How is masculinity portrayed in the film ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’? This is an important question to explore and one that was explored in a recent article by Romit Chowdhury. The article suggests a failure of the film in understanding the reason why patriarchy works. Since patriarchy is not simply a graveyard of thwarted desires of women and it offers some form of redemption through the nebulous category of love, the “one-dimensional view of masculinity” seems incommensurate with the complexity of the situation. The article distances itself from the defensive and reactionary discourse of #NotAllMen and suggests the imperfection of the film lies in the inability or unwillingness of the director to probe the complexity of men within the patriarchal arrangement.
However, as scholars of masculinity such as RW Connell have taught us, masculinity can never simply be termed as ‘what men do’. While men are vital to the discussion, masculinity is a far more complex and includes set of ideas, modes of behaviour and ‘techniques of the body’ to borrow from Marcel Mauss. These are invested with power and always historically constituted and more importantly can be appropriated. It is this appropriation of masculinity that of significant interest to me in the film. Usha ji, Leela, Rehana and Shireen, in rather complex ways, appropriate aspects of masculinity to ‘bargain’ with the patriarchal structure. Usha ji confidently handles the business end her family and drives composed negotiations with real estate developers as well as corrupt government officials. Rehana finds spaces of ‘bold’ expression in her college campus. Shireen enters into paid employment, which is understood as largely a male space. Leela is unapologetic about her sexual freedom. However, these are dangerous negotiations and tenuous appropriations. The successful appropriation of these ‘masculine’ traits is marred by their bodies, and limited by their desires.
The sexual desires are embedded into wider contexts of self-determination, whether it is self affirmation at work with the promise of greater say in the decision making process back home, or eloping with a lover to escape the narrow lanes of the small towns towns that can’t contain her dreams. The desires of the body seek an avenue through the embodying ‘masculine’ tactics and become a part of a fragile process of bargaining which patriarchy. Perhaps, it may not just be ‘love’ that bolsters patriarchy but also its ability to becomes all-pervasive and engulf the market, the education system, sites of leisure, paid employment. These spaces which may seem to offer empowerment but can never emerge as distinct spaces of freedom.
It is, of course, true that the film does not layer its male characters, who seem rigid in their demonic subjectivities, and perhaps it would have been a more nuanced assessment of the situation. However, the film does offer a way to for one to reassess the crucial aesthetic of masculinity and the centrality of performance to the these performances. It shows us why certain performances are a failure in what they seek to achieve in terms of upsetting the balance of power.
There are of course lessons to be le learned here, which may have been unintended in the film. The primacy of the body, the fact that not just masculinity but femininity is also not something that women do. If we were to understand that femininity and masculinity are not imbued with equal value we would understand how men think of differences and inequalities among men; how certain men are effeminized in a show of humiliation which becomes a coded in a politics of the body (including clothing, ways of acting and being) which suggests differences in class, caste, religion, sexual orientation. The lipstick can have dire consequences for men too. Of course, this was not the intent of the film. The film was about women and I will admit to the pleasure of viewing one-dimensional male characters for a change. The intent of the film, however, does not the dictate the possibilities of my engagement of the subject matter, to go back to Barthes.