What’s Wrong with Using a Little Lipstick?

What’s Wrong with Using a Little Lipstick? is inspired by the true story of Diana Hayden, an Anglo-Indian beauty queen who became Miss India in 1997 and Satyajit Ray’s 1962 film drama, Mahanagar.                  

Hayden’s victory sparked a public row twenty-one years later when a senior Indian politician described her as unrepresentative of true Indian beauty, such as Hindu goddesses Laxmi and Saraswati. His comments echo obsessive questions of authenticity that pervade discourses about mixed-race people.  They also signify increasing popular support for Hindu nationalism and state-sanctioned discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities in India. The composition of Lipstick is inspired by Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Venus, like Hayden, is also the winner of a beauty competition: the mythological Judgement of Paris.          

Mahanagar’s protagonist Arati challenges social constraints by becoming her family’s breadwinner. At work she befriends an Anglo-Indian colleague, Edith, whose finances are similarly precarious. A key moment of cultural exchange occurs when Edith gives Arati a lipstick. Sensing Arati’s hesitation, Edith says, “What’s wrong with using a little lipstick? You use red here, red here -why not here?” while pointing to hair parting, forehead, then lips. A still of this encounter in the film is incorporated as a silvery mirrored “bubble” into Lipstick’s design. Edith is later unfairly dismissed  by their bigoted employer, and Arati’s lipstick wearing is questioned by her husband to whom it signifies a threat to traditional ie chaste expectations of respectable Bengali women. His objections evoke the historical representation of courtesans, recognisable by their red, paan-stained lips. In Lipstick? as in Mahanagar, the introduction to the use of lipstick references how mixed-race people, especially women, can be seen as embodying the threat of biological, sexual, moral, and cultural pollution.  

  1. Ray,S. (1963). Mahanagar. R.D. Banshal and Co, India, 1963.
  2. Botticelli, S. (c. 1485). Birth of Venus. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.