Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under my Burka is a fascinating look at the lives and dreams of four different women living in a community in Bhopal. The film has been successful in a number of film festivals (including a sell-out show here in Melbourne) and has also recently released in India after some initial censorship problems. This is not the usual filmi view of Indian women as perfect mothers, wives or romantic partners, but rather a warts-and-all exposé of the realities of life as a woman in India today with all the restrictions, society taboos and in some cases the violence they face every day. These are real women and the film shows us their real lives. It’s the combination of that reality with powerful performances and a major dash of empathy that make the film a must-see, and one that stays with you long after the end credits roll.
The four main characters all live in the same housing block in Bhopal and although their lives connect only peripherally for most of the film, each is struggling with their own problems that eventually bring them all together by the end.
Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah), commonly known as Buaji is the widowed matriarch of a large family and has been called Aunt for so long she’s almost forgotten her real name. Her family own the building and it’s Usha’s who’s called on to deal with any problems, but despite her control over the family property, Usha has little control over her own life. This leads her to keep secret the few things she does have for herself. She secretly reads romantic novels, hidden from her family behind the pages of a magazine, and one of these books, Lipstick Dreams, becomes the background narration to the film. She also keeps her swimming lessons with the hunky instructor Jaspal (Jagat Singh Solanki) to herself, pretending that she is attending religious meetings instead, and the combination of frustrations, romantic dreams and a handy object of desire eventually leads her to racy phone sex, which she also has to keep hidden.
Rehana Abidi (Plabita Borthakur) is perhaps the most conventional character and is the owner of the burkha mentioned in the title. The film starts with Rehana stealing bright red lipstick by hiding it under her burkha. She applies this as soon as she gets to college, also shedding her traditional dress for jeans and a skimpy top, and changing her behaviour to suit. Rehana struggles to conform to the expectations dictated by her traditional family, leading her to hide her desire to become a singer, her western-style clothes and her pictures of Western popstars from her parents. The burkha is a symbol of more than just her perceived oppression too, as it’s also the shield behind which Rehana hides when she is shop-lifting and it allows her to pass almost unnoticed through the streets at night. Unfortunately, Rehana’s rebellion leads her to some dodgy choices, and she puts herself at risk when she becomes involved with an older man Dhruv (Shashank Arora), but for the most part her attitude is as expected for a young woman trying to escape her conventionally traditional family, and her motivation is relatively easy to discern.
Konkona Sen Sharma plays a more complex character and she does an excellent job with the role. Shireen is ostensibly a stay-at-home mom with three children and a slew of abortions behind her. Her husband Rahim (Sushant Singh) is based in Dubai and when he is home is only interested in asserting his ‘right’ to Shireen’s body, raping her most nights when he is home and refusing to wear a condom, despite the risk to her health. Shireen though also has a secret. She’s a very successful door-to-door saleswoman who is about to be promoted in her company, but she isn’t able to tell her husband as she knows he will not approve. Things become even more complicated when she finds out that her husband is keeping secrets too, but she seems trapped by her three children and society’s rigid belief in a woman’s place.
The final character is Leela (Aahana Kumra) who is Hindu and works as a beautician. Her mother is keen for Leela to marry well and has arranged her marriage with Manoj (Vaibbhav Tatwawdi) but Leela is in love with Arshad (Vikrant Massey) a Muslim photographer and wants to run away to Delhi with him. Leela uses sex as a bargaining tool to ensure that Arshad stays with her, but despite her modern views and her willingness to use her body to get what she wants, she’s still bound by convention and reluctant to run away without a man by her side.
The film follows these four women as they live their lives and dream their dreams, but finally their secrets are revealed with disastrous consequences.
What works well is the matter of fact manner with which Alankrita Shrivastava approaches her subject matter. The woman’s lives are shown authentically without glossing over any of the harsh realities of life in a small community. The women’s dreams and desires are mostly all relatable, as are many of their problems, making it easy to be sympathetic to their circumstances and hope that their situations improve. There are a few sex scenes but these are never voyeuristic, rather they are sensitively shot without any gratuitous nudity. Leela’s quick hurried couplings in various handy rooms and Rehana’s inexperienced fumblings are juxtaposed with Shireen’s attempts to ward off her abusive husband and Usha’s romantic fantasies in the bathroom.
While the women don’t interact much with each other there are a few moments where a couple of the characters come together, which serve to build a gradual sense of unity that becomes more apparent by the end. The actors too are all fabulous in their roles, ensuring the characters remain authentic while generating understanding and empathy. There is some excellent comedy too that stops the film from being simply a litany of abuses against the women.
The only real flaw for me in the film is in its portrayal of the male characters. These are almost uniformly one- dimensional with few redeeming features and, with one or two exceptions, only appear on-screen to abuse or threaten the women. Rehana’s authoritarian father and Shireen’s abusive husband are the most caricatured, but even Dhruv and Rahim are mostly self-serving with little thought for their female partners. This is in stark contrast to the women who have plenty of light and shade, and it’s a pity that Alankrita Shrivastava didn’t bring this diversity into her male characters too. The ending is also rather abrupt, and while I have no issue with leaving the final outcome hanging, the final scene had a few elements that didn’t quite fit with the rest of the film.
Regardless of the shortcomings with the male characters, the central theme is one of shame. The shame that the women are afraid of if their secret is revealed and the shame their families keep insisting the women have brought to them. When in reality all the shame here likes in the intolerant society and regressive views of the men. As far as showing the lives of the women involved goes, the film succeeds beautifully and indeed, the points raised are universal and hopefully will start conversations and increase awareness in many communities. This was simply an excellent film and one I highly recommend watching for a novel view of Indian women.