Paromita Vohra: 50 shades of purple

Before I say anything, let me make full disclosure. I love purple. We found each other in my early teens, and have been often together since. Over the years, I have possessed a ring with a gigantic, fake (but oh, so superbly shiny) purple gemstone, a smoky purple velvet shirt, silvery-mauve Mary Janes, several purple satin and lace garments not visible in public, three shades of purple hair, every shade of purple nail paint and, of course, several purple lipsticks.

Aishwarya Rai flaunted a purple lipcolour at the Cannes last week
Aishwarya Rai flaunted a purple lipcolour at the Cannes last week

So, you won’t be surprised that I totally enjoyed Aishwarya Rai’s purple lipstick at the annual walk of fame and shame that is Bollywood brand ambassadors at Cannes.

Several snicker-jokes followed (‘you got kala khatta lips nanananana’) which made one nostalgic for Beavis and Butthead; or woman-shaming masquerading as fashion critique, yaniki Mean Girls pretending to be Clueless. It was a predictably gendered ‘Rai ka pahad’ (hey, I get wisecrack rights too). Ms Rai’s response? “It’s the time for creative artists to have their Picasso moments. Sometimes people get it and sometimes they don’t… And that’s fine! It’s really not my fulcrum of existence and I have enjoyed it.” Yaniki, whatevs.

To be fair, one can argue that supermodels and Miss Worlds (both of which Ms Rai has been) have contributed to and benefitted from constricting beauty standards. So, why wouldn’t they be judged by the same? To be even fairer, one can understand why they would want to escape from those constrictions even by a tiny gesture like purple lipstick.

Not so tiny, given the most frequently used word in the commentary was “bold”. Like, you know, foregoing shame and hesitation. Making a splash. For instance, what makes us love Ranveer Singh’s jackets.

Why was it bold? Because as my friend PS put it, it was not pink. Yes, there’s something about purple. Women’s lipstick commonly cycles from pink to red (not too bold a red) that is, virginal to matrimonial. Anything else, and you’re too individualistic, too counter-cultural, too daring, not feminine enough. You can be a smarty pants in every way, but don’t fool around too much in the looks department. That’s the truth of where we are baby, a long way from nowhere except, well, bold.

The first purple lipstick I ever owned, in the 1990s, was a shade called Cyber, denoting something futuristic, inorganic, risqué. Symbolically, purple is associated with ambition, strength, wealth, power, sexuality; in some cultures wisdom, maturity and spirituality. None of these convey a desire to please or conform, nor a desire to hide, for jamun is the un-forbidden fruit that stains your lips should you kiss it. Purple is also associated with witches and wizards, courtesans and queer folk — anyone who doesn’t conform to size zero, single shade definitions of gender. Purple — or blue — lipstick and such ornamentations stake a claim to dressing up, attractiveness beyond display and consumption.

I was unaware of these meanings when I chose purple. I fancifully think it was not I who chose purple, but purple who smiled and chose me and gave me a new palette of expression for different shades of existence than convention offered. If we believe aesthetics carries meanings beyond the cosmetic, it makes sense. So, I’m curious indeed to see what purple plans to do now that it has chosen Aishwarya Rai.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at


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