Lipstick Under My Burkha – A Review

“Maine kabhi waxing nahi karayi.”

-“Kya farak padta hai. Mard ho, mast jungle ugaate phiro!”

Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha is daring, truthful and rightfully feminist. It’s been a long time since Indian cinema has delivered something so refreshing, so soaked in the ideals of feminine freedom. She uses brilliantly drawn up characters played by phenomenal actors and tops it off with amazing storytelling. At a time when feminism as a movement has picked up in India, and women are becoming more aware of their rights everyday, Lipstick is even more hard hitting.

Entirely too often, when talking about equal rights for men and women the conversation shifts towards the youth and stays there; forever caught between the length of a girl’s clothes and the loss of morality in the new generation. Very rarely do these talks steer towards the problems faced by middle aged women or old women. Change is percieved to be a young person’s domain. 

Alankrita Shrivastava shows the world that she knows better, though. She reaches out and rips the proverbial tree of our biases off the grounds of society, roots visible.  The four characters in the film are actually not a far cry from each other despite being in completely different situations. Rehana Abidi (played by the beautiful and talented Plabita Borthakur) could easily fit into the shoes of Shireen Aslam (Konkana Sen Sharma). Both are only seeking freedom from a societal constraint they didn’t choose to be a part of. The film shows us how these women have been cornered, forced to play out a new version of a character that hasn’t changed through centuries. 
A memorable moment, Rehana asks the audience, not breaking the fourth wall, simply looking into an on screen camera and asking, humari azaadi se aap itna darrte kyu hai? 

The film doesn’t offer an answer to that, and it doesn’t need to. There is no reason to be afraid of the freedoms these women want. They don’t want to kill impudently, they don’t want to impose some kind of woman’s rule all over the world, they just want small liberties. To wear what they want, to marry when they want, to work, to love inspite of age. Those are their desires. That is what they do not have.

The script is awash with drama but has quite a few laughs in between. It makes you uncomfortable numerous times, more if you’re a man, utterly aware that you don’t have these problems and you will probably never face them. But to offset the discomfort there are jokes in there. Jokes that make you laugh and also jokes that make you chuckle and then realize how dark reality is. 

Lipstick has multiple stories. It follows four women who live in an old house in Bhopal. Rehana, Leela, Shireen and Usha urf Buaji.

Rehana is a burkha-wearing muslim girl who changes into a t-shirt and jeans before entering her college, she shoplifts quite frequently, using her burkha to help with her deception. Once she reaches the college, though, she is as each of us was. Trying to fit in, changing herself to fit her peers (and therefore hers) idea of ‘cool’. In one scene, she’s offered a cigarette by a senior and coughs after the first drag, her first drag. But upon being asked if she had ever smoked before, she lies rather unconvincingly to not appear out of place. We can all, male or female, relate to that.

Leela (Aahana Kumra) is a beautician who’s sexually active enough to cause riots among your average society aunties. She has an affair with a photographer, with whom she plans to elope and start a business venture. She too wants to fit in. But not with the people she is surrounded by but with the more modern world, she’s willing to go to any lengths to be free of her shackles.

Shireen is a saleswoman who hides her job from her conservative Gulf-returnee husband. She is ambitious and struggles to handle three kids, her job, and the libido of her better (or rather, worse) half. She’s shown to have an infection, it physcially hurts her during intercourse but she’s powerless to stop her dominant husband.

Usha, played by the wonderful Ratna Pathak Shah is the true star of the story. She is the one that brings together the entire film. The narrative voice is hers, reading out hindi erotica about a woman named Rosy, an alias she later adopts to have phone sex with her strapping swimming instructor. She is an embodiment of desire, shame and agelessness. Ratna Pathak Shah does Usha justice as she goes to a mall to buy a swimsuit, scandalized by the kind of clothing women wear to the pool. Pretending she’s buying the costume for someone else and loudly displaying indignation when the salesman suggests its for her. We are shown hesitation, intrigue, happiness; all without a filter.

There is a scene where Usha reaches climax while talking to Jaspal and it collectively makes everybody watching hold their breath, not quite grasping if what they’re seeing is real. ‘Are they really showing a 70-something woman orgasming on screen, in India?’, you ask. ‘Oh wow!‘, a lady behind you exclaims but as you look around, you realise, disappointedly, that despite it being 2017, you can already see the beginnings of outrage.

The supporting cast, featuring Kumud Mishra, Vikrant Massey, Shashant Singh and Shashank Arora add to the film in numerous ways despite their roles being quite a bit to the side. During the climax, Shashank Arora’s character asks Rehana, “Who are you?”. The question resonates with all four principal characters.

Lipstick isn’t perfect. It raises questions, but doesn’t offer solutions. Although, the asking itself must be lauded. The script falls in the second half as not all loose ends are tied up. It feels as if the realization that the film was going nowhere made the writer end it early. However, the impression you leave the theater with is rather positive. These women have not achieved the feeedom they desired, but they have each other. That thought comforts you.

Let’s get technical.

There isn’t anything too exemplary about the way that the film is shot, and perhaps, that is the point. The narrative is kept strongly in focus and amazingly stylish techniques have no place in this movie. Shrivastava proves herself to be a brilliant director as she carves out the characters’ personalites as close to reality as possible. 

One notable thing is how scenes start, though. The camera is never facing the object of the scene when it starts. It’s always looking elsewhere and then looks into the scene. It serves as a nice reminder that we too, are not looking at these issues and need to pay more attention. The music is great, reminiscent of slice-of-life comedy-dramas; lurking right in the background, filling up white spaces you don’t pay attention to.

Verdict

The film raises difficult questions. Shireen is getting waxed by Leela and plays with her wedding ring as the mechanics of her marriage are brought into question. This is just before intermission, Shireen says, “Bas yahi toh humaari problem hai. Hum sapne dekh lete hai.”

Alankrita Shirvastava does an amazing job. She shows us that women ultimately face the same problems regardless of whether they’re a burkha wearing college girl who loves Miley Cyrus or an old spinster with a penchant for erotic novels. Do watch the film if you’re a feminist, if you’re not, definitely watch it. You might grow a few brain cells.

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