While forcing himself on his wife, the man utters, "You are a married woman, don't try to be the husband," as a retort to one of her actions earlier that day that he didn't approve of. The busy streets of Bhopal outside don't pay heed to this little indoor activity capable of instigating a sense of horror and revulsion in the viewer. You can look the other way and ignore what's happening on screen, but writer-director Alankrita Shrivastava will not let you as she takes you on a superficial journey of four women as they try to fight stigmas and oppression in a male-dominated country that still hesitates to consider marital rape a criminal offense.
Sex may still be a taboo in India, and that is why the narrative opens with Leela (Aahana Kumra), a beautician, enjoying a quickie with her photographer boyfriend while her future husband awaits her arrival so they could get formally engaged. She is forced into an arranged marriage by her widow mother who is not too jubilant about any of her escapades, let alone sexual, because she is a girl who has to eventually end up as a husband- pleaser. The base story is same albeit in different contexts in the neighboring houses where certified babymaker Shirin (Konkona Sen Sharma) will soon be admonished for "trying to be a husband", pseudo-kleptomaniac college girl Rehana (Plabita Borthakur) goes to some uncool extents to blend in with the cool kids at college but still staying within the limits of Islam, and senior lady Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah) tries to find sexual satisfaction through pulpy literature. They all live in the same complex as the viewers are taken through their individual life stories slightly interwoven for reasons favoring a moral climax.
The leading women in Lipstick Under My Burkha are rebellious and opportunistic. Motivated by self-interests, which the film often likes to attribute to inhibited female sexual desire, these four women are trying to find their own ways to fight oppression in a patriarchal society. Among their adversaries are objectification, societal dogma, and preconceived general notions related to feminine desire – all of which have a combined effect against their common cause.
However, the boldness and vivacity of these stories should not be considered as a bona fide encapsulation of stark issues it so rapturously tries to raise. Other than Shirin's story, which you may have already seen in one medium or other, the remaining three give a peek only from the periphery. What is Usha's history and why does she behave the way she does? What is Leela's problem? They are wafer- thin subplots that do not go deeper, thus failing to come up with any solutions to the problems. The film suggests everything, but resolves nothing – and that is what troubled me as a viewer. A tinge of misandry could be sensed in the screenplay but the writers cover it up by introducing colorful secondary characters.
What you may not enjoy is the sexual sequences. It can easily get uncomfortable as the film moves ahead, with oodles of one- dimensional nudity and implications. The cinematography is poor, especially in these sequences, and is most evident with Leela as she tries to satiate her coital needs. I would also blame the poor direction of supporting actors. The focus seems to be only on the four women and their immediate causes of trauma; the supporting cast look like they are in a lowbrow Television serial. There are small bulb shoots of sweetness scattered all over the film directed at those viewers looking for comic relief and revenge. The soundtrack helps in the montages here, but fails everywhere else. The songs are direct consequences of scenes, thankfully for a Hindi film, and certainly adds up to the glamour.
A wonderful cast, led by Sharma and Shah, give out a memorable performance. Kumra is impressive too, but Borthakur looks like she was forced out of her sleep to act. Nothing wrong in that, but if the makers' intention to capture authenticity was on the agenda, it definitely failed. The competition is really between Sharma and Shah, both of whom portray their characters with total conviction, making us get into their skin and feel their hardships. Sharma's Shirin is the housewife present in majority of Indian households, and I am sure all of them will admire her acting. But, how many are going to watch it? Shah is equally good but slightly more courageous in her role. Even as Usha debates (with herself) going for a swimming class, Shah enables her to think in a way that relates with the senior community where there is no place for sexual fantasies, as we see later in the film. If the theme is something that convinces you to watch this film, then it's the phenomenal cast performance that will keep you from leaving the hall between a sex scene.
Remove the theme and you will see the problems with Shrivastava's amateur filmmaking. The score often starts after every meaty turn in the film as if this is Aesop's Fables and the lead characters are introspecting. It also disregards a lot of important plot points (which can be converted into plot holes, if you like to call that) and hesitates to clarify them, giving the informed viewer something more to chew on. It is clear that the makers just wanted to scratch the surface without aiming for perfection, and when the fruits are already blooming, what more do you ask?
I do not usually get angry while watching films, but this one is a subject that should make you angry. Lipstick Under My Burkha is not intrinsically vulgar, but something that can be perceived as one. And that is what makes watching it worthwhile despite its shortcomings.
Lipstick under my burkha, a film by Alankrita Shrivastava, was in the headlines due to its release being banned in India. It is a film which focuses on women, their sexuality, their desires, their frustrations and their need to break the shackles of society in which they feel suffocated. Alankrita has made a very unapologetic film. And yes, as the media reports were there, the film is bold in terms of its theme, subject, screenplay as well as its treatment. If we compare it with the films of the west, certainly one could notice the scope of improvement. But if we take this as an Indian film, indeed, it is a first of its kind, where the film tries to depict the females and their vulnerabilities without actually defending the same. But what the film does not try to do is to show the change in any context or the situation for the female characters. The situation remains the same. As a result, the film appears neither taking any stand as such nor bringing any transformation to the characters. It just seems like the lady characters are fulfilling their desires or living in their dreams/fantasies. The end feels a little abrupt. But yes, the film is successful in making its point clear that hypocrisy exists in our society even in 21st Century, norms of our society being gender specific, and how every woman has the right to live her life and make her choices too, but she is deprived of her basic rights. The film is not taking any moral stance but taking us through the journey of women as they are. It just highlights what is prevalent in the society without trying to find any answers to many pertinent questions raised in the film. It also appears as one sided story from females’ perspectives.
