LIPSTICK UNDER MY BURKHA
“Four females, their fantasies & womankind’s freedom”
Story, Screenplay & Direction: Alankrita Srivastava Additional Screenplay: Suhani Kanwar Dialogues: Gazal Dhaliwal
One-Liner: Set in the crowded lanes of Bhopal, four women from different age groups pursue their definitions of freedom furtively.
Lipstick Under My Burkha is not a film about women’s sexual desires. It is not about their fantasies. It is about their freedom- sexual, financial, emotional. It doesn’t paint a rosy picture or promise a paradise, but that doesn’t mean it is grim, serious or heavy. On the contrary, it uses dollops of humor to drive home its point: Empowerment doesn’t come free. It’s like the color red, dangerous yet tempting, because that’s the only way out for its four repressed protagonists.
The movie begins with a narration of a girl named Rosy. You wonder if she is the burkha clad girl who is shown on the screen shopping for a perfume in a mall. But a minute later, you realize she is an 18-year-old girl named Rehana (Plabita Borthakur) who hides behind her burkha to shoplift articles.
The narration continues and we meet Shirin (Konkona Sen Sharma), another burkha clad woman, but unlike Rehana, she doesn’t steal things, but sells them. She is an expert saleswoman. She has all the tricks in the book to win over her customers, but for a woman of her substance, it is sad to learn she has to hide her profession from her utterly cold and terrifyingly frigid husband (Sushant Singh) for fear of insulting his manhood.
The narrative moves to introduce the feisty Leela (Aahana Kumra – Is it just me or anyone else also thinks she looks like Kathryn Hahn?) She is gorgeous, ambitious and totally unapologetic about her sexual flings with her photographer boyfriend Arshad (Vikrant Maasey), even as she is to be married soon with her fiancée, Manoj (Vaibhav Tatwawdi). She is a dreamer, a bird, a raging fire. She has nothing to hide; yet she has to be mindful for being who she is.
And finally, we meet the adorable Usha, more commonly known as Buaji (Ratna Pathak). A 56-year-old widow and the owner of a successful sweetshop who has her own, to use a sanitary term, biological needs. And she finds it in the taboo pages of soft erotica that only get accentuated when she meets a strapping swimming coach.
Holding their desires together is Rosy, the character from Buaji’s erotic novels, which is used as an interesting device to bring out their deepest feelings.
Now, to dissect its screenplay is to dissect its characters, and the process only throws a lot of questions than answers at the curious audience.
Let’s begin with the youngest, Rehana. She might have been portrayed as a shoplifter in the first scene but as the story progresses, we see her as a girl who is afraid to be herself. Born to orthodox parents, she feels hesitant to express herself and finds solace in Miley Cyrus and Led Zeppelin’s songs. She aspires to be a singer in the college band, but her seniors wouldn’t have her. So what does she do? She tries to be like them. And what’s that? She becomes a part of their protests against ban on jeans and though a non-smoker, smokes with them. That’s how she gets into the fold.
Back home, she can’t even dance freely in an engagement because that irks her parents. She can’t raise her voice at them. She endures the denial of her freedom by mentally playing a Miley Cyrus tune, and dancing wildly alone in her room, suppressing her tears, her anger, herself.
She steals so that she can be modern, she smokes so that she can be a singer, she remains silent so that she can be accepted by her parents. What does she have to do to be herself?
Shirin, a mother of three and a dutiful wife, has a simple dream: Work as a saleswoman so that she can contribute to the family’s income. But is it so simple? Is it even possible when her husband sees her solely as a baby producing object who can be entered without any contraceptive at will?
Shirin is a silent victim of domestic abuse. She isn’t the ambitious kind; she isn’t the one who has big expectations from life. She has simple dreams, hopes for simple joys and pleasures, and seeks comfort in the mundane but the beautiful. She is all love. And it is this soft, delicate fabric that she is afraid to tear. She revolts towards the end, but is it impactful? Will she take a stance for herself and leave her husband? Will she tell the world, “I am free”?
Leela, the feisty Leela. She is everything that you would expect Shirin to be. And yet, is she free?
There is a scene in which she is having sex with her boyfriend on her engagement night. Her mother catches them in the act and slaps her. But she isn’t remorseful. In fact, she justifies her act as revenge for her mother forcing her to marry Manoj. Her mother isn’t angry. She simply moves over to another corner, gets a lipstick and applies it on Leela. Matter closed.
