As we are told in Pinky Beauty Parlour, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, but we all have very different ideas of what makes someone beautiful. In the UK (at least until a few years ago and we all were made more aware of skin cancers), people felt that being brown and tanned was more attractive, while pale complexions were thought to be unhealthy. So I always find it strange that the opposite applies in India, where skin bleaching agents are hugely popular and I’ve seen many women apply turmeric paste to make themselves look paler. Whatever the reason for this obsession with paler skin, the idea that fair = lovely seems to be deeply entrenched in India and that’s the subject Akshay Singh tackles in his first film as writer/director. The cost to society of this odd belief is the main focus of the film, although police brutality and the struggle for women to have their independence also get some coverage. That makes it sound like a very dark and disturbing film, but in fact, it’s just the opposite. Pinky Beauty Parlour is more of a murder-mystery/ comedy and has been successfully shown at numerous film festivals including Cannes, Mumbai and Ottawa and this week was shown as part of the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne.
Growing up in Benares, Bulbul (Khushboo Gupta) and her younger sister Pinky (Sulagna Panigrahi) have always looked very different, and people frequently comment that they don’t look like sisters. Bulbul takes after her father, and is more dark-complexioned while Pinky is fair, like her mother. Despite their differences the sisters have a good relationship, but it’s notable that when their parents die, Bulbul sends Pinky off to work in a beauty salon in Delhi.
Bulbul runs the Pinky Beauty Parlour where she has a number of staff including odd job man Khanna (Abhay Joshi) and driver Dulal (Akshay Singh). Things are generally going well until one of the beauticians tells Bulbul she can no longer carry out home visits when her possessive boyfriend insists that she stop. At the same time one of Bubul’s most annoying clients decides to sue the beauty parlour for failing to make her beautiful despite numerous facials and treatments. The court scenes are hilarious but also ensure that Bulbul is seen as a sensible and rational woman, completely different to her demanding clientele.
Pinky is called home from Delhi to take on the client home visits and help out in the salon, but shortly after her arrival a dead body is found on the premises. Police officers Jata Shankar Singh (Vishwanath Chatterjee) and Sami Akhtar (Jogi Malang) waste no time in declaring the death to be suspicious and soon everyone is under investigation for murder.
The film shows events leading up to the death in flashback as the police interrogate everyone involved. Chief among their suspects is Dulal, but the more the police look for answers, the more secrets and questions they find. As the investigation gets steadily more complicated it seems more and more unlikely that Jata and Sami will find out what really happened one night in the beauty parlour.
Pinky Beauty Parlour is a good mix of drama and black comedy in this murder mystery with a difference. The characters are all beautifully portrayed and are a good mix of different personalities, but all with typical ‘small-town’ features. Bulbul is a sensible business women, but is hampered by her darker skin which continually sees her treated as less than her sister. Pinky is beautiful, and knows it, but is upset by her sister’s treatment of her, not really understanding the resentment that lies behind her sister’s actions. Both Khushboo Gupta and Sulagna Panigrahi are excellent and make the most of their excellent dialogue to further develop their relationship during the flashback sequences. Akshay Singh is simply brilliant as Dulal whose timid appearance and quiet demeanour initially make him an unlikely candidate for the murderer while the revelations of his unexpected depths are funny but also rather poignant given the events that follow. Vishwanath Chatterjee and Jogi Malang add plenty of comedy as the bumbling police officers on the trail of the murderer, but while their methods of interrogation (including one memorable scene with a radish) are very funny, their casual acceptance that torture is the way to get answers is another issue highlighted by the film.
The music too is good and the songs fit well into the film without disrupting the narrative. Gagandeep Singh’s cinematography ensures that Benares looks amazingly beautiful in the shots taken across the Ganges, but that when seen closer up, the view isn’t quite as pleasant. It all adds up to a well-balanced film where every small piece seems to fit perfectly in its pre-ordained place.
The overall message of the film is that discriminating against those of have a darker complexion is not only a source of great harm but is also a behaviour that makes no sense. No-one is less attractive simply because they have a darker skin tone and the news stories shown at the end highlight the ultimate cost of such prejudice. However, despite the important message, the film isn’t judgemental or moralistic in any way, but is instead entertaining and funny which makes the harsh reality of the final frames even more shocking. Akshay Singh and co-producer Bahnishikha Das are to be commended on blending entertainment with their statement on one of society’s ills that rarely gets a mention in cinema. Pinky Beauty Parlour definitely deserves a full theatrical release which hopefully will happen soon. But until then, catch it if you can on the festival circuit for an engaging film that intelligently mixes drama and comedy while shining a light on a more serious society issue.