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

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Velaiilla Pattadhari (VIP) 2

VIP Poster

Sequels are always tricky. Returning to a popular character or scenario is fraught with unfavourable comparisons, and finding a new story that works while retaining the aspects that made the original film so popular is another minefield to cross. There are a few sequels that turn out better than the original film but they are the exception, and sadly VIP 2 isn’t one of them. However, while it may not be the best sequel ever made, it’s certainly not the worst and as an all-round entertainer, it fares reasonably well. Most of the success is due to Dhanush who carries the film over some occasionally rough ground, but Kajol makes a better than average adversary while the presence of many of the original cast (including Harry Potter) ensure good continuity with the first film.

After dealing with Arun in VIP, the sequel opens with Raghuvaran (Dhanush) still working for Ramkumar (M.J. Shriram) at Anitha Constructions and winning the Engineer of the Year award. This brings him to the attention of Vasundhara Parameshwar (Kajol) who runs the biggest engineering firm in South India. Raghuvaran’s dismissal of her offer of employment rankles, but not as much as his admonishment to be less arrogant when Anitha Constructions wins a big contract over Vasundhara. A self-made woman who has clawed her way up from the bottom, Vasundhara makes it her mission in life to squash Raghuvaran like the bug she perceives him to be, but of course it’s not going to be as simple as she believes.

All the elements are there from the previous film, Raghuvaran’s beloved cycle, his dedication to the memory of his mother, and his unfortunate tendency to drink too much when faced with a problem. What doesn’t work quite so well is the change in Shalini (Amala Paul) from a sensible romantic interest to a shrewish and nagging wife. Supposedly this is due to giving up her job and taking over all the household chores, which to be perfectly honest is enough to drive anyone to grumpiness, but the constant bickering wears thin very fast. Worst still, Shalini’s nagging is supposed to be funny, but it’s just as irritating to the audience as to Raghuvaran’s family.

Kajol is a huge improvement over Arun and his father as the villain of the piece. Her entrance is more typical of a hero as the first glimpse is of her stylish and very pointed stiletto hitting the ground as she arrives at the Engineering awards ceremony. In fact, the crowd reaction was just as loud and enthusiastic for Vasundhara’s entrance as it was for Raghuvaran’s first appearance on screen. Kajol totally owns the role and her arrogance and confidence are a perfect balance to Raghuvaran and Ramkumar’s humility and attention to detail. And yet she’s not evil or out to destroy the poor of society, simply determined to push though her own ideas and methods regardless of anyone standing in her way. However, after a great start, her repeated attempts to get the better of Raghuvaran start to seem petty and churlish rather than decisive and it seems unlikely that someone who had the strength and ability to run a successful company would be quite as petulant and narrow-minded. Still, Kajol is stunning as she sweeps around in her tailored suits and stylish sunglasses, while her menacing dialogues are surprisingly effective.

Raghuvan’s father (Samuthirakani) is a more supportive figure this time round, but his brother Karthik (Hrishkesh) barely gets to say a word and most of the VIP boys suffer the same fate. Without any substantial input, they become a faceless mass without any of the charm or appeal that allowed a connection to develop to these characters in the original film. The film is significantly more focused on Dhanush, who has the acting chops to carry it off, but at the expense of a more coherent storyline. The plot wanders as story and screenplay writers Dhanush and Soundarya Rajinikanth try to include as many of the characters as possible from VIP 1, but run out of things for them all to do. Saravana Subbiah pops up as an unscrupulous developer while Vivek reprises his role as Raghuvaran’s side-kick Azhagusundaram. While both are fine in their roles, the characters seem to be added in, one for comedy and one to have a reason for the fight scenes, rather than have a true background and reason to be in the script. The final confrontation between Raghuvaran and Vasundhara is also a little disappointing although otherwise the chemistry between Dhanush and Kajol is excellent and the atmosphere between the two crackles at each meeting.

Sean Roldan’s music is perfectly fine but the songs don’t have the same anthemic qualities as Anirudh’s previous tunes, a fact underscored every time the original theme for Raghuvaran plays in the background. However, the choreography is slicker than in the first film and the fight scenes are also of a high quality.

If this was a stand-alone film, I would have rated it as a good action movie with an interesting concept and two excellent characters in Raghuvaran and Vasundhara. The addition of a strong and powerful female character works well here, and Dhanush emphasizes gender equality a number of times throughout the film, although it doesn’t quite gel with his wife having stopped work to look after the family home. The problem is that this is a sequel, and while the original elements are cleverly arranged to form the foundation of the film, too much feels to be added simply because it was part of the first film, while VIP2 doesn’t have a strong enough identity to pull away and succeed without that original scaffolding being firmly in place. It is however much better than I expected and both Dhanush and Kajol turn in strong performances under Soundarya’s direction to make VIP2 more than just a film for fans, but one that’s unlikely to reach quite the same cult status as the original movie.

Pinky Beauty Parlour

Pinky Beauty ParlourAs 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.