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

Kapoor & Sons


Kapoor & Sons is a refreshingly ‘un-Bollywood’ look at family and family relationships from director Shakun Batra. In conjunction with co-writer Ayesha Devitre Dhillon, Batra has produced a film that delves past the superficial public face of the Kapoor family to reveal the insecurities and arguments that lie beneath. It seems that there is something for everyone to relate to in this story – whether it’s the marriage between Harsh and Sunita that is falling apart, or the sibling rivalry between brothers Rahul and Arjun, most of the film relates to family episodes that are easily recognisable and understandable. While not everything in the story works, the relationships and characterisations do, making Kapoor and Sons a film that stays with you after the end credits have rolled.

I do love Rishi Kapoor and one of the drawcards of this film for me was watching him play the ageing patriarch of the Kapoor family. The prosthetics used to age him appropriately are fairly obvious and his character’s fixation on pornography quickly wears thin, but as the story progresses and Amarjeet Kapoor insists that all he wants as he approaches his ninetieth birthday is a happy family photograph, the character gains depth and intensity. The film starts with Amarjeet ‘practicing’ his death, obviously a common occurrence since his son Harsh (Rajat Kapoor) and daughter-in-law Sunita (Ratna Pathak Shah) pay no attention to his histrionics. The couple have their own problems and ignoring Amarjeet, or Daddu as the family call him, just seems to be part of their usual day. Harsh and Sunita have grown apart over the years of their marriage and there is a definite chill as they barely manage to speak civilly to each other. Sunita suspects that Harsh is having an affair with a previous work colleague Anu (Anuradha Chandan) and the two bicker and argue constantly. It’s a well written portrayal of a marriage gone sour where even the smallest comment can start a major argument and there no longer seems to be any common ground between husband and wife.

Their two grown up sons live overseas. Based in London, Rahul (Fawad Khan) has one successful book behind him but is falling behind his publisher’s deadline for the second. Arjun (Siddharth Malhotra) on the other hand is an aspiring writer, but is working as a bar-tender in New Jersey as he tries to find a publisher for his work. Both return to the family home in Coonoor when Amarjeet is hospitalised with a heart attack and the film follows the various relationships within the family as they are reunited under the one roof once more.

For me the most successful character is Sunita whose bitterness at her life flavours every word she says in the first few scenes. Her relationship with Harsh is perfectly portrayed and the hurt and resentment come through in each conversation. She has issues with her two sons too.  Arjun accuses her of always favouring her eldest son and although she denies it vociferously it’s obvious that she does have a definite preference for Rahul.  When she finally discovers the secret Rahul has been keeping from her she is devastated and Ratna Pathak Shah is superb in portraying her feelings of betrayal and loss mixed in with remorse and just a little guilt for some of the things she has said and done. She’s not just defined by the relationships with her husband and sons either, as her dreams of starting her own catering business allow her character to be more than just reactive. Rajat Kapoor too is excellent as the distant husband who wants to save his marriage but can’t seem to take the first step to making the necessary changes in his relationship. Although at times the bickering does seem to go on too long, to the point where I became uncomfortable watching Sunita and Harsh argue, it is true to life with every irrational and tit-for-tat response feeling genuine and realistic. There are moments of tenderness too and despite all the hostility there is a pervading hope that perhaps the two will manage to resolve their differences. The writing emphasizes the emotions of each character clearly and ensures the dialogue feels realistic and genuine.

The two sons have their problems with each other as well as with their parents. Arjun has always felt that he is the outcast in the family, particularly in comparison with Rahul, who always seems to be the perfect son. Returning home to find that his room has been taken over by his mother while Rahul’s has been left untouched immediately reinforces his feelings of alienation, further fuelled by his belief that Rahul stole the story of his first novel. Although Rahul can see the issues bedeviling the family and does his best to smooth things over, he has his own problems to work through.

