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