Sunday, 6 August 2017


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.  


Tuesday, 24 May 2016


Obsessing over a film is not a new thing for me and there is a wide variety of films I have and can potentially obsess over. Captain America: Civil War has been the latest in my series of obsessions and as you can probably guess I am bringing this obsession to my blog so if you haven't seen it there are probably some explosive spoilers ahead.

Now, these ramblings are going to be in the light of a heavily academic book that I have recently read. The book is called A Place for Utopia: Urban Designs from South Asia by Smriti Srinivas, in case anyone's interested. I will highlight one major theme that I'm using from the book and then we can get to the fun stuff (although the book is pretty fun too, Hashtag Geeks Inside And Outside The Library). So according to the author a utopia must always be sought in the present, in the here and the now and it cannot be one where it's imagination precedes the practice that leads us to it. Additionally it cannot exist in the perfected nostalgia inducing image from the past. If one seeks a "good place" it has to be laboriously produced in the present (which of course includes interpretations of the past and our hopes and dreams for the future). 

I would also like to make clear that this is not a review because after having watched the film thrice (so far) I have loved it more with every subsequent viewing. Let's just call this "admittedly biased notes from the field". Of course, the Russo brothers gave us a great film but I have been focused on the love story between Steve and Bucky and the spaces of utopia and salvation they seek in a new and unstable world. After the second World War both Steve and Bucky are thrown into a new world and forced to fight more wars. Steve bringing down of S.H.I.E.L.D and Bucky's own struggle with his memory and reclamation of his agency are both significant acts of soldiers who know what it means to fight others' wars and the importance of questioning orders. 

From following orders at the beginning of The Avengers to quickly adapting and embracing his agency (upon Tony's and Banner's provocation no less) we see Steve learning to make sense of a new world into which he has been thrown. Captain America: The Winter Soldier further delves into Steve's skepticism and we see him getting more confident and embracing his intuitions and becoming more aware of the responsibility he shoulders for his actions (even if they are committed under someone else's orders). He is a soldier who has learned the damage a war fought on orders can do. This is the same anxiety Bucky shares when he tells Steve that he even as he was brainwashed into assassinating all those people for all those years, he still did it. 

Bucky's character has also seen nuances through the films. Having realized the acts of terrors he has committed Bucky does not only find himself struck with the trauma, the pain, the remorse but also finds himself alienated in a world he no longer recognizes. The banality of when we meet Bucky (buying plums: which the internet has had it's fair share of fun with) and the nature of his apartment when Steve finds it let us into the life of a man trying to re-build, re-member and using the everyday living to deal with the pain he can neither articulate nor does he have someone to whom he can articulate. Of course, given the tenuous condition of this make-shift existence we find him constantly looking over his shoulder. Bucky's refusal to hit Spiderman when he opens his mouth and sounds like a kid and the willingness to communicate with T'challa (well as much as he could in the middle of being relentlessly attacked by him) let us further into Bucky's attempt to turn over a new leaf. 

It would perhaps be naive to attribute Steve's quest to save Bucky as a sheer an act of desperation to restore a world that he knew, to whatever degree that would be possible. The film gives us Captain America as well as the Winter Soldier, in Civil War, as characters who have shown agency in interpreting the past and seeking a say in situations into which they have been ambushed. This is what makes their interactions in the film all the more complex and all the more memorable. Both of them understand the importance of continuing to live without necessarily being caught in the shadow of the past. The facts from Steve's life which Bucky reiterates to make him believe he isn't still under the influence of the HYDRA trigger words further establishes the fact of how Steve is no longer that person. Also Steve's knowledge of Bucky's darkest acts of terror let's us know that he is not romanticizing his relationship with him. Every moment of solace they, then, share is utopian not an imagination to be sought either in the past or the future. The past is evoked to reminisce upon and the future is sought in correcting the mistakes made in the past. The smiles shared, the reassuring conversations or the comfortable silences between Steve and Bucky help us arrive at the moments of those moments of utopia which are hard fought and are so much sweeter because they are placed in the present.