By Poulomi Das Jul. 21, 2017
More than being an incisive account of the inner lives of four women, Lipstick Under My Burkha is an unflinching commentary on the existence of sexual lives of the elderly.
There are many reasons to watch Lipstick Under My Burkha. There are the interior lives of ordinary women, there are powerhouse performances, and there is also the satisfying feeling of flipping off Pahlaj as the credits roll in. But perhaps the biggest reason to watch LUMB (and also the reason that Pahlaj didn’t want you watching it) is for Ratna Pathak Shah’s Buaji.
Buaji is character we all know in real life. She’s a 55-year-old withered widow, the owner of a sweet shop located in the crowded lanes of some small town in India (Bhopal, here). But this Buaji comes with a twist. She shuns her identity as the matriarchal figure of the families around her, and metamorphoses into Usha Parmar, the erotic fiction devourer, demanding an outlet to her unbridled sexual desire. Buaji’s urgent release comes in gasps and repeated moans, as she sits aroused, barebacked in her bathroom, having unashamed phone sex with a much younger boy-toyish swimming coach.
As she climaxes thunderously on screen with her back toward the audience, her head droops as if to denote how that she’s yet to swallow that it is still possible for her to attain an orgasm — an idea she had been forced to abandon after her supposed “physical” retirement. Her character’s identity is relegated to being only “Buaji”, not “Usha”. After all, sexual desire is considered the preserve of the young and the healthy – the old and the infirm are to suddenly turn into hermits. Grihastha has to give way to Vanaprastha and Sanyas.
That she has forgotten herself is succinctly depicted in one of the earlier scenes from the film where she shares a tender moment with an elderly man. The man is in the same predicament as her: widowed, lonely, and most likely stifling his urges under the guise of acting his age. The neighbour further informs her that he is searching for a woman worthy of being his second wife. Just when the eyes of both the elderlies meet, with the raw promise of a possible romance, comes the rude nudge of reality. There is a strict criteria for the search: The prospective wife has to be between 35-40 years old. After the information is passed, and she has been roped in to aid in the search, the man awkwardly bids her goodbye, addressing her as “Buaji” despite being of the same age.
We don’t mind asexualising them, so long as it suits the boundaries of our comfort.
In the heads of the characters populating the film, the very thought of looking at a 55-year-old widowed Buaji as a woman capable of urges or an active sexual life is fantasy; one that can never seamlessly transcend to a lived reality. Women and men of a certain age are just not sexual beings. Somehow, it is understood that the death of their youth simultaneously sounds the death knell of their sexual lives. This belief is held sacred, and closest to our hearts, as if we’re scared of bumping into the people they used to be, before their identity was segregated into “mother”, “grandmother”, or the “neighbourhood aunt”. Buaji isn’t the only elderly person we know whose sexuality is forcefully snatched away, if only to satiate the younger generation’s peace of mind. It’s an assumption we extend, in effect, to our parents, as well, who we’re confident, have turned asexual right after our birth.
Many a conversation with my 20-year-old friends on our sex lives end up comically veering toward that of our parents, which in most instances, is quickly dismissed as non-existent. It’s not so much the idea of our parents indulging in an activity most of our horny asses can’t go a week without that is revolting, as the thought of viewing them as people rejecting familial caregiving identities enough to pay heed to the calls of their bodies. We don’t mind asexualising them, so long as it suits the boundaries of our comfort. It’s the same reason we have friends passing comments on older protagonists in films trying to get it on, or flinch nervously whenever our parents show even the slightest hint of physical intimacy.
A few months ago, around Mother’s Day, the New York Times invited its readers to send in pictures of their mothers before their identities became synonymous with motherhood. I’m certain the intention of this exercise was to just be a gentle trip down nostalgia lane, but it also ended up acting as a needful reminder of looking at our parents, coloured by the cruelty of age, as carefree people, who still possessed the desires they did when they were younger.
Just the same way, more than being an incisive account of the inner lives of four women quietly and fiercely revolting despite the physical, societal, and cultural shackles of the metaphorical burkhas in their lives, Lipstick Under My Burkha also comes with an unflinching commentary on the existence of the inner sexual lives of the elderly.
In that pivotal climax scene, the audience doesn’t get to see Buaji’s face as she sexually reawakens the Usha in her. But we have no choice but to feel and hear her moans, her body, and most importantly her uncontrollable desire. Lipstick Under My Burkha acts as a battle cry for the normalisation of adult sexuality. It is a reminder that some of our Buajis are ready neither for Vanaprastha nor Sanyas; that they’re happy in their Grihastha states, with or without husbands.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.