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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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.

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.