ‘difference’ that alone remains the democratic condition for every dream of equality.

By delinking the demand for civil reform from the question of gender/sexual rights and rooting the latter in a progressive re-imagining of the ‘community’, Lipstick Under My Burkha calls the bluff on the Hindu man’s civilizational burden of liberating the ‘poor’ Muslim woman. A rhetoric of majoritarian messianism – parading as ‘little’ acts of charity for the primitive uncivil other – is imploded within its own fascist-feudal circuits of desire. Pahlaj Nihalani was bang on target in calling this a “lady oriented” film in its own right – and therefore, dangerous for popular forms of consensus or consumption. That his charge of a ‘lady orientation’ does not sit well with the uniform abstraction of the ‘nation’ – in the body of the ‘mother’ – is borne out by the film-‘work’. Perhaps, the Nihalanis of the ‘nation’ have always been more accurate than they sounded to us!

Debaditya Bhattacharya and Rina Ramdev are college teachers in the Universities of Calcutta and Delhi respectively, who – as our HRD minister has recently ordained – need not do any amount of ‘research’. But they have been continually breaking the code – for the sheer fun that thinking, working, reading and writing together has always meant!

2 thoughts on “Beneath the Veil – Lipstick Under My Burkha and Debates around the Uniform Civil Code (UCC): Debaditya Bhattacharya and Rina Ramdev”

  1. “Lipstick Under My Burkha calls the bluff on the Hindu man’s civilizational burden of liberating the ‘poor’ Muslim woman”

    It is indeed a delight to see the flourishing of the resistance amidst all the darkness and all the movie-makers, activists, authors at the fore-front should be applauded with all determination.

    In the middle of such celebration it would be also worthwhile to look in the mirror. Specifically, to pay close attention to that moral giant Jyoti Punwani* (who perhaps does not match publicity-wise to the new generation leaders).

    “How did we reach a situation wherein the current regime is shedding tears over Muslim women? The first reason of course is, this is yet another way for the BJP to target the community by exposing it as backward and orthodox. But, neither Prime Minister Narendra Modi nor UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath could have projected themselves as messiahs of Muslim women, had the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, the Jamiat e Ulema, the Jamaat e Islami, and other male-dominated religious bodies, not risen in defence of unilateral, instant triple talaq.”

    To that dis-honorable list noted above we must also add progressive Hindu men such as Rajiv Gandhi (and Arjun Singh et al.) who, when he was given the golden opportunity to do so by the Supreme Court, could have brought in the UCC and earned the eternal blessings of Muslim women.

    Rajiv would have been a hero, just like Nehru and Ambedkar, who were accused of attempting to destroy Hinduism with an atom bomb (thus spoke the Hindutva brigade).

    Instead, a 62 year old lady and all her sisters (and Arif Mohammed Khan) were thrown under the bus. To add insult to injury, Rajiv ordered the locks on the Babri Masjid to be taken off and subsequently announced from the ramparts of Ayodhya that he will be striving to bring in “Ram Rajya.” The rest as they say, is history.

    Another moral giant – Prof Apoorvanand – justifiably exhorts all Indians (specifically Hindus) to be secular in our every thought, word and action. It is beyond pathetic that when the crunch time came, and Hindus needed to be secular and in support of their (muslim) sisters they failed. That year was 1986, not 2017. Sad!!!




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