Lipstick Under My Burkha movie review: It’s clear why censors were unnerved by this brave, fun film
Director: Alankrita Shrivastava
The “burkha” in Lipstick Under My Burkha must be viewed with all the baggage the word carries. It is not a literal reference to the form-camouflaging garment worn traditionally by Muslim women. “Burkha” here is a reference both to the piece of clothing and the curtaining off of a woman’s dreams, desires and feelings.
This film is not about women of any particular religious group. It is about all women living in the shadow of tyranny.
Lipstick Under My Burkha is set in Bhopal where Usha Parmar (Ratna Pathak Shah), Rehana Abidi (Plabita Borthakur), Shirin Aslam (Konkona Sensharma) and Leela (Aahana Kumra) are neighbours in a congested lower-middle class neighbourhood. Rehana is a college student who also chips in at her parents’ tailoring shop. Unknown to them, she rebels against their restrictions and the burkha forced on her. A stone’s throw from her residence, unknown to an authoritarian husband (Sushant Singh), Shirin has been working as a door-to-door salesperson with great success, only to return home each day to be raped by him. Leela the beautician, meanwhile, has been planning a new business and simultaneously having an affair with a local Muslim photographer (Vikrant Massey), unknown to her fond fiancé or her widowed and financially desperate mother (Sonal Jha). Unknown to all of them, Usha is lost in a world of sleazy romantic novels, even as she oversees the running of her own sweet shop and a large, crumbling residential building she appears to co-own with her nephews.
Those with a penchant for whataboutery may please note that two of the female leads in this film are Hindu and two are Muslim. Read: 50% from each qaum. Happy?
Although it is very likely that writer-director Alankrita Shrivastava consciously divided the women equally between India’s two largest religious communities to pre-empt thin-skinned fundamentalists from both sides, the composition is cleverly handled and does not for a second feel forced. I thought of it only because Lipstick Under My Burkha comes to theatres in the aftermath of a tussle with the country’s ultra-Right, ultra-stupid Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) headed by Pahlaj Nihalani.
In fact, let me revise that earlier description: in addition to the four female leads mentioned, there is also a Christian woman in the picture.
Lipstick Under My Burkha opens with one of the most charming narrative devices seen in a while in a Hindi film. Shah’s voiceover is juxtaposed on visuals that are designed to mislead. The revelation of her character’s truth is one of the many amusing moments this film offers.
Despite the grim themes of female subjugation and the right to choose (your career, your spouse, the timing of a pregnancy, when you want to have sex and when you do not), Shrivastava tells the story with a light touch, and there is as much to smile about as to weep over in this film. That said, though Usha’s tryst with potboilers is funny, at no point does the film laugh at her. Each of these women – ranging in age from teens to 50s – longs for a life beyond the one she is now trapped in, each one has reason to be perennially angry and depressed, yet somehow each finds within herself the strength to hope.
(Possible spoilers ahead)
Unlike Leena Yadav’s 2016 film Parched, which featured three rural women in an oppressive environment, Lipstick Under My Burkha does not exoticise its characters for foreign consumption nor end on a conclusive, unrealistically optimistic note. It merits mention too that the world outside a stifling house is not painted as a paradise here, and we are reminded of the risks it holds for an inexperienced youngster like Rehana who is accustomed to segregation.
The inconclusiveness and the cautionary notes are among the nicest things about this film. Who can tell what the women may achieve for themselves if they choose to throw the veil away? Is freedom not a worthwhile end in itself, despite the pitfalls accompanying it?
This is not to say that Lipstick Under My Burkha is spotless. For one, the manner in which we are introduced to Shirin’s work feels contrived for effect. There are some details that needed ironing out. Case in point: shoplifting, without question, is not as easy as the film makes it out to be; and that gynaecologist looks too considerate to be examining a patient next to a window with blinds drawn back. While these are passing irritants almost forgotten by the end of the film, what cannot be excused is the self-defeating and mindless use of smoking and Mills & Boon-style escapist fiction (cheekily called Bills & Moon here) as motifs for women’s emancipation.
It is understandable, of course, that desperation might drive a lonely woman to seek refuge in such silly literature. However, the film’s failure to underline the horrendous gender stereotyping and the romanticisation of force in books of this nature is self-contradictory. Patriarchy is patriarchy even when couched in gentle terms.
In a scene clearly intended to exemplify female bonding in the film, the four women pass a cigarette around as they chat. This is not a casual occurrence, it is a very pointed exercise considering that it is a climactic moment and the first time two of them are shown around a cigarette or trying their hand at it. After getting so much right, that passage in Lipstick Under My Burkha ends up reinforcing a hugely reductive, widely prevalent perception of feminism. As a teacher, I have taken classes in which I have had to convince students as old as in their 20s that feminism is not merely a global movement to give women the right to smoke and drink (I exaggerate not). Having dwelt on so many grave issues during the film, it beats me why Shrivastava and her team chose to end with such a shallow, stereotypical symbol of a centuries-old struggle for equality.
