Cast: Konkona Sen Sharma, Ratna Pathak, Aahana Kumra, Plabita Borthakur, Sushant Singh, Vikrat Massey
Director: Alankrita Shrivastava
Rating: 3.5 Stars (out of 5)
The burkha as a piece of outer clothing used to obviate temptations of the flesh - it could well have been the ghoonghat - is only a leitmotif in Alankrita Shrivastava's rebellious but even-toned film that got the goat of the man who undeservedly heads India's censor board and bleats a bit a too much against anything that he perceives as being at variance with his ultra-conservative worldview.
Prakash Jha may have produced Lipstick Under My Burka, but it is Mr Pahlaj Nihalani who has generated all the noise that the film needed to ahead of its release. Obstruction - and the resultant resistance by the makers - have raised the film's status to that of an all-out banner of revolt against stupidity. That is a huge burden to carry, but it sits rather lightly on Lipstick Under My Burkha thanks to the director's ability to offer us a brand of feminism that does its number without whipping up gratuitous froth.
The film tells the story of four small-town women with secret lives that run counter to their apparent existence. Matronly Usha Parmar (Ratna Pathak Shah) develops an appetite for unbridled carnal thoughts thanks to the spicy pulp fiction she devours on the sly and a brawny swimming coach who catches her fancy. Three other women who live in different parts of the house that Usha owns have their own stories.
A beautician Leela (Aahana Kumra) has ambitions that go way beyond the confines of her current calling. She expresses herself best when she makes out with her Muslim photographer-boyfriend Arshad (Vikrant Massey). College student Rehana Abdi (Plabita Borthakur), a Miley Cyrus fan who feels mighty suffocated in the orthodox family of a tailor, jumps out of her burkha as soon as she is out of the house. And Shirin Aslam (Konkona Sen Sharma), unbeknownst to her oversexed but unloving husband (Sushant Singh), makes more than a fair fist of being a door-to-door saleswoman.
All four want to shake off the burkhas - physical, social and cultural - that are a part of their conflicted lives. The options they explore are not always too much better, yet they labour on to find their own chosen corners in constricted spaces. Each does so in his own unique way. When the rubber touches the road, the burns give off a foul smell and the screeches grate a bit, but the quartet is engrossed deeply and happily enough in their pursuits not to worry about the inevitable spills along the way.
This realistic blend of their little triumphs with their occasional disappointments enhances the relevance of Lipstick Under My Burkha as a portrait of what women who live outside India's metropolises do with their bodies when left to themselves. It is a bold, brassy, colourful drama that redefines the female gaze: it places the sex drive of its four female protagonists unabashedly in the middle of the narrative frame. The actors turn in brilliant performances, giving the film an added edge.
Usha, everybody's Buaji, is no Aunt Prissy given to pussyfooting her way through innermost desires. Forced into a seemingly staid existence by her advancing years and the many responsibilities that come with age, she digs out a character from the pulp lit that she reads and uses the fictional figure's ideas to light up her own dull days and nights.
Her situation mirrors that of the other three women, but each sways to a different beat, making this a delightfully diverse and frequently funny feminist waltz on the wild side.
Lipstick Under My Burkha throws heavy punches at the shady patriarchal shibboleths that stand in the way of the feisty foursome and lands a few with such force that they jangle the nerves. That is not to say everything is perfect with this film, but who cares when the overall impact is so strong?
Some amount of simple math comes into play in the calculations that have gone into the screenplay. Two of the four women that the film deals with are Muslims, while the other two are Hindus. The equal religious representation seems a bit too pat for a film that is otherwise so defiantly its own beast.
That apart, the plot spectrum stretches from the dreams of an 18-year-old spinster to the fantasies of a 55-year-old widow. Between the two are a mother of three whose husband (Sushant Singh) uses her like a baby-bearing, libido-quenching a flesh and blood toy and the beauty parlour girl who lays down her own rules of engagement in the game of copulation.
Their struggles add up to a cohesive whole because Shrivastava rustles up a blend of affecting pathos and humour and garnishes it with the glue of female bonding, creating in the bargain a truly engaging and effective tale of women whose woes are but the starting points of acts of courage and defiance.
Neither repression nor oppression can keep them down. They come and go talking of taboo subjects like sex drive, masturbation and marital rape with a degree of nonchalance that gives the lie to all the preconceived notions that Mumbai filmmakers have peddled all these years.
Lipstick Under My Burkhabusts many a myth and serves the purpose of lifting the haze of prudery that generally surrounds the portrayal of women in Hindi cinema. It throws the whole shebang into the pot - the result is a big, big bang that is bound to ring in our ears for a long, long time.