Lipstick Dreams

The last scene of Lipstick Under My Burkha resonates, in a rather curious fashion, with the book I happen to be reading at present, Reading Lolita in Tehran. As the various men in power say their piece and move away, ostensibly to get a good night’s sleep, the women protagonists of the movie are left, quite literally, to pick up the shreds of their existence. They gather around the remains of the forbidden romance novel capturing the sexual fantasies of Rosie, in what is, on the face of it, an impromptu reading session, but in effect, captures the essence of what director Alankrita Shrivastava is trying to say throughout.

What makes Lipstick an engaging watch is that its women are feminist by the sheer dint of being real. The characters range from the college-going Rehana (trying to reconcile teenaged rebellion with her cultural identity) and Leela (the beautician whose dreams are bigger than an arranged marriage in a small town) to the older Shireen (a saleswoman struggling to carve a niche for herself within and outside her marriage) and middle-aged Usha (rediscovering her sexual identity through telephone sex). Each is flawed in her own way, and therein lies her perfection.

Perhaps it is the gift of a stellar cast at the hands of a female director, but Lipstick manages, for the most part, what movies claiming to be pro-women generally don’t — well-fleshed out female characters that make both appropriate and inappropriate choices, and have dynamic personalities extending beyond but not necessarily in alienation of the men in their lives. So, Usha Buaji (aunt)’s desire to read racy romance magazines is not at odds with her solid business sense, and Shireen’s success on the professional front does not erode her desire to keep her family intact at any cost.

Another stroke of brilliance that the script possesses is a fine sense of balance, be it in its portrayal of right and wrong, or in capturing a whole spectrum of sexual desire. So, on the one hand, where you find yourself rooting for the women taking the obligation of a Burkha and turning it around to live their dreams, you also find them facing up to the repercussions of some of their ill-thought out actions. The women of Lipstickknow that all is not well with the world, and thankfully, the director doesn’t sweep in with a magic wand to make the young swimming instructor fall for Usha, or for Shireen’s husband to suddenly realise how much potential his wife has, or for the police to let shoplifter Rehana off with a warning even as Leela’s nice fiancé comes back with a clichéd “Main thaamunga tumhara haath” (“I will take you back”, or some such shit). Lipstick Under My Burkhaconcludes the way such events in life usually do, with a lot of tears, an occasional giggle and a mountain of understanding, collapsing upon you all at once.

The best part isn’t even really obvious until you focus on what’s not happening in this movie. Halfway across the movie, it hits me that these women are, for the most part, all very non-judgemental of each other. In what is a refreshing change from the “A woman is another woman’s worst enemy” trope, we see Shireen helping Usha buy her bathing suit, and Leela acknowledging that Shireen’s need to be touched affectionately by her husband isn’t something she should be hiding. Even as Rehana’s classmate gets her arrested and lashes out at her in anger, we don’t really see the typical “You stole my boyfriend” scene. The anger is directed towards the legitimate recipient, the man who got one woman pregnant before leaving her for another. The final scene is a silent war cry and a flame of solidarity all at once, as the women read the end of the novel and share a cigarette. And as you watch, perhaps you would wonder, like I did, if the next day, Shireen would hand in a resignation at work, and the widowed Usha be sent away to Kashi (a city where abandoned widows live in India). Maybe Leela would choose to not run away to Delhi with her boyfriend, and Rehana would eventually complete her degree through distance-learning. And if you’re reading this, maybe you’re a woman who has the ability to make some, or all of these choices for yourself. The question is- If you aren’t wearing as much (or as little) lipstick as you want, who and what are you waiting for?

Ismat Chughtai

I first read Ismat Chughtai’s highly acclaimed and highly controversial “Lihaaf” as a teenager, relatively ignorant of the intricacies of gender and sexuality. I read it again several years later when I was not quite so innocent, or perhaps, ignorant, anymore. Chughtai’s work has a quality most young authors, including myself, would dearly wish their work to possess- each time a reader revisits it, they come away, absorbing something new, a hitherto unknown perspective in their mind.

One of the fiercest feminists of her time, Ismat Chughtai was an Urdu author who did not mince words when it came to writing about relevant social issues. An inspirational figure for women, many of her books were often banned at some point or the other. Her stories were incredibly honest about things usually kept under strict wraps, such as homosexuality, child abuse, and conflict in middle-class society.

How as a young girl, Ismat Chughtai convinced her father to excuse her from learning how to cook, and give her instead the opportunity to go to school and get an education:

“Women cook food, Ismat. When you go to your in-laws what will you feed them?” he asked gently after the crisis was explained to him.

