Just moments before intermission, one of the principal characters in Lipstick Under My Burkha, a young woman in Bhopal desperate to flee the arranged marriage and banal life awaiting her, crisply sums up the root cause of their ongoing disappointments to a friend who’s equally miserable in her life: “Our problem is that we dare to dream.”
Nursing dreams is a crime that all four women at the centre of this film are guilty of. Dreams of leading the life they want to, of taking ownership of their bodies, of breaking free from the shackles of their controlling families and from a sexist, prejudiced society that insists they must toe the line. How ironic that even the Censors refused to certify the film, objecting that “the story is lady-oriented, their fantasy about life”.
Co-written and directed by Alankrita Shrivastava, Lipstick Under My Burkha casts an honest, unsparing look at what it means to be a woman in small-town India. This is a city on the cusp of modernisation, where shiny new malls jostle for space with centuries-old apartment blocks, but where mindsets have remained as narrow as the bylanes.
Shirin, a Muslim woman (Konkona Sen Sharma), has been discreetly working as a door-to-door saleswoman, but hides this fact from her conservative, Saudi-returned husband. As far as he’s concerned, her only job is to raise their three children, and to satisfy his frequent and frankly selfish sexual needs.
Leela, a feisty young Hindu woman (Aahana Kumra), works at a local beauty parlour although she has a business plan with her Muslim lover whom she frequently enjoys sex with, and with whom she’s plotting her escape from the arranged marriage her widowed mother is forcing her into.
is many-layered. It’s the armor that protects her when she shoplifts at malls. And at college, she stuffs it into her backpack so she can fit in with the other students, agitating in their distressed burkhaFor Rehana (Plabita Borthakur), who goes to great lengths to hide her Miley Cyrus hangover and pop star ambitions from her strict Muslim parents, the denims for the right to wear jeans on campus.
Then there’s 55-year-old widow Usha Parmar (Ratna Pathak Shah), the respected ‘Buaji’ who runs the family business, but who covertly reads Hindi erotic fiction at night. When she falls for a strapping swimming instructor, her repressed desires find an outlet in steamy phone sex. As Buaji reads out the fantasies of Rosy, the protagonist of her pulpy romance novels, the character becomes a symbol for everything that the four women long for.
This is an engaging story, and the makers narrate it with gentleness, pathos, sexual frankness, and a king sized helping of humour. The four women are loosely connected; they’re neighbours in a dilapidated housing complex, and they also share an unspoken sisterhood of sorts. These are women fighting to express themselves, yet they're virtually invisible to those around them.
Shrivastava navigates sensitive areas like female desire, the sexuality of older women, and religious conservatism, but she does so without titillation or cheap sensationalism. It helps that she’s got a first-rate cast. Newer actors like Plabita Borthakur and particularly Aahana Kumra earn their place alongside seasoned performers like Ratna Pathak Shah and Konkona Sen Sharma, who are in excellent form both in the film’s dramatic and laugh-out-loud scenes.
On the flip side, the male characters are almost all dominating and unsympathetic, thereby perpetuating the popular feminist stereotype of men. The film’s ending too comes off as contrived and clunky, one of the only bits that doesn’t ring true. But these are minor hiccups in a bold, honest film that hits the right notes. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Lipstick Under My Burkha. It’s accessible and entertaining; that rare film about empowerment that delivers plenty laughs. Make sure not to miss it.
Rating: 3.5 / 5