We need more hawa mahals to challenge patriarchy and capitalist exploitation: a review of Lipstick Under My Burkha

Lipstick Under My Burkha

The place is interesting, Bhopal. The space is highly suggestive, hawa mahal, which literally translates into air mansion or palace… like castles in the air? Does it mean that none of their struggles were material enough to transform into something they could touch and taste and see?

When I watched Lipstick Under My Burkha, my head was exploding with all the associations that each scene brought to my mind. The entire narrative was weaved around these incredibly interesting women who were navigating through layered forms of exploitation and abuse. And central to their stories is this place in which they all return to protect and tear down simultaneously. Hawa Mahal. Land ‘developers’ come calling to knock down the walls that housed generations of families, victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy (one of those “mismanaged” development schemes) whose only solace was grand old hawa mahal. Who chases them away? Buaji, the matriarch, the ‘old’ lady who supposedly had no other business but to totter after her grandkids and occasionally reign-in the tempers of her wimpy sons.

Then the government officials turn up to perform their part in broad daylight robbery, which again Buaji intercepts, but this time with an appraisal that they can’t refuse. Somehow hawa mahal and its occupants continue and we know the tension is rising: we know that even Buaji can’t go on without ‘revealing’ herself to the man she’s lusting (even though she never lied in the first place) and keep the walls from crumbling all at the same time. We know that Shireen can’t ‘hide’ her secret employment from the husband who hasn’t been paying the bills (but the children are always fed, wtf?) but finds enough money to pay for dates with his girlfriend, besides sexually abusing his wife. Yes sexually abusing, as opposed to sexually ‘dominating’, ‘mechanic’ – adjectives that mainstream reviews are bandying about. Let’s cut the male gaze crap.

We know that Leela can’t be ‘content’ and ‘grateful’ for getting a nice fiance who wants to keep her bound in a house where she can easily look out the window and talk to her mom happily forever after. As for young Rehana, we know the bomb is ticking between her shoplifting and the free life that she cannot stitch into existence. On the day of Diwali the day when lord Rama, the condemner of wife and tester of fire’s properties, returns to celebrate his victory over performing a man’s duties for wife and country, everything explodes. No plot is left unturned. I refuse to deconstruct the entire chaotic episode for the same reason that I believe none of them owed an explanation to anybody.

What really chilled me was Shireen’s husband gazing with opportunistic eyes at Buaji’s stuff strewn across the courtyard for all of hawa mahal to watch and condemn. What angered me was that he raped his wife the very same night in which I led myself to believe she had established a change in the power dynamics between them. What scared me most was that hawa mahal would now be open for the capitalist wolves to come and tear apart. What I hoped for desperately was that the circle of women smokers, lustful, free, passionate and resourceful, would make hawa mahals of the whole world. More solid and more unyielding.

Suzanne Zaithan Sangi