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Lipstick Under My Burkha movie cast: Ratna Pathak Shah, Konkona Sensharma, Aahana Kumra, Plabita Borthakur, Vikrant Massey, Sushant Singh, Shashank Arora, Vaibhav Tatwawaadi, Jagat Singh Solanki
Lipstick Under My Burkha movie director: Alankrita Shrivastava
Lipstick Under My Burkha rating: 3.5 stars
Sometimes the threat of a ban is the best thing to happen to a film. Especially if the filmmakers decide to fight back, and win: from being the kind of film which potentially could have remained a festival-fringe, Lipstick Under My Burkha has arrived in theatres this week, all guns blazing, giving us the finger. And I can tell you that it’s absolutely worth your time, and your thoughts: this is exactly the kind of film we need more of, with its deep, personal, political and powerful look into women’s lives, which says what it needs to, and makes its points, without being preachy or polemical, or beating our heads with it.
Four women, based in Bhopal, going about their lives. At one level, it’s as simple as that, the happenings in the film. On another, the particularity of their situation has universal resonance. And through the comings and goings, Lipstick Under My Burkha draws an unerring picture of how women are bound, by convention and tradition, and of their inner lives and other bonds which keep them going.
Ratna Pathak Shah’s ‘Buaaji’ is the matriarch of a crumbling mansion that is on the radar of greedy corporators and a bunch of rent-seekers. Buaaji is the moral centre of Hawai Mahal, and her being a manifestly chaste middle-aged widow allows her to wield authority over the other residents, which includes the other three women, and their families.
Shireen (Konkona Sensharma) is the mother of three, and put-upon wife of a boor (Sushant Singh) who believes that wives are useful strictly to bear and rear offspring, and be pliant bed-warmers. ‘Biwi ho, biwi ki tarah hi raho’. Leela (Aahana Kumra) runs a hole-in-the-wall beauty parlour where the ‘mohalla’-women come to get threading-and-waxing jobs. Leela is a frankly sexual creature, and doesn’t care who knows it: whether it is ‘boy-friend’ (Vikrant Massey), or potential groom (Vaibhav Tatwawaadi). And the youngest, college-going Miley Cyrus fan Rihana (Plabita Borthakur) is struggling to find her voice, literally and metaphorically. Her orthodox parents are as stifling, as is the cruel assessment of her cool status, or the lack of it, by her smart college-mates.
What makes Lipstick Under My Burkha the film it is, is the upfront, frank manner in which female desire and fantasy are treated, running like a strong, vital thread through the film. Dreams can keep you alive, and age is just a number. The awakening of Buaaji, who has almost forgotten her name, is a revelation, crafted from pulpy, erotic literature, a girl called Rosie who is free to love and lust, and a well-muscled swimming coach. Shah is terrific. As is Sensharma as the wife who wants to grow wings. The younger women, both Kumra and Borthakur, are excellent as well. And the supporting cast is a delight: each one has been chosen well, and has a definite arc and function, a rarity in mainstream Bollywood.
There are a couple of niggles. In the way a character’s chafing at her small-town future plays out, and in the extreme, contrived reaction to the big reveal of another character. But these are easily ignored when we look at the big picture, which is wonderfully subversive. What the film says is something we’ve always known but bears endless iterations – that confinement is not associated only with a burkha. Any kind of restriction, sanctioned by long-standing patriarchy and deep misogyny, is equally shackling.
The deep red lipstick (Buaaji would call it ‘lipishtik’) becomes the colour and mode of rebellion, giving us a hint of what goes on inside—the turmoil, the pain, the swallowed humiliation, the unshed tears, the unspoken resentment and anger. It is precisely this that is so problematic for the naysayers (including the CBFC which tried so hard to ban the film) who want to keep women safely ‘inside’ home and hearth: if ‘ladies’ start getting ‘oriented’, and if films start showing it, what, gasp, may happen?
A song I love goes: where do you go to my lovely, when you’re alone in your head? Lipstick Under My Burkha takes us into that space, and lets its characters out, to start walking down forbidden paths, finding support in sisterhood, and in the recognition that we all have shades of Rosie in us. It is a film to be celebrated. Take a bow, producer Prakash Jha, director Alankrita Shrivastava, and the entire cast and crew. And now excuse me while I go looking for my deepest, reddest lipstick.