Accept, adjust, adapt, manage, tolerate, settle and ultimately suffer. This is the sad reality of many women in India today and the mindset they are expected to follow. Lipstick Under My Burkha is an important film, nay, an essential one. The kind you wish the entire country be made to watch and/or be included in a school syllabus.
Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha is a film which unapologetically looks to educate and generate discussion about a painfully overlooked and widely accepted reality. While it is the kind of film where the social message takes precedence over the story, it is to Shrivastava’s credit that she lets her characters and story do the talking without spreading her message bold and thick unlike films such as Aniruddha Roy Chowdhary‘s Pink.
The film follows the interlocking stories of four women across ages and life stages and explores their struggles of liberty, agency and sexual freedom in a harshly misogynistic society where aspects such as religion and regressive tradition reign supreme. Our society. The screenplay from Shrivastava and Suhani Kanwar strikes a curious tone which is as engaging, in parts wildly entertaining, as it is painful and harrowing.
The film offers fine casting and memorable performances to match with national treasures such as Ratna Pathak Shah and Konkona Sen Sharma, Inside Edge‘s Aahana Kumra along with exceptional newcomer Plabita Borthakur. The supporting cast is no less, featuring the likes of two of the brightest young actors working today in Vikrant Massey and Shashank Aurora.
Shirin (Sen Sharma) is the mother of three and talented saleswoman – a job she must hide from her oppressive husband. She wants nothing more than the freedom to follow a career she isn’t allowed to have. Leela (Aahana Kumra) is the fiery young women stuck between wanting to enjoy a liberal relationship with her boyfriend Arshad (Vikrant Massey), and the pressures from a family looking to get her ‘married off’, because hey that’s the whole point of a woman’s existence right? Her tale in particular paints a pertinent portrait of new India and their need to be free, explore and make their own choices, whilst at constant loggerheads with the shackles of tradition that the older generations and society at large would impose.
Rehana (Plabita Borthakur) is the young Muslim college student who is similarly caught between the social pressures of being a teenager, of fitting in and getting in the right circles, while trying to adhere to the mould of being the repressed, obedient, well-behaved girl her orthodox Muslim parents would demand. Her video protesting society’s norms for women is one of the film’s best scenes. And then there is undoubtedly the most fascinating tale, that of Usha Aunty (Ratna Pathak Shah), the community matriarch who is seen as a leader and parent figure above all else. Usha discovers the world of erotic novels and so goes on a journey to rediscover her sexuality and femininity, while keeping it a secret from a community that would most likely deem it repulsive, because god forbid an older woman also being seen as a sexual being.
The film offers four intricate, well-crafted stories which share common themes to shed light on the plight of women in India today. Where it suffers somewhat is in its originality and approach, given it’s strongly reminiscent of films like Leena Yadav’s Parched which similarly explored the lives of four women in rural India.
Many may call the movie ‘male-bashing’, a conclusion fragile egos are always quick to jump to, but Srivastava does well to keep her focus on these women and their personal struggles against society as a whole. Here women are limited and controlled and repressed at every turn, be it at the hands of men, parents, family or community. As Usha Aunty says in one scene:
‘Humara problem yeh hai ki hum sapne bahut dekhte hain.’ Our problem is that we dream too much.
India is one of the most curious nations on the planet, and among its many idiosyncrasies is the fact that the impact a movie can have here is beyond measure. Our unwavering devotion to the big screen means that films here can truly educate, change mindsets and start crucial discussions, arguably more than anywhere else. That is what I sincerely hope comes from Lipstick Under My Burkha, a film not to be missed. I’m going with 4 stars.