Heartfelt and made with much gusto, Lipstick Under My Burkha amuses, shocks and even makes you cry. Director Alankrita Shrivastava surprises us in this tale of four women, separated by individual contexts but joined by a common will to be free. These women, trapped in their circumstances, go beyond convention, in rebellious but secret stealth measures. The characters are complex and multi-dimensional, flawed and funny, with shades spread over the whole spectrum-just as real people are. The voice of buaji (Ratna Pathak Shah), relayed as her reading of an erotic novel, connects the film beautifully. It gives multiple layers to the visuals, and meanings beyond what one can see.
Lying on a waxing table, a mother of three looks distraught. Her beautician and she have been discussing her husband. “He doesn’t touch you with love down there, does he?” The woman, looks away, trying to hold tears. “Why do you ask, when you know?” You feel a lump rising in your throat. In another scene, the beautician records her sex act with her boyfriend, just after getting engaged to another man. But she is also a woman in love. A 55-year old woman secretly has phone sex with a much younger swimming instructor, and he has no clue about her identity. Scenes like these and many more make Lipstick Under My Burkha tick and make the characters real. The actors give superlative performances, with a rare slipping of accent.
It takes a break from run-of-the-mill Bollywood romances, and speaks from the heart, in this case that of a woman. A film that unlike Bollywood films refuses to objectify women, and gives them real heart and soul. Women have dreams, women have desires, women have sexual desires, and seek control, at least of their bodies.
In an old residential building owned by buaji that houses all the central characters, Konkona Sen Sharma plays Shirin, a young mother of three and a secret saleswoman. She shines in the role of a repressed yet defiant wife, raising many a questions about independence, self-reliance, and respect for women.
Rehana (Plabita Borthakur), a young college girl, dreams of becoming a singer, struggling against her ultra-conservative upbringing. She attempts to blend in with the other college goers, even if it requires stealing, smoking or late night partying. This story seems to have a flawed sense of modernity, and in that sense falls short of the expectations and bars that the others set. It seems to propound conformity over exploration and adherence over questioning.
Leela (Aahana Kumra), a young beautician with a sizzling sex life with her boyfriend, is being forced into an arranged marriage. She is desperate to make money and struggles to start her own business. She is open and unabashed, even to the extent of cheating on her fiancé.
Buaji, addicted to erotic fiction, and widowed for far too long, craves to explore her sexuality. Her fascination threatens to spill into real life. At the age of 55, she seeks intimacy, which in case of a man would never even be question. But here, it is set to ruffle a few feathers.
The attempts of these women, at stealing this small slice of freedom results in comedy, and often in tragedy. The key strength of this plot is that these women don’t judge each other, taking their lives with a pinch of salt as they continue forward with indefatigable spirits.
The cinematography of the film adds to its realistic, raw feel. The editing helps seamlessly navigate through multiple narratives. The songs and music elevate the film. The pace in the middle part slackens a bit, but the engagement is high and we tide over it.
Refused a censor certificate for being “too lady oriented” and cited for “sexual scenes, abusive words and audio pornography,” the film has been blazing a remarkable streak on the festival circuit. Under that burkha lies a lipstick, and a heart.