During his visit home, Rahul wants to work on his latest book and also find a suitable place for an artists’ retreat. His search brings him into contact with Tia (Alia Bhatt) who is attracted to Rahul, but Arjun has already met Tia at a party and decided to make her the object of his attentions. This sets the two brothers up as potential rivals – an added friction that escalates the conflict between them. What makes it more believable though is that even with the issues between the two brothers, they still have typical sibling conversations. It’s not all arguments and fighting and the two share a good rapport that seems very natural. It’s typical family behaviour that adds to the authentic feel of the film and makes the characters more relatable. Both Fawad Khan and Siddharth Malhotra are at their best when dealing with each other, although otherwise Fawad Khan comes out the better of the two in terms of performance.

While Alia Bhatt is fine as Tia, her manic pixie-girl act is occasionally too OTT when added in to all the general angst of the Kapoor family. However, I like that Batra gives her character more depth using her friendship with Bunkoo (Aakriti Dobhal) and her dealings with cook/general handyman Kishore (Pradeep Pradhan) to bring out different aspects of her character. The romance between Arjun and Tia is also fairly standard stuff but does provide some welcome relief from all the squabbling between family members. Sukant Goel as Wasim and Fahim Shaikh as his brother Boobly also ensure there is some lightness amid all the doom and gloom as the rest of the ‘comedy’ is rather more hit and miss. Tia’s ‘jokes’ are not funny at all (although that I presume is the whole point!) while Daddu’s antics at the hospital appear too forced and falling just on the wrong side of offensive to raise anything more than the occasional smile.

Another plus for the film is the soundtrack which maybe works so well due to the number of different composers and lyricists involved. The background score by Sameer Uddin is lovely and the various songs include music from Amaal Mallik, Badshah, Arko and Tanishk Bagchi that give a good mix of different styles that each suit the flavour of the film. My favourite is Kar Gaya Chul above, but each is well placed in the narrative and complements the action. The scenery and beautiful house also give an authentic home-like atmosphere that adds to the overall realism of the film.

Although the film pacing is occasionally uneven and at times the arguments threaten to veer a little too close to farce, for the most part this is a realistic look at middle class family life. The arguments, petty disagreements and relationship flaws within the family are all explored, firstly among the family and then further secrets revealed when private disagreements are suddenly open to public view. The writing is excellent, the characters beautifully  developed and the story flows well from one excruciating argument to the next, with all the angst and self-recrimination that goes along with family fights. I thoroughly enjoyed Kapoor and Sons and recommend it for the wonderful performances, realistic dialogue, plausible situations and overall thoughtfulness that make this one of the better films from last year. 4 ½ stars.

Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu

I must confess upfront. My friend Jess appears as an extra and dancer in Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, and without that motivation I probably wouldn’t have gone to see it. But I am so glad I succumbed to the friendly emotional blackmail! It’s a well constructed piece nicely executed by first time director Shakun Batra and writer Ayesha DeVitre. Imran Khan and Kareena Kapoor were appealing and relatable, and demonstrated their comic flair. The standard masala trappings of big songs, blingy costumes and unnecessary subplots are for the most part missing, but instead I was treated to some good character development and writing with a slightly unconventional and very pleasing end.

Jess told me that she did ‘something’ in the opening scene but wouldn’t say what. If you’ve seen the film, the young lady giving birth is Jess. That was definitely unexpected. My friends (one of whom is very pregnant) and I cheered along as Jess grimaced and puuuuuushed!

Rahul Kapoor (Imran Khan) is introduced in a neat montage with a voiceover describing his childhood. With a distant demanding father (Boman Irani) and a vain socialite mother (Ratna Pathak Shah), Rahul learned to do what was expected and to navigate his parents ambitions. He grows into a nervous young man who never voices his opinions let alone acts on them. Drifting into a career as an architect, he moved to Las Vegas. Sadly his lack of passion for the career translated into lack of success and he was sacked. His instinct is to hide the truth from his parents and try to cope alone but he lacks the self belief to get going again. His dad’s friend, and indeed everyone else when asked, seems to think the cure for his malaise is sex and lots of it. Rahul is uptight, prissy and unlikely to heed this helpful prescription. He would think wearing un-ironed socks was totally wild behaviour.

