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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Bajirao Mastani

Bajirao Mastani

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest epic is another triumph for the set designers, costume makers, make-up artists and jewellers of whom there must have been legion. It’s not just visually spectacular either, with impressive performances from the main leads and a beautiful soundtrack and background score. In fact the story turns out to be the weakest link in an otherwise lavish spectacle since for an epic love story, the film is strangely lacking in romance. However the film still makes an impact and with strong female characters, glittering scenery and plenty of Ranveer Singh, it’s definitely well worth watching in the cinema if you can.

The opening scenes are imperially ornate and immediately set the scene for an epic tale of daring do and palace intrigue. Unfortunately there is subsequently rather less of the daring do, with few scenes of battle and the palace intrigue hinted at doesn’t come to anything either. Bajirao (Ranveer Singh) wins the post of Maratha Peshwar with some rather nifty archery, and immediately heads back to battle to continue the expansion of the Marathi kingdom. While out on campaign he comes to the aid of the King of Bundelkhand and after rescuing the kingdom from an army of invaders, Bajirao falls for the King’s daughter by his second Muslim wife, Mastani (Deepika Padukone).

Mastani is a warrior too and manages some impressive sword work herself, which is presumably why Bajirao falls for her. But what happens in Bundelkhand should stay in Bundelkhand and the trouble starts when Mastani follows Bajirao back to Pune, where Bajirao lives with his wife Kashibai (Priyanka Chopra) and his mother Radhabai (Tanvi Azmi). Radhabai is incensed that her family line should be polluted by a foreigner’s blood, particularly since Mastani is Muslim, and she deliberately humiliates Mastani at every opportunity. Radhabai is an interesting character with a little more depth that just a standard outraged matriarch and Tanvi Azmi is excellent as the embittered widow who feels she is fighting for her family’s honour. She is ably supported in her machinations by Bajirao’s younger brother Chimaji Appa (Vaibbhav Tatwawdi) and his eldest son with Kashibai, Nana (Ayush Tandon). Her outrage and vehement opposition to Mastani is perfectly vindictive and beautifully balanced by her warm relationship with Kashibai and her devotion to her son.

Ranveer Singh does a fantastic job as Bajirao to the extent that I don’t actually like his character much – impressive when I usually love every character he portrays. Here he is consumed by desire and mostly oblivious to the pain he causes others, making him too arrogant to be a completely likeable character. Bajirao is certainly a fearless warrior, but Ranveer gives him a compassionate side and also allows glimpses of insecurity through his relationship with Mastani.  However he doesn’t see the contempt with which his family views Mastani and seems oblivious to the threats against her life. He is more concerned with his role as Peshwar until he lets his desire for Mastani overcome his sense of duty and allows his obsession with her to rule his life. Ranveer shows little of the swagger and attitude from Kil Dil and Gunday, but transforms himself into an eighteenth century warrior with plenty of imperial remoteness and stately reserve, which may partly explain the lack of warmth in his relationships. Unfortunately Bhansali doesn’t show many battles, and in the few fight scenes Ranveer mainly sits on a horse and swings his curling sword, although he does manage a few good grimaces as he rides to battle. Maybe I watch too many SI films but I was disappointed at the lack of battle scenes and would have loved more action rather than the relatively bloodless clashes here.

As Mastani, Deepika is mesmerizing when she snarls her way through battle but she becomes flat and lifeless once she transforms into the love of Bajirao’s life, losing all her sparkle.  I find Bhansali’s depiction of Mastani in love as insipid and overly compliant. Where did all her passion go? There is definite chemistry between Ranveer and Deepika, but there appears to be little joy in the relationship and I’m not sure that smouldering looks and declarations of’ acceptance’ are enough to explain why Mastani submits to the many indignities heaped on her admittedly capable shoulders. A love that is strong enough to withstand such determined and murderous opposition should be grand, overwhelming and all-encompassing, but that just doesn’t come across in the relationship between Bajirao and Mastani, and that is the most disappointing aspect of the film.

The best of the main leads is undoubtedly Priyanka Chopra as Bajirao’s first wife. She has the passion and joy in her relationship with Bajirao that is lacking in his relationship with Mastani and gets to show all her rage and humiliation when she discovers Bajirao’s infidelity. Priyanka is brilliant here in a perfectly nuanced performance that gives her the opportunity to show passion, despair, hate and compassion and she gets it right every time. Kashibai is the more interesting character and with grace and beauty Priyanka makes the most of the opportunity given to her in a faultless depiction of a betrayed wife.  She gets to dance too, and if Pinga doesn’t quite reach the choreographic heights of Dola Re Dola, Priyanka and Deepika are both beautiful dancers and look absolutely stunning too.

I didn’t know the story of the warrior Bajirao and his second wife Mastani before watching the film, and I’m not sure that I know much more about them afterwards either.  Bhansali takes moments from Bajirao’s life (although for a film about a great martial leader there are few glimpses of this side of his character) and intersperses them with behind the scenes action in his household, but the narrative jumps hours, days and then years without any clear indication, resulting in a disjointed timeline. Each scene is individually good, but doesn’t always totally gel with the preceding or subsequent action, while the lack of passion and joy in the relationship between Bajirao and Mastani is disappointing. However the opulent sets and overall grandeur of Bajirao Mastani are of the overall high quality expected from Sanjay Leela Bhansali and ensure that the film is worth watching even if it’s not as engaging as I would have liked. I’d recommend watching for the visual impact and for the excellent performances from all the cast, especially Ranveer and Priyanka.