When Pahlaj Nihalani called Lipstick Under My Burkha too ‘lady oriented’ at the time of its release, he was probably right. Because this Alankrita Shrivastava film could actually be the most woman-oriented film Bollywood has ever seen. But why that irked the then CBFC chief even in the slightest completely evades logic.
There is no doubting the fact that Shrivastava does something utterly unusual with Lipstick Under My Burkha — she finds some massively compelling stories in the most mundane lives of four women in Bhopal. More so, in the secret double lives that these women lead retaliating against the regressive patriarchy of the society. It is in this rebellious world that they can be their real selves, that they can be Rosies. While it means earning a living for one, it means acknowledging one’s sexual desires or not wearing a burkha for another. It means living life with their own terms.
But not even for a moment does Shrivastava’s film feign to be the problem-solving machine that mediocre social dramas usually become in mainstream cinema. It makes a relevant point without being preachy. The furtive parallel world of Lipstick Under My Burkha’s small-town women is a glass house ready to crumble any moment. And it is in that minute realisation that the film understands and even drives home the point that empowerment doesn’t come easy.
Shrivastava is able to knit the extraordinary with the ordinary with her every day women characters and their very real life struggles. Lipstick Under My Burkha introduces us to four women, each leading a life starkly different from the other, but woven tautly with a unifying undertone of desire.
Shireen Ahmed (Konkona Sen Sharma) is shackled by a misogynistic husband who only wants to satisfy his carnal desire but she finds relief in her job as a saleswoman. Leela (Aahana Kumra) manipulates men with her sensuality but all she actually wants is to just enjoy life. Rehana (Plabita Borthankur) is cloaked in her burkha by her orthodox Muslim father, but she dreams of liberation and independence. Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah) is a seemingly asexual 55-year-old ‘bujurg’ for the society, but she pines for sex and enjoys reading eroticas garbed inside religious books.
There may be nothing so atrocious about these stories on the surface but Shrivastava’s novelty lies in her effortlessly realistic attempt to show what goes on behind closed doors for these women. While a conservative Muslim girl dreams of Miley Cyrus and channels her rage through freakishly dancing in her bolted room, another is only an object to satisfy her husband’s libido in her bedroom, (“Biwi ho, shauhar banne ki koshish mat karo”). While an engaged woman doesn’t mind asking for sex from her boyfriend even after a fight (“Sex toh karle yaar”), an older woman runs a tap to muffle the moans of her secret desires in the bathroom.
The one woman who especially shines in Shrivastava’s narrative has to be Ratna Pathak Shah’s Usha aka Buaaji. Shrivastava’s deftness and Shah’s prowess add nuances to a character that could have easily become a caricature of its emotions.
Almost halfway through the film, there comes a scene where a young swimming instructor asks Usha her name and her quick response is “Buaji.” She hesitates a little, takes a moment and then blurts her real name Usha. In that moment, the audiences along with Usha herself realise how being the universal “Buaji” and catering to the needs of everyone around her, Usha has somewhere lost her own identity. Hence, the Burkha of Lipstick Under My Burkha stands not just for a clothed veil, it is a metaphor for the boundaries set for the women to be ideal, be it by their family or by the patriarchal society.
But let’s also not forget the fifth woman in the narrative – Rosie, the sexually unbridled character from Usha’s erotica. The unspoken and unattended ‘Lipstick wale sapne’ of womankind find a way to Shrivastava’s celluloid through Rosie. What Rosie sees through her window is representative of all that the burkha-clad women realise through the course of their journey in the film.
Which is why even though lipsticks and cigarettes become unwarranted tokens of liberation in Lipstick Under My Burkha, it does not deter its point. Because through Rosie’s narrative, Lipstick Under My Burkha says a lot without actually putting it in words.
Just like real life, rebellions are not a definite war but persistent struggles in the world of Lipstick Under My Burkha. It is evident even in the climactic scene where the women are able to find sisterhood even in the simple act of reading an erotica. Where instead of a decisive victory, audiences are made to realise that the battle against patriarchy has to be an enduring one.