With no words spoken, it became clear that for all her big dreams, ambitions and plans to flee with her boyfriend, Leela is attached to her mother and she won’t leave her. Sure, they don’t share a typical respectful mother-daughter relationship, but the affection, though invisible, is still there.
It’s the same with Arshad. Leela thinks he is suitable for her because they are sexually compatible, but it is their love that binds them together. They go through cycles of break up and patch up only to realize in the end they love each other. But it’s too late by then. She has lost all ownership of her dignity. Plus, her mother’s dignity is under threat. She has transferred their right to live respectfully to her fiancée. What will he do with it? Will he be mature? Can he be mature? Is he really at fault? No matter what decision he takes, can we really blame him?
Leela, no doubt, is a complex character, but it is her story that forces one to see the hidden setbacks in the path of empowerment. Are we strong enough to punish the innocent to be empowered?
Buaji. She is Buaji until she is asked her name by her young swimming coach. As she writes her name on the admission form: Usha Parmar, she runs her finger on it feeling for the first time in many years her true identity. She has been long deprived of it, and this revival has also revived her biological longing. She no longer wants to delve into the erotic land of Rosy. She wants to be Rosy. She wants to have her passion respected and she goes for it.
Under the garb of a satsang, she goes to her instructor, feels the cool of the pool water and the warmth of her young hands. Her soul is revived but far from satisfied. She assumes herself as Rosy and engages in phone sex. She shivers and moans and titillates herself and in the throes of ecstasy, can’t see the impending tragedy. But when it hits, oh, can she endure it?
Questions such as these are manifold and answers none. To have given an answer would have meant a closure, but for a film that tries to be as real as the day, the non-closure is welcome.
The direction by writer-director Alankrita Srivastava is a blend of prose and poetry. Yes, there is the narration of Rosy to delve into the depths of her protagonists but that doesn’t mean she isn’t equipped with better narrative devices.
In the case of Buaji, she uses a mirror expertly to remind her of her real version before she can create the world of Rosy in her life. She sees herself and becomes conscious and finally ditches the mirror; Shirin’s angst is compounded through the innocence of her kids; Rehana finds closure in silence and dance and Leela…
There is a scene where Leela has to sell her scooter to make some money. As she leaves the scooter, she stops and turns back to look at it. Memories of her and Arshad travelling together come back and she dashes to him which, in the climax, becomes the decisive scene of her tragedy.
In the last scene of the movie, the four women, all broken and exhausted sit together. A mannequin’s head falls off from a sewing table. She has a burkha on and her lips are light red, not dark red- a poetic symbol of their faded spirits.
Speaking of red, there is almost everything red about the film. From lipsticks to nail polish to JNURM buses to disco lights to toys to Shireen’s night dress to her microwave… almost everything is red, perhaps a conscious decision on the part of cinematographer Akshay Singh to accentuate the struggles of the principal characters.
The dialogue by Gazal Dhaliwal have got some of the best lines you will hear in a long time. No, they are not witty or explosive. They are simple but make no mistake, they are sharp and piercing.
Of course, the movie isn’t without its flaws. Take Rehana’s impassioned speech, early in the movie, against ban on jeans for a news channel. Now, she is too afraid to be seen by her parents wearing jeans under the burkha. And here she is, making her voice heard with tops and jeans and even goes to the extent of ripping them, without any second thought of the possibility that she could be seen by her parents, or anyone from the neighborhood on TV.
Rehana’s shoplifting escapades are also unbelievable and the climax, though I personally liked it, seems a little contrived, given the way everyone’s truth is revealed in the same manner. In screenplay terminology, the device used is Setup-Payoff. The fact that all the setups are similar, except Shirin’s, makes you wonder if there could have been a different way to reach at the climax.
It may be a movie about 4 women, but the men too are not to be missed. Sushant Singh, Shashank Arora, Vikrant Maasey, Vaibhav Tatwawdi, Jagat Singh… though they may have less screen time and not much of a character arc, they play their parts to perfection.
Lipstick Under My Burkha takes a worm’s eye view of the closed lives of women in India. It is a film that doesn’t make any political statement, but simply urges you to be a part of a process. When none has participated in a process, how is a solution possible? And even if they do, the closure may take a long time. But nevertheless, it is a welcome breeze in the desert of Hindi films. We need a blizzard of Lipsticks…
– Chiranjib Sahoo
Chiranjib is a trained screenwriter from Whistling Woods International, Mumbai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org