Lipstick Under My Burkha

Lipstick Under My Burkha

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.

Lipstick Under My Burkha


Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation)

I’d be having a stern word with whoever came up with this blurb “Forget The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; India’s new must-visit accommodation for the elderly is Hotel Salvation. Take a visit in this award-winning debut.

Shubhashish Bhutiani’s Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation) is a beautifully made contemplative story of family, guilt, love, and finally death.

Dayanand (Lalit Behl) is from that blissful generation of men who don’t need to think about whether they are interrupting or are they being too demanding. Everything revolves around him. When he decides his time has come, there is no way to rationalise or compromise with him. Dayanand sulks and insists he will go to Varanasi alone because he is ready and therefore it is his time and that is where he will die. His son Rajiv (Adil Hussain) reluctantly commits to going with his father on what might be his last journey. They travel to Varanasi, and check in at the ramshackle Mukti Bhawan where people await their death by the holy Ganges. The efficient owner Mishraji (Anil K Rastogi) tells them he only allows a stay of 15 days and Dayanand is sure that will be enough. As it happens, Mishraji has a loophole whereby residents can change their names every 15 days. But he assures Rajiv the time is indeed close, although he can’t divulge any more details.

Lalit Behl is by turns childlike, childish, arrogant, demanding, apologetic and affectionate. Dayanand is not used to showing weakness in front of his family, but seems less uptight with his peers at the Hotel Salvation. Daya immediately immerses himself in the daily rituals and starts making friends with the other residents. He is there to actively prepare for his death and welcomes the process. He joins in writing obituaries and practicing yoga, and is addicted to a TV soap they watch every night. He finds community in the house. He is occasionally over the top but only when Daya is in a heightened state, and I thought every note rang true for the grumpy patriarch.

Vimlaji (Navnindra Behl) has genuinely prepared to go but can still enjoy every day she spends on earth. She says she will go when God calls, and has been waiting for 18 years. She is vivacious, the kind of lady you’d have tea and a natter with on a long train trip, but has a calm focus on her task of letting go. I liked her acceptance without finding her passively fatalistic. Vimla’s rapport with Daya is lovely, and I read somewhere the actors are married in real life which may be a factor in the warm familiarity and physical ease around each other.

Rajiv is awkward and appalled by what he sees as squalor and backward thinking, and wants his dad to either come home or go to a hospital. Rajiv is almost like a child again, hanging around on the fringes of adult conversation and not quite being able to participate. He wants to be there to do the right thing, but he doesn’t want to be there at all. He is intimidated by his father, and calls from his wife and demanding boss don’t help matters. Adil Hussain is lugubrious, tetchy, and a little fragile as Rajiv. He is in a rut at work and at home, and his father’s death plans are highly inconvenient. He doesn’t see the value in what Daya is doing, thinking of it as taking him away from work. But he starts to open up and shows that his frustration is driven by love and a maybe a bit of an inferiority complex. His scenes with Lalit Behl are emotionally complex yet very contained. There are few grand gestures or raised voices, and the acting is perfectly aligned.

Rajiv’s wife Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni) struggles with a demanding old father-in-law and an absentee husband. Rajiv and Lata aren’t wishing for Dayanand to die but they do wish they could get some idea of how long this phase will last. When Dayanand performs the cow donation ritual, it is life and death to him, but to the family it is just an interruption. Lata wants life to be normal, unexceptional, and organised. She seems brusque but when people need her affection it is there. Her scenes with Rajiv run from shockingly direct conversation to wordless empathy and she is the bedrock of the family.

There is often a point in family crises where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Everyone has their idea on what is right and what everyone else should be doing. That tension is drawn out very well, mostly through the character of Sunita (Palomi Ghosh). She is a bright and warm girl, and has a cheeky rapport with her granddad. Daya is less strict and demanding of her and Rajiv quietly absorbs the difference in how his family interact with each other and with him. When Sunita comes to visit, Dayanand and Vimlaji sneak a bhang lassi with her because it’s Varanasi and of course they should. The three of them giggle through the day and each takes comfort in the camaraderie. When Daya hints that she might not be happy with her upcoming engagement Rajiv brushes it off. Later he confronts Dayanand about why he was made to do what was expected rather than follow his passion. Rajiv is more like his dad than he realises.

Tajdar Junaid’s soundtrack complements ambient sound of prayers and TV and kids playing. Bhutiani and his crew largely eschewed the more sensationalised Varanasi cremation clichés and instead dwell on the daily rituals, the bustle of the narrow back streets, the changing light, and the overwhelming feeling that life is a cycle. Mukti Bawan is somewhat similar in content (if not in tone) to Piku, with a dominant patriarch on a journey only he comprehends and a family who don’t quite realise they are being given precious time to say goodbye.