“If my husband is poor, then we will make khichdi and eat it and if he is rich, we will hire a cook,” I answered.

My father realised his daughter was a terror and that there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.”
Ismat Chughtai

Facing harsh criticism to the point of having a law-suit filed against her for blasphemy (which she later won), Ismat broke the shackles of orthodoxy that conservative Islamic culture was associated with. She was an active member of the Progressive Writers’ Association, and a front-runner for politically conscious literature. She lent a unique woman’s perspective to issues like the Partition. “In Ismat’s hands, the woman became a flesh-and-blood creature, with all the flaws and failings of a human being but also thoughts and ideas that did not necessarily limit her to the zenana.”, writes Rakshandha Jalil.

Read the full text of Lihaaf here.

Nellie Bly

Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran but better known by her pseudonym, Nellie Bly was a firebrand journalist, industrialist, inventor and activist, making waves in American journalism in the early 1900s. Her career began when she wrote a vehement critique of a particularly sexist article published in her local newspaper that called the “working woman” a “monstrosity”.

“I have never written a word that did not come from my heart. I never shall. “

Nellie Bly, The Evening-Journal; January 8, 1922

Turning a typically male-dominated profession on its head, Nellie’s most famous journalistic achievement was her expose of mental asylums in the nation, a feat she achieved at age 23 by getting admitted into an asylum on pretence of insanity. Her report, Ten Days in a Mad-house brought to light the terrible conditions within mental institutions that were likely to drive even sane people mad. It caused a sensation, and helped to bring about several reforms in the public mental health system. Nellie was a journalist who took on investigative journalism head on and lived up to her reputation each time. She further created a stir with her ‘Around the World in 72 Days’ expedition. Reminiscent of the Jules Verne novel, her journey was completed in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, beating  Phileas Fogg’s fictional record.

After getting married to an industrialist, Bly retired from journalism, only to make a name for herself as one of the prominent female inventors and industrialists of the time- she had several patents in her name for iron manufactures. She returned to journalism during World War I, also covering the Women’s Suffrage Movement. She died unexpectedly at the age of 57 of pneumonia.

“Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.”

Nellie Bly’s Motto

Watch this short documentary on Nellie Bly’s life-

Odetta

“You’re walking down life’s road, society’s foot is on your throat, every which way you turn you can’t get from under that foot. And you reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die or insist upon your life … those people who made up the songs were the ones who insisted upon life.” -Odetta

Born in 1930, African-American Odetta, also known as Odetta Holmes, was a singer, actress,songwriter, guitarist and much more. Earning the moniker “Queen of American Folk Music” from Martin Luther King Jr., her music has been called “the soundtrack of the civil rights movement”.

With a college degree in music, she initially performed as a chorus singer, with theatre and folk groups and in clubs. She released her first solo album ‘Odetta sings Ballads and Blues’ in 1956. Her folk songs album released in the 1960s went on to be a phenomenal success. She also delivered duets with other famous singers such as Harry Belafonte. Her most stirring performance has been unanimously acknowledged as her rendition of “O, Freedom” at the civil rights movement’s 1963 March on Washington. She was vocal against racism, having first experienced it at the young age of seven on a train to California. Her music influenced many personalities of that period, including Bob Dylan and Rosa Parks (the latter is recognized as the “mother of the modern civil rights movement” in America).

In 1999 she was awarded the National Medal of Arts and the year 2005 saw her honoured with the Living Legend Award by the Library of Congress. She performed almost up to the day of her death at 77 years of age. Besides bringing about an inspirational mainstreaming of folk music, Odetta’s compositions transcended the boundaries of an art form to  fulfill a much higher purpose. Listen to one of her songs, originally a prison work song, that made it to the TIMES All time 100-

Deepa Vasudevan

“Those who have come out for the sake of visibility and activism have often faced a lot of harassment and experienced difficulty in finding work and housing afterwards. There is a huge amount of moral policing of women in our sexually hypocritical society. Public spaces are still unsafe for women-loving-women in Kerala. Safety comes in private spaces.”- Deepa Vasudevan

In a ‘democracy’ where a law such as Section 377 exists, criminalising homosexuality as “unnatural” and the fear of societal ostracism compels people of queer orientation to conceal their sexuality, Deepa Vasudevan, a Malayali Canadian immigrant, is trying her best to create a safe space for lesbian/bisexual women and transgender individuals in Kerala, a state relatively more conservative in this respect, despite high levels of literacy.

