In a now-funny-later-sad sequence from the new film Lipstick under My Burkha, one of its four leading ladies is in a pharmaceutical store trying to buy condoms amid many customers and her own children. In India, men feel awkward buying condoms, so one can only imagine a woman doing so in a small town. As she battles through in code language, her children mistake the conversation—laced with words like “strawberry” and “chocolate”—to mean candy.
This is Bhopal, and the customer is in a burkha. She has three children and does not want more, on advice from her gynecologist. But her husband, who treats sex as mechanically as changing a flat, will be difficult to convince.
The film provides an insight into the lives of women in small-town India—this is not a documentary but a realistic drama. There is conflict between conservatism and modernism in Lipstick—a college-going girl can’t step out of the house without her hijaab but listens to Miley Cyrus when no one’s watching.
Another character (Leela) has a passionate relationship with her boyfriend, which peaks in bathrooms and storerooms, but agrees to an arranged marriage with another man. All four women live in the same neighbourhood and suffer from different angst, some of it sex-related.
Since Lipstick dealt in parts with the subject of sex, it was initially refused sanction by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), which decided that 1.3 billion Indians had come into existence without being aware of how it’s done. The brave filmmaker, Alankrita Shrivastava, went to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), which then compelled the CBFC to release it with an “A” (adults) certificate.
When we went to see it last Saturday evening, the cinema was filled, including the much-disliked front row closest to the screen. The movie’s intriguing title and its run-in with the CBFC had piqued enough people’s curiosity. There was at least one child in the auditorium because, it would appear, fewer people care for the CBFC’s opinion than imagined.
It’s a smart, emotionally balanced and hard-hitting movie, which makes a strong statement without being preachy about it—usually a difficult task for Indian filmmakers given to rhetoric. The best indicator of how engrossing a film is comes from the glow of cell phones from among the audience—rather, the lack of it. If people are not counting their Facebook likes in the middle of a scene, it usually means they are invested in what they are seeing.
Nobody sniggered awkwardly during the sex scenes or grew restless. Post the interval, one chap stood next to my seat on the aisle for a long time because, I presume, he couldn’t be bothered to find his seat in the dark and risk missing something. A colleague who saw the film a few days later reported that even on a weekday the hall was full.
Lipstick has made over Rs11 crore in its first week, which is impressive for a project that has no bankable star—male or female—in its credits, and the controversies leading up to its release may have helped. But why did the CBFC have objections to its release?
“We are in favour of women empowerment as is being talked about but we don’t agree with the type of treatment and projection that has been accorded to them,” CBFC director Pahlaj Nihalani has explained. Various other statements made about the movie include it being “a bit sensitive touch about one section of society” and “lady-oriented”.
Certifiers in Indian entertainment have always vacillated between being prudish about matters of sex and remarkably open-minded about other subjects. An ongoing television series, which I accidentally hit upon briefly the other day, knocked me off my futon because a 10-year-old boy proclaims his love for and then marries a grown up, older woman, for the sake of his own “protection”. I felt less queasy watching Oberyn’s eyes being gouged out in Game of Thrones.
You can get an idea of how far our conscience-keepers are from reality by looking into the findings of an informal study done by That’s Personal, an online store for “sexual health and wellness adult products”. The company studied over six million visitors, over 80,000 orders and approximately 8,700 customer interactions to come up with their third research report. According to a company press release, the study results are based on internal traffic and sales data.
We can safely assume that what you buy is what you practice and therefore the study provides some clues to India’s attitude towards sex.
According to their data, Baroda, Pune and Thiruvananthapuram have more female buyers than men.
Most flavoured condoms are bought in Bhopal, which sort of explains the scene at the medical store from Lipstick.
About 38% of its customers are women—the age group of over 45 has the largest percentage of women buyers (one of the protagonists of Lipstick is a 55-something widow who takes succour in the pages of steamy romance novels and has phone sex with a not-so-bright, younger swimming instructor. This is the character you feel for the most in Lipstick, and Ratna Pathak Shah plays it most remarkably).
Male thongs sell the most in Telangana—possibly because it’s so hot there and you would want to minimize clothing.
Sales in Tier II cities (like Indore, Coimbatore, Surat etc.) have increased by 25% in the last year.
Gujarat is sixth among states (Maharashtra is No. 1) in total sales, but moves swiftly to No. 3 during Navaratri—sales triple during these ecstatic times.
There is no conclusive evidence here, but an indication perhaps that audiences, in small or big towns, are unlikely to get moved by some moaning on screen. India’s temple art and scriptures are evidence enough that “our culture” is very much about sex. If anything, Lipstick is a reflection of society, and it helps to look at the mirror once in a while.
In one scene, as the power goes off during her engagement ceremony, Leela (Aahana Kumra) uses the opportunity to have sex with her boyfriend (not her fiancé) when her mother catches them in the act. With complete nonchalance, the older woman tells the hastily zipping up boyfriend to hand her the lipstick and goes on to apply it on her daughter.
The CBFC would do well to develop a similar indifference to sex in cinema and less fear of “lady-oriented” subjects.
This is an important film for men to watch, to better understand gender perceptions and dispel pre-conceived notions, as also because it’s really not about the sex.
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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