The only thing worse I could think of would have been showing the women chucking their lingerie into a fire, thus furthering the propagandist cliché about the “bra-burning feminist” (whatever that means). C’mon Team Lipstick, et tu?
The smoking scene rudely reminded me of the superficial liberalism that pervaded Shrivastava’s directorial debut, Turning 30, in 2011. Lipstick Under My Burkha, to be fair, is a vastly evolved film and those jarring references are fleeting. Still, they are references that mar an otherwise even-toned tale.
Unthinking political correctness often drives artists to portray marginalised persons as flawless creatures. The women of Lipstick, thankfully, are not. And why should they be? Women should not have to be perfect to earn the right to their rights.
The men of Lipstick too are an interesting lot, ranging from the outrightly horrid (the rapist husband) to the socially conditioned (the controlling father, the sweet but boring fiancé) and the confused/confusing (the lover). The women suffer pain, the source of their pain is not always a man, and they cause pain too.
There is a point at which a woman is startled when a man turns on her and demands to know if she sees no use for him other than as a source of sex. Elsewhere, a man is hurt by his girlfriend’s infidelity. These are sorely needed reminders that despite the overriding benefits patriarchy offers men, it also causes us to view them through a narrow lens that a society as a whole may favour but the individual male may at least occasionally not. How do so many seemingly intelligent men not see the shackles they place on themselves in a bid to shackle women?
“Burkha”, then, stands for the opposite of freedom here; “lipstick”, depending on how you interpret the film, stands variously for the hidden self brimming with dreams or the mask we use to hide our inner miseries, our secret escapades and more. In one of the film’s many telling scenes, a woman dances silently in her room before a poster of her favourite Western pop icon, with the music playing completely in her head, while her joyless family moves around outside. In another, a woman pauses as if struggling to remember her name, because it has been so long since anyone asked her who she is beneath the Buaji (Aunty) they all address her as.
(Spoiler alert ends)
The smooth writing of Lipstick Under My Burkha is credited to Shrivastava (story and screenplay), Suhani Kanwar (additional screenplay) and Gazal Dhaliwal (dialogue). When combined with Charu Shree Roy’s seamless editing and Mangesh Dhakde’s carefully conceived, supremely entertaining background score, the narrative flows with remarkable ease. Zebunissa Bangash’s pretty songs (Le li jaan being the prettiest of the lot) are neatly knitted into the script. Akshay Singh’s camera keeps moving discomfitingly close to the women, and succeeds in capturing the claustrophobia that permeates their lives whether in their low-lit, cramped homes or even in bright open spaces.
The female leads are all stupendous, almost as if each is tripping over the other to be better than the rest. I dare you to watch this film and not fall in love with Ratna Pathak Shah, in a role that might easily have been caricatured by a lesser artiste collaborating with a lesser filmmaker. Konkona Sensharma is brilliant in an unassuming way. Aahana Kumra is a firecracker. And the multi-talented Plabita Borthakur is a find. Hers is a challenging part, since Rehana’s battles are mostly internal with limited dialogue, but she wages war with herself as effectively as with the enemy outside. Casting directors noting her model-like face and frame, do also note her rich voice. For the record, she is a professional singer, she has even recorded three songs for this film and written the lyrics for two.
The supporting cast is as talented and well chosen. Vaibbhav Tatwawdi lends appealing vulnerability to Leela’s fiancé Manoj. And Vikrant Massey, fresh from his genius in A Death In The Gunj, proves his versatility here in a completely different role as Leela’s boyfriend Arshad.
It should not come as a surprise to anyone that Lipstick Under My Burkha made the CBFC uncomfortable.
It is unrelenting in its social commentary, unapologetic about the mirror it holds up to Indian patriarchy, and reminds men that women – even those old enough to be their mothers – have sexual desires. Worse, by being nuanced in its portrayal of men, and striking a fine balance between humour and gravitas in its take on women, it threatens to have a wider commercial appeal than a weepie might have had.
Besides, it is that rare mainstream Hindi film placing the spotlight firmly on marital rape. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra had unexpectedly though briefly visited the horrors of sexual violence within marriage in 2013’s Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, as did Kanu Behl in a spine-chilling fashion in Titli (2015). Shrivastava treats it differently, lending a disquieting everydayness to it – the kind of stuff lakhs of women are so used to, that they might head off to the kitchen once the monster has had his fill in bed, there to mechanically roll out chapatis even as they silently cope with their trauma. The very thought is enough to turn the stomach of a decent person.
So of course Lipstick Under My Burkha could potentially upset many, many people. It has the ability to grab a person by the collar, shake them up and make them feel unsettled even if they refuse to introspect. I am willing to bet that Pahlaj Nihalani’s Censor Board will not be the last conservatives unnerved by this feisty, disturbing yet celebratory film.