If there is one thing you have to credit Alankrita Shrivastava’s latest film with, it is that it throws open the lives of women in a way that we rarely see on Indian celluloid.
The protagonists in “Lipstick Under My Burkha” are not the coy, virginal women Bollywood has long idolised, nor are they emancipated, modern women who don’t need validation from men for the way they live. The four women are somewhere in between – the chasm between conservative backgrounds and modern outlooks that characterise India’s ongoing social churn.
Shrivastava bases her world in a crumbling block of flats in old Bhopal. Usha Parmar (Ratna Pathak Shah), who everyone knows as Buaji (aunt), is the landlady and runs her business with an iron hand. She is forced to hide her love of Hindi pulp novels and her crush on a swimming instructor because as a widow, she is not expected to have these “feelings.”
In the same block of flats is Shireen (Konkona Sen Sharma), a mother of three who suffers her oppressive husband and hides her working life as a saleswoman from him because he doesn’t believe women should work.
Her neighbour Leela (Aahana Kumra) is about to get into an arranged marriage she doesn’t want while at the same time being involved in a toxic relationship with a man who refuses to commit.
The fourth protagonist is Rehana (Plabita Borthakur), a young college student who loves Led Zeppelin, ripped jeans and drunken parties, but has to hide behind a burkha because of her conservative family.
The 118-minute film follows these women as they try to find some semblance of freedom and liberty in a world that is otherwise run by men. Its intentions are honest, but the narrative strikes a false note at several key points.
Shireen’s confrontation with her husband’s mistress, Rehana’s issues with her college mates and Leela’s see-sawing emotions all reek of artificiality. The climax, where every single character in the film converges in one place and every single plot point is resolved, is the mother of all contrivances and does the film’s message a huge disservice.
The sense of hope, which pervades most of the film, comes crashing down with the way the film ends. It seem like the characters are right back where they started. The men in the film are wholly one-dimensional – almost as if their only role is to act as hindrances in the path of women’s liberation.
Of the cast, Shah is excellent as Buaji and is wholly responsible for making her story the most compelling of the four. Sen Sharma is predictably pitch perfect. “Lipstick Under My Burkha”, much like the beauty product in its title, is at best cosmetic in its treatment. No wonder then, that its impact doesn’t last for more than a couple of hours.