Her organisation, Sahayathrika, is named for a Malayalam word roughly translating to “Women undertaking a journey together”. The organization mainly works on counselling, community-organizing and survival of women from gender and sexual minorities, as well as raising awareness on LGBT issues. Deepa founded Sahayathrika when she realised that there was practically no support system for LGBT individuals and this perhaps was one of the major reasons behind a high suicide rate for lesbians in Kerala. With its first project inititated in 2002, it became an independent registered organisation in 2008.

“Many LGBT people tend to migrate to other cities. And people living in Kochi tend to be more private”- Deepa Vasudevan

A study by the Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum has also highlighted that most development initiatives by the government excluded sexual minorities, including the pioneering Kudumbasree programme. Through its activities, Sahayathrika seeks to bring to the fore the marginalisation and harassment of the queer community in Kerala often leading to migration to other,more tolerant states.

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The kind of dialogue that Deepa Vasudevan’s Sahayathrika, Queerala and other organisations are trying to raise in society is a very important lesson to the sizeable proportion of the country’s population that still judges and attacks people on the basis of their sexual orientation.

Read more about the experiences of India’s LGBT community here-

http://www.thealternative.in/lifestyle/love-search-purple-rainbow/

http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-metroplus/a-prayer-for-understanding/article6243192.ece

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

You know the story that we sell to young girls where the prince gets on his knee and whips out a ring, and then you start crying in gratitude? I think it’s ridiculous.

– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Growing up in Nigeria in the early 1980s in an Igbo family, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an author who is unhesitating in calling herself a feminist. She calls herself “a happy African feminist who does not hate men, who wears lipgloss, and who wears high heels for herself and not for men.” Her characters are a mix of thinking, rational individuals with desires, ambition, with both vulnerability and strength. A recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant, she was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for her book ‘Purple Hibiscus’ in 2005. Her second novel, ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ was awarded the Orange Prize for fiction in 2007 and subsequently adapted into a film as well.

I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femaleness and for my femininity. And I want to be respected in all of my femaleness, because I deserve to be. – Adichie at ‘We should all be feminists’, TEDxEuston 2012, 1 December 2012.

Adichie has delivered TED as well as TEDx talks on the themes of feminism as well as the under-representation of cultural differences and diversity. She is one of the young writers who through her work has been instrumental in bridging the disconnect between Africa and the world, highlighting the complexities within the African populace and society. Harper Collins brought out a written volume based on her TEDx talk ‘We should all be feminists‘. She was listed among the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2015.

“The educated ones leave, the ones with the potential to right the wrongs. They leave the weak behind. The tyrants continue to reign because the weak cannot resist. Do you not see that it is a cycle? Who will break that cycle?”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus

Read about her upbringing and works at-

http://www.cerep.ulg.ac.be/adichie/cnaintro.html

http://chimamanda.com/books/americanah/

 

Usha Khanna

Having grown up listening to old melodious Bollywood songs, I know of many famous music directors such as O.P. Nayyar, R.D. Burman, S.D. Burman, Laxmikant-Pyarelal etc. One day, it suddenly occurred to me how I’d never heard of a female music director in Bollywood. Upon asking, my parents told me about Usha Khanna, who was the third female music director in a primarily male dominated industry after Jaddan Bai and Saraswati Devi.

 

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Usha Khanna with Mohd. Rafi and Kishore Kumar  Source:www.mohdrafi.com

Usha Khanna was one of the most commercially successful music directors from 1960s to 1980s. She is a personality who entered the industry at 17, and someone who is not very often remembered, despite delivering hit songs like “Dil deke dekho”, “Chhodo kal ki baatein” and “Dil ke tukde tukde karke muskurake chal diye” to name a few. She has composed music for over 120 movies, and had a particularly close association with legendary singer Mohd. Rafi and also with Asha Bhosle. In 1979, K.J. Yesudas also won the Filmfare Award for playback for the song “Dil ke tukde tukde” composed by her.

Knowing well the trials and difficulties faced by newcomers in the industry she encouraged several first timers, including some that went on to become famous, such as Sonu Nigam, Roopkumar Rathod, Pankaj Udhas etc. She has also composed for Malayalam films like Moodal Manju and Puthooram Puthri Unnayarcha.

Listen to this melodious number composed by Usha Khanna from the movie ‘Hum Hindustani’-

Among the upcoming youngsters in the profession is Sneha Khanwalkar, whose notable compositions are for the movies Oye Lucky Lucky Oye and Gangs of Wasseypur 1 &2.

I end tonight’s post with the upbeat song from GoW-