Margarita, With a Straw


Margarita, With a Straw

Shonali Bose’s 2014 film follows Laila (Kalki Koechlin) as she navigates her way through the usual rites of passage that mark the transition to adulthood. The difference here is that Laila has cerebral palsy and spends most of her time in a wheelchair. It’s rare to find a story about a disabled protagonist that’s not about overcoming great adversity, but Margarita with a Straw is simply a look at Laila’s life as she navigates her way through college. Laila may have some physical limitations, but her dreams and desires are those of any young person and she doesn’t let her disability stand in her way as she moves to New York to go to college, embarks on a same-sex relationship and starts to take control of her life. The film does have a few flaws, but with strong performances from Kalki Koechlin and Revathy, and a generally upbeat approach, it’s definitely well worth a watch.

Bose based her story on her cousin who also has cerebral palsy and the film was made in consultation with an Indian based disability agency, ADAPT which ensures the situations seem true to life. The issues Laila faces are mainly due to problems with accessibility, such as when the lift at her college isn’t working and she needs to be carried upstairs, or when her wheelchair gets bogged down in the snow in New York. For the most part Laila is a regular student and her family encourage her independence, seeing her disability as just part of Laila rather than as a liability that will hold her back.

Laila is a student at college in Delhi where she has a number of friends. Sameera (Shuchi Dwivedi) plays guitar for a rock band and Laila writes lyrics for their songs, partly because she loves music but she also has a crush on the lead singer Nima (Tenzin Dalha). However, when she reveals her attraction, his awkward response devastates Laila to the point where she feels she cannot continue at college. Luckily for her, at this point she receives an offer to study in New York and over the objections of her father, but with the support of her mother, Laila moves to the US and a new chapter in her life.

While at home Laila experimented with her developing sexuality, including surfing pornographic websites, masturbating and becoming intimate with her friend Dhruv (Hussain Dalal) who is also in a wheelchair. All of this is shown in a very matter of fact way and I can’t remember any Indian film dealing with developing sexuality in such a realistic manner, let alone one that approaches it from the viewpoint of someone with a disability. The film deserves recognition for that as well as the authentic manner in which the friends interact. Dhruv broaches the idea that Laila has ‘normal’ friends simply to try and ‘fit in’, but Bose shows her isolation as the group chat and jam outside while Laila is left alone inside in her wheelchair. These scenes are sensitively handled without ever showing Laila as self-pitying or becoming overly sentimental, which makes the situations realistic and plausible. Also well done is the reaction of Nima when faced with Laila’s attraction which seems completely typical of any adolescent when faced with a declaration of love from someone they like, but are not attracted to in a romantic way. Although these are small moments, the film is made up of many such scenes which ensure the story is about Laila and not about her disability.

Laila’s move to New York brings her into contact with an attractive fellow student Jared (William Mosely) but this time Laila is more careful after her experiences with Nima despite Jared’s seeming interest in her. However, Laila then meets Khanum (Sayani Gupta) after getting mixed up in a demonstration and their friendship develops into an intimate relationship. Khanum is blind and Sayani Gupta is good in her portrayal of someone who cannot see, but unfortunately for the most part, her character is superficial and poorly developed. Khanum appears to exist only as a means to allow Laila to explore her independence, and their relationship generally feels clunky and odd.

The film is most successful in exploring the family relationships, particularly Laila’s relationship with her mother (Revathy). Laila’s desire for independence and privacy ensures there are moments of conflict, while Revathy is excellent as a mother trying to reconcile her need to protect her daughter with the realisation that Laila needs space to grow. Towards the latter half of the film Bose tries to cram too much in to this relationship including an unnecessary illness and a rather forced scene where Laila reveals her bisexuality to her mother, but where she keeps it simple it makes for some excellent and emotional cinema.

Kalki Koechlin does an amazing job with her portrayal of someone with cerebral palsy although it does seem a shame that there wasn’t a disabled actor playing the role. The level of disability she portrays does fluctuate a little throughout the film, but overall her body language is good and convincing while the emotional highs and lows are well done.  My DVD includes a ‘making of’ which does give some insights into the difficulty of portraying the character, and it’s to Kalki’s credit that she has invested so much time into getting her characterisation of Laila right. Revathy is also excellent while the rest of the supporting cast are also good. Kuljeet Singh doesn’t have much to do as Laila’s father, but he is fantastic in the emotional scenes near the end and really impresses by how well he conveys strong emotions so subtly.

Overall, Margarita, With a Straw is an unconventional film that may be a tad uneven but succeeds due to the excellent performances and strong emotional content. Bose paints a sympathetic picture of a young woman with cerebral palsy without dwelling on the disability, but rather focusing on the issues that everyone faces as an adolescent, whether able-bodied or not. Laila’s journey towards acceptance, by her family and by herself, is often funny, frequently emotional but always engaging. 4 stars.

Margarita, With a Straw