‘Lipstick under my Burkha’ review — rebellious film finally in cinemas!

Alankrita Shrivastava’s film is a devastating portrait of four women’s lives brought alive by a fantastic cast. It is about very tragic circumstances but immensely hopeful of some change to come
by Rutwij Nakhwa

The film starts with a highly ironic image — a lean, young burkha clad girl, Rehana (the fresh-faced Plabita Borthakur) bang in the middle of the cosmetics section in a mall, plastered with ads of western actresses.

We are bombarded by images and descriptions of liberal, liberated women from the West. We admire them in films, books, on TV but when the Indian woman begins to reflect some shades of this emancipation, minds instantly regress eons back to the puritanical, ideal India. We are a highly hypocritical bunch, shamelessly aping the west through most of our lives but dropping the grab, crying out tradition, the minute our paper-thin male egos are pricked by the tinniest needle. That is how we end up having most of our mainstream cinema centre on salacious portrayals of women but also ban a film for being “women-centric”.

Back in the mall Rehana looks around for a clear-path and walks out, literally, with a lipstick tucked away under her burkha. She is a thief, breaking the law, but in her world even day-dreaming about wearing lipstick or stepping out without covering herself “appropriately” constitutes a crime of biblical proportions. Rehana slips in and out of her burkha and also her identity as a college-going, teenage girl — kept hidden from her very orthodox parents but out there for the world to see. The film follows Rehana and three other women, similarly oppressed by society, and it is through small subversions like these that they attempt to live out their forever repressed dreams and desires.

The young Plabita Borthakur plays Rehana, with a sincerity and naturalness that suggest her (like every other woman) having fought similar battles in real life. The rest of the cast too, produce remarkably stirring performances. Ratna Pathak is a 55-year-old widow, battling loneliness and land sharks gunning for the ancient chawl ‘Hawa Mahal’, in or around which all the four characters dwell. She also fights a crumbling loss of identity; scared to look into the mirror not knowing who it is that looks back. Practically everyone just calls her ‘Buaji’, so much so that she herself has forgotten ever having another name. Buaji escapes from the grimness of her reality into pulp erotic-romance novels, which also form the voiceover for the film, frequently underscoring the tragedies and the lack of any joy or such fantasies in these women’s lives.

Konkona Sen Sharma, in a very understated character, is Shirin Aslam, married to an abusive, disinterested husband who has turned her into a prop for sex and producing babies. She makes the most of his indifference. Her nascent rebellion is being a sales agent, and a very good one at that, unawares to him.

Aahana Kumra like Borthakur, holds her own amongst stalwarts Pathak and Sen Sharma. She plays a beautician in small town Bhopal, where the film is set and all these lives intersect. She is a wannabe entrepreneur, roaming around town pitching business ideas with her lover and small time photographer (a very charged Vikrant Massey). Meanwhile, her single mother has fixed up her marriage, which brings with it financial security for both women, against her will — setting up a mesh of dilemma and disasters.

The four women are often pictured in claustrophobic, suffocating spaces and, for a film that has pitch-perfect lighting, many-a-times in darkness. There are times you see them in open, bright spaces too — but these moments are few and have a foreboding sense of being ephemeral and illusive. One sees the cages around them even where they are missing.

The edit is breezy and the close to 2-hour runtime doesn’t weigh one down. The sound design brings to life small town Bhopal with honesty and has a recurring violin track that underlines tragedy. Plot wise too there are a lot of light, funny and even happy moments but they only serve to accentuate the desolation of reality. The grief that this film explores is so endemic and systemic and no matter what you may try to douse it with, it will still get to you. The film every now and then does try to soften it’s blow but it hits you just so much harder for it.

One of the most heart-breaking scenes comes early on in the film. Young Rehana’s parents shame her for dancing at a small engagement function within the chawl’s courtyard, when she gets a little carried away. Sent back to her room, she goes without a fight. Then, she brings out her hidden Miley Cyrus posters and dances away, behind closed doors, to wild abandon — to no music but simply rage.

This film might just have had to be watched only behind closed doors in India. Now that it finally has a chance, we must go out and give it its due. It very heart-breaking and moving but that doesn’t make it any less engaging or entertaining.

Towards the end, Rehana says, “These stories mess things up for us, misleading us by giving false hope.” To which Pathak’s character remarks, “They are misleading, but perhaps also give us the courage to dream.”

This is a film about tragic circumstances but it is also immensely hopeful of change to come.

Rating 4/5 

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