There’s a scene in Lipstick Under My Burkha where Rehana Abidi, played by Plabita Borthakur, is banished to her room after her conservative Muslim parents catch her dancing at an engagement party. As soon as the door slams shut, the college student jumps up on her bed and busts out some moves, muttering the lyrics of an English pop song under her breath. Hands, hips and hair move in perfect sync — Rehana dances with complete abandon. “I have very little in common with the character I play in Lipstick… barring the singing and dancing bits. I’m the third daughter in my family and I’ve never been made to feel bad about being a girl,” says Borthakur. At 24, she is the youngest member of a powerhouse ensemble led by Ratna Pathak Shah and Konkona Sensharma. As reviews pour in, it is clear — Borthakur is a natural.
She’s a long way home from Duliajan, Assam, where her father Probeen Borthakur is an Indian classical singer and teacher; her mother is a writer and poet. “My older sisters, Parineeta and Priyangi, are in the film industry as well. The arts were encouraged at home, and my parents didn’t care so much about academics, as long as I was interested in cultural activities. In a small, industrial township like ours, there’s no social life outside of the culture club,” says Borthakur, when we meet at the Balaji studio in Andheri, Mumbai. In an industry where every newcomer is styled and groomed and prepped to the gills, Borthakur is a breath of fresh air. She is chatty yet unaffected, and has an ease about her that is hard to find, this side of the suburbs.
Borthakur moved to Mumbai after completing high school in 2011; her sisters had already left Duliajan to try their luck in Bollywood. She joined Barry John’s acting studio even though Borthakur wasn’t entirely sure if acting was for her. “But at the studio, I realised this is what I wanted; because I’d never get bored of playing different characters. And now, this is all I know,” she says. Borthakur scored a few advertisement deals, but she was first noticed in PK (2014), where she played Anushka Sharma’s sister. “It was a small role and initially I didn’t want to do it. But I really wanted to work with Rajkumar Hirani,” she says. A year later, she would audition for Lipstick… and land a role half of Versova had read for.
“Playing a central character in my second film has been a learning experience. Alankrita (Srivastava, director) put us through several readings, and workshops with Atul Mongia. That helped me become a college student in Bhopal, who wears jeans under her burkha, adores Miley Cyrus and wants to be a singer like her. She just wants to get in with the cool crowd but her dual life catches up with her,” says Borthakur, who has also sung two songs in the film. “I have a band, Manu and Chow, and I have sung one of our original compositions, Into your arms. Music is a passion and I write songs, jam with my band whenever I get time in between acting assignments,” she says.
Borthakur says that she’s come into her own with the film. “I’ve had a very relaxed upbringing in Assam; my life couldn’t be more different from Rehana’s. But when I watched the film for the first time, I realised that I am not as liberal as I’d thought; I was as conditioned by patriarchy as other women are. With every interview, promotional event for Lipstick… I’m learning more about myself,” she says. What’s next? “I’m shooting for a film, set in Rajasthan. It’s due for release in 2018,” says Borthakur.