The backdrop is set in Bhopal and Alankrita chooses to have four female protagonists who all stay in the same mohalla nearby – Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah), Shirin (Konkana Sen Sharma), Leela (Ahana Kumra) and Rihana (Plabita Borthakur). Alankrita has also selected another character Rosy from a novel to share the expressions what is not shown on the screen but certainly important for the audience to understand these four characters and their feelings in a much better and explicit manner.
Burkha is used here more as a metaphor since within this burkha, there is a woman who wants to just fly free, sing at the top of her voice, use make up, conscious of one’s looks, wants to look good, wants to enjoy sex, wants to talk sex over phone, wants to do everything which is taboo as per societal norms.
Usha is 55-year-old widow who is known as Buaji. She even has forgotten her real identity of Usha, tells her name as Buaji when asked. She loves to read pulp novels and she meets her sexual urge through these characters’ portrayals. The interesting thing is that Usha hides these novels in between some other book and then reads. This is how she hides her own embarrassment of having the desire for sex and wanting to be sexually active. She herself feels that is it appropriate for her to think of sex or reading pulp novels.
Another important character is that of Shirin portrayed by Konkana Sen Sharma. Shirin has 3 children. Her husband Aslam (Sushant) is now back to India, earlier he was working in Saudi. This is a typical case of marital rape. Sushant is hardly having any love for Shirin and children but every night he wants to have intercourse with Shirin. Shirin surrenders to Aslam in spite of not enjoying. Besides most of the times, she ends up reaching clinics to get abortions done. She is working as a Sales Executive but hides this from Aslam knowing that he would not allow her to work. Many females would be able to relate to Shirin’s marital rapes, sighs, tears, and longingness to have her man’s love instead of lust.
Leela (Ahana) is a character who is gregarious, declares her love to her photographer boyfriend (Vikrant Massey), very expressive. She loves to click photos with him and even loves to record videos while Leela makes love with him. She runs her own beauty parlour. She wants to just move out of the colony where she stays and run away to Delhi with her boyfriend. She rebels against the proposal brought in by her mother.
Rihana (Plabita Borthakur) is a college student, who belongs to a family which is into tailoring. She loves to sing and dance and just wants to get rid of the burkha. She is so submissive in front of her parents, obeys them apparently but the moment she steps out of her house, she removes the burkha and reaches college in modern outfits. She represents many girls of our society, who just want to break free of every restriction at home. And when they enter into an environment which they want, they fall into parties, boys, drugs, drinks etc. To project her lifestyle better, she even goes to the extent of stealing branded things from shops in malls.
The story of all these four women clubbed with Rosy’s story from the novel moves in non-linear format. Ratna, Konkana, Ahana, Plabita are all good in the film. Their uninhibited ways have made the film not cross the line of vulgarity. Although this is a women-centric film, male characters support to take their stories ahead. Usha’s story moves ahead through Jagat Singh Solanki who portrays a Swimming Coach. Jagat has done many films in the past and he brings a lot of credibility to his characters. Here, in this film, he projects very well that how he gets attracted to a female and her phone talks. And as his role of swimming coach demands, he has maintained a very well-toned physique. Sushant as Aslam - Shirin’s husband is certainly wonderful. He maintains the expressions of an abusive husband. Vikrant Massey is another character who does comedy as well as serious roles quite effortlessly. And here in this film as well, Vikrant as a lover boy and boyfriend of Leela is very good. Vaibbhav Tatwawdi as Leela’s fiancée has also given a good performance. Shashank as a college mate of Rihana plays a typical boy who is an opportunist and does not shy away from breaking his commitment to a girl.
There are many dialogues in the film which are very explicit.
What happens to Usha, how she meets her sexual urge? How does she meet Jagat’s character? What happens to their relationship? Does Shirin ever oppose Aslam and confess that she is not in a mood to have sex without love in the relationship? What happens to Leela, she marries her fiancée or runs away with her boyfriend ? What happens to Rihana? How does she handle the peer pressure of ‘being cool’, going to parties etc. What happens to her relationship with Shashank’s character? How Rihana’s parents handle her truth?
Being an adult film, this film can not be watched with kids. But I do suggest couples or singles to watch this film.
Lipstick Under My Burkha without taking any moral stance is successful in making its point clear that hypocrisy exists in our society even in 21st Century, norms of our society being gender specific, and how every woman has the right to live her life and make her choices too, but she is deprived of her basic rights. It just highlights what is prevalent in the society without trying to find any answers to many pertinent questions raised in the film. The end could have certainly been better.
It is strange to see how a movie that is made to depict the chauvinistic mindset of our society faces the same set of issues to get its releasing rights. Director Alankrita Shrivastava however, alongside her powerful team of super women, overcame all struggles with the help of the FCAT, to finally demonstrate its poster's message to the CBFC.
What happens when a 55-year-old begins a phone romance with a young swimming coach, a housewife turns into a shrewd saleswoman, a teenager’s frustration leads her into the forbidden path and a girl continues her raunchy physical relationship with her boyfriend amidst pressure to get married?
The performance by all four protagonists is a sight to behold. Their male counterparts do an equally fantastic job; Sushant Singh as Shireen's chauvinistic husband, Vikrant Massey as the typical small townie and Shashank Arora (remember Titli?), as the college bad boy everyone wants to date. With close up shots defining the complex emotions of the characters and pan shots filming the claustrophobic picture of Bhopal city, the cinematography is decent. Though it talks about loaded concepts like women’s freedom and emancipation, the film has its own share of comic scenes which refrain from making the movie too gloomy or dark. However, some scenes, especially the climax and the one where Shireen finds herself helpless on bed, will leave you in tears.
Lipstick Under My Burkha deserves all eyes and ears as it's a brilliant piece of cinema – thanks to ace level performances, a beautiful script, witty one liners, and of course a powerful social message shouting out for gender equality.