Riana Braganza (Kareena Kapoor) is messy, extroverted, and affectionate. She rockets through life dealing head on with whatever setbacks she encounters and changing course as she deems fit. She has recently broken up with a boyfriend and it seems to have also made her break up with their friends who she accused of spying on her. She is looking to start again and get her life and career as a hairstylist back on track. Her parents are supporting Riana financially and emotionally after her break up. They talk openly about her relationships and dreams and she seeks their advice without feeling obliged to follow it.

Of course these opposites meet, and predictably enough Riana turns Rahul’s life upside down. There are several contrived plot set ups to bring the pair together and to keep them in contact, including a drunken Vegas quickie wedding. I have a sneaking fondness for the Elvis wedding celebrant idea. One of my friends got married there as he and his wife are atheists but they both believe in Elvis. Even though the catalyst was so filmi, the friendship between the pair felt quite substantial and the way the relationship developed was quite organic. Unlike other films where I have wondered why people stuck together, I believed that they were drawn together for a number of smaller reasons that eventually amounted to a significant bond.

Sensing that Rahul needs a break, Riana persuades him to come back to India with her when she visits her family. This eventually brings the story to crisis point. Is it friendship or love he feels? Is she just a compulsive hugger or does she have feelings for him? What will he do about his parents with their unrealistic expectations and social pretensions? If someone loves you do you feel obliged to love them back? It is so refreshing to see characters having some mature conversations about their feelings and what they might mean.

Imran has a youthful good boy look that suits Rahul, and initially seems withdrawn and listless. He loosens up and becomes more impish and demonstrative as Riana draws him out. He has a few moments of cutting loose where he seems to channel the Muppets, and generally hits the spot in his dialogue delivery and expressions. I particularly liked Rahul’s fixation on his teeth. At one point Riana tells Rahul that he is perfectly average – a compliment meaning he was balanced and didn’t do anything to excess. I think that sums it up. Imran gives a measured and deft performance in a film that has no real extremes.

Kareena’s performance is just right in terms of energy and sparkle, and she delivers the more emotional scenes with restraint and intelligence. There are shades of Geet from Jab We Met but Riana is more mature and self aware. Kareena’s rapport with Imran seems quite spontaneous and reinforced the feeling that I was seeing a friendship developing.

The story pivots on Rahul and Riana so the support cast is minimal. I really liked not having an unnecessary subplot. The actors who played Riana’s crazy family were all good, and they helped cement the sense that Riana was a real person and very much the product of her upbringing. There is one character who might fit the comedy uncle designation, demonstrating the vulgarity of the Kapoors’ social milieu, but he was a minor irritation. Boman Irani and Ratna Pathak Shah have perfect timing in their reactions.

The visual design is clean and uncluttered. There are some cute calendar graphics to illustrate the days as they pass, and they suit the laid back modern quirkiness of the story. Shakun Batra uses some wonderful shots of Las Vegas, and I liked seeing the overseas location treated as more than just a song backdrop. When the action moves to India the interiors are perfect for the two families and contrast their vastly different backgrounds. Both Imran and Kareena looked the part, with costume design that was mostly flattering and appropriate.

There are some nifty touches. For example, when Rahul is talking to his dad there is footage of a lion killing a zebra playing in the background, with the action in that sequence matching the ebb and flow of the dialogue. Or when on a date with Rahul, the girl (an old flame) sends a text to ‘Avantika Malik’ saying how dull he is. It’s a well thought out film, with a high level of craftsmanship.

The soundtrack by Amit Trivedi (lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya) is OK but a bit heavy on acoustic guitar and navel gazing. The songs do fit in the drama and the lyrics – while unsubtitled – seemed relevant from what I could make out. Aunty Ji is a highlight for upbeat fun and cheesiness. Imran has clearly been working really hard on dancing and looking like he enjoys it. Plus Jess – post ‘childbirth’ and now a backing vocalist and dancer! Yay!

Given there is usually only a choice of two possible endings, romantic comedies rarely surprise. Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu gave me some characters I liked, actors who did a very good job at realising their roles, an entertaining journey and a conclusion that was fresh and satisfying. It’s not a ground breaking masterpiece, but it is a pleasant and intelligent film. Recommended!