Lipstick Under My Burkha is not a sensational or titillating film: Ratna Pathak Shah
Veteran film and theatre actress Ratna Pathak Shah has worked with stalwarts like Shyam Benegal (Mandi) and Ketan Mehta (Mirch Masala), and has done a range of interesting roles in the recent past, including Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, Khoobsurat, Kapoor & Sons and Nil Battey Sannata. However, she feels that her upcoming film Lipstick Under My Burkha was something very special. “I have never come across a script and role like Lipstick and I probably won’t after this,” says Ratna, adding, “It’s about the way in which women are perceived and how they perceive themselves. My character is quite unusual. She is traditional, born and lived her entire life doing what society expected of her until she decides to go in search of an identity.”
She continues, “Sex is just part of it, everything is getting distracted by sex [sic], probably because of the in-your-face trailer that has people intrigued but that is not the real point. I was relieved greatly that it is not a sensational, titillating film and it was a very tough line to balance the story. Anything this way or that way would have tipped it into the area of the unacceptable. But Alankrita (Srivastava, the director) managed the tight-rope walk beautifully, and after the relief came great satisfaction and happiness. It’s one of the most powerful films I have ever worked on. The story has been told with restraint and intelligence. There was lot of discussion, conversations, we rehearsed a lot and it was a fruitful and satisfying partnership,” says Ratna, who will be next seen in Anees Bazmee's Mubarakan and Ronnie Screwvala's Love Per Square Foot.
Adds Konkana Sen Sharma, the other protagonist, “The film is beyond sexual revolution. It deals with gender more than sexuality because the gender discrimination that women face, cuts across age, class, nationality and religion. It doesn’t matter whether you are 15 or 55, living in a village or a city, you are told subliminally or directly what to wear, how to think, what is allowed and what is not allowed.”
The film became a major talking point when the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) derailed its release for almost six months. Ratna says that she had expected trouble during the shoot, “but I didn’t expect them to do it in such a silly way. It showed them in poor light. They are so concerned about showing the world in a bad light but they should first think about themselves,” says the actress. In its letter, the CBFC had initially refused a certificate on the grounds that “the film was lady-oriented, their fantasy above life”.
But Konkana was quite surprised with the CBFC's move as she didn’t anticipate any problem with the censors. “I felt we were showing something real and genuine and that women will be able to relate to it. Many-a-times we show women in a demeaning light, it may be consensual, but they are objectified and CBFC does pass it. Some films perpetuate a certain kind of stereotypical way in objectifying women but they do allow (that). Ideally CBFC should just certify and say it is not for children but meant for adults.”
Konkana says that she jumped at the courageously written, nuanced script. “My character is so beautiful, fragile and vulnerable. She is not a feminist, she probably doesn’t know about it (feminism) and never questions why she is not allowed to do certain things. She is shown finding ways to subvert wherever she finds loopholes, and quietly does her own thing which is so brave. One rarely comes across such well written scripts with characters so well fleshed out. It is seamless. It felt very genuine and kept me engaged with the characters,” says Konkana.
The two younger members of the cast, Aahana Kumra and Plabita Borthakur, however, had a more adventurous journey and also a bit scary experience filming, especially shooting scenes on a bike while wearing burqas in old Bhopal, and sharing a cigarette. “We were quite scared and worried that people might start pelting stones at us. We felt suffocated and a bit unsafe in spite of being with the crew,” they say. Further, Aahana, who says that she cannot deal with a man holding her hand or coming close to her, found it extremely difficult shooting intimate scenes. “The minute 'action' was announced, I would freeze. Vikrant (Massey) and I would stare at each other for five minutes before enacting those scenes. It felt so weird,” says Aahana.
However, the film has been a great source of inspiration and education for both on a personal level. The biggest take away from the film for Aahana is, “that I stopped being a boy”. “I grew up in Lucknow. I would dress up like a guy, have my hair cut like a boy's because I wanted to be accepted in society. I felt that unless I looked and behaved like a guy, nobody would listen to me. I would wear loose clothes, baggy jeans fearing eve teasing,” says Aahana. "Now, after doing Lipstick Under My Burkha, I have accepted myself as a woman and I have started dressing like one. A big chunk of my life, about 30 years has gone in thinking that I am a boy, but the film has brought a huge change in me," she says. Adds Plabita, “I used to think that I belong to this broad-minded, liberal family but during the making and after watching the film I realised that I, too, had a conditioned mind and that I needed to get out of this box. I wasn’t this cool girl that I always felt. The film has made me introspect on my life.”