Lipstick Under My Burkha challenges India’s patriarchal society as well as the film industry’s bias against women. Photo: Lipstick Under My Burkha

Ma and Papa were huddled together on the couch staring intently, very seriously, at something on Papa’s phone. I wanted to interrupt them to ask Ma about the next day’s plans, but they had been engrossed for quite a while.

Later, I asked them what they were looking at, and Papa laughed and said, “WhatsApp.” He laughed because he got on WhatsApp only two weeks ago and was embarrassed by how much he was using it.

I insisted that he show me what they were looking at and Papa agreed. Ma, shocked, said to him, “How can you show this to her? Don’t do it!” At this point, I thought it was a “portfolio” of a prospective bloke whom many, many people that I don’t know thought I should marry.

This had happened before. Marriage proposals would come over WhatsApp and my younger sister and I would laugh at the absurdity of it all. It stopped in the last couple of years because they realized they were wasting their time.

Turns out they were leaked nude photos of Meghan Markle. The photographs had spread like wildfire on WhatsApp groups. Papa and I looked at all 10 of them together, both of us with straight faces, like we would have observed photographs of beautiful buildings.

When I was 12, he and I were watching television until really late on a Saturday night. While flipping through channels, the remote control froze on one showing an adult film. And for a good three minutes, which seemed like forever, Papa tried to make the remote work while I sat frozen in horror. I was sweating and nervous, and expecting to be yelled at.

A few years later, on a similar leisurely Saturday night, the two of us were watching Six Days, Seven Nights on Star Movies – he a huge Harrison Ford fan and me just there for company. That movie has way too many kissing scenes for a teenager trying to watch a movie with her father and I was quite uncomfortable. My father wasn’t.

When I started menstruating at 17, advertisements on sanitary napkins started to get to me. The shameful blue ink that looked nothing like my blood made me flinch and I often wondered what Papa thought of it. He never said anything; it was all too “factual” for him – for women to bleed, to kiss, and to make love.

Socially, in India, daughters generally see fathers as figures to hide from. And yet they love being a “daddy’s girl” and not mummy’s. It is the unusual love between fathers and daughters that also prevents girls from sharing the personal bits of life and “shameful” feelings with their fathers. They admire their father’s opinions and want them always to see them as a good, responsible girl.

Many of my friends are expected to conduct themselves in a particular way in front of their fathers: not talk loudly, not come out in underwear, not cuss in front of them, because these things are viewed as disrespectful. While otherwise, some of this behavior is flexible with mothers.

I don’t remember Papa ever combing my hair when I was growing up. It was always Ma. And that is just how patriarchy works at the most basic level. And then there topics like broken hearts, depression, masturbation, and nudity that daughters might just discuss with their mothers, but will almost never do with their fathers.

Ma knows the name of every single boy I have kissed. It’s just easier to tell her things. “Communication gap” is perhaps the most accurate way to describe father-daughter relationships, despite the gentle love they share and how special the bond is.

It’s also time that taboos around these topics are removed. Last year, the release of the film Lipstick Under My Burkha was stalled because the censor board chief Pahlaj Nihalani found it “lady-oriented.” And then what happened? The film was released and everyone watched it. Showing and accepting the fact that women also masturbate and that there’s nothing shameful in the act was a start, if nothing else – pat yourself on the back if you’re a girl and watch it with your father.

The last short in Lust Stories on Netflix has a scene with Megha, played by Kiara Advani, orgasming in front of her mother-in-law, husband and sister-in-law, after which she is sent back to her parents’ home. A month later, her husband tries to “forgive” her for the “shameful” act but she rightfully says women also have needs. I can’t imagine watching a scene like this even 10 years ago. Things are changing. (Still waiting for that blue ink in Whisper ads at least to be replaced by red ink, though.)

Normalizing masturbation, sex, nudity and seeing facts as facts is perhaps the only shot we have at working toward developing deeper bonds with our fathers. It should be OK to be able to talk about these things because not only is it appropriate, it is important

Normalizing masturbation, sex, nudity and seeing facts as facts is perhaps the only shot we have at working toward developing deeper bonds with our fathers. It should be OK to be able to talk about these things because not only is it appropriate, it is important.

A thread on the question-and-answer site Quora in fact reveals that many Asian parents find it hard to say as much as “I love you” to their children, and vice versa. Instead, love is expressed through acts of concern and is often hidden behind “Have you eaten your food?” or “Do you need money?”

I was 19 when Juno was released and I was so entirely jealous that despite her parents’ anger, they accepted the title character for who she was – a pregnant, unmarried teenager who chose to have her baby. I can’t say the same would have happened if it were I, which is why it’s so important to talk. No matter how difficult and how uncomfortable, without dialogue it’s nearly impossible for things and sensibilities to change.

It took me many, many years to open up to my father. It started in my late 20s when I was forced to call him to vent about how an ex had dumped me and how that made me feel. I had turned to him only because Ma was traveling and therefore unavailable. He didn’t quite know what to say when I was hopelessly sobbing on the phone, except that heartbreaks are a part of life and things would get better.

And strangely, that’s all I needed to hear. It was quite different from the way I had known Ma to handle it – often blaming me and telling me how I suck at keeping relationships.

Papa grew up in a far more conservative environment, and women in his family were treated very differently. Keeping that fact in mind, I’m certain it must have taken everything for him to let go of his own social conditioning and adapt to the way I think. I also realized that he isn’t ever going to initiate a discussion of this nature and the onus is always on me.

Fortunately, millennial dads are trying to be more forthright and participate equally with their spouses without necessarily assigning gender roles. We hear about more stay-at-home dads than ever before, even in urban India. Fathers are more open to hearing their children out even if that means leaving their comfort zones. A Piku-like relationship is rare in real life in India, but slowly and surely they’re developing.

At 30 now, I realize it has been a while since I’ve been embarrassed. And that’s because Papa has never cringed at these topics and over the years there has been an effort from both ends to engage in dialogue. It’s a life-long process and there are many, many things and feelings I still find difficult to disclose and discuss with him.

But at least for now we’ve reached a point where we can look at Meghan Markle’s nudes, remark that the person who leaked them is a jobless bloke, appreciate her beautiful body, and move on with our bloody lives. It is really no big deal.

Chandni Doulatramani

Chandni Doulatramani is an independent journalist and writer based in Kolkata and Bangalore.

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