What are the sexual fantasies of a 55-year-old widow? How does a college student who wears a burkha but loves Miley Cyrus reconcile her schizophrenic life? How does a feisty woman married to a callous man find the courage to change her situation? And how does a small-town girl who likes sex and is clearly smarter than her suitors find a way to make her dreams come true?
These are some of the questions that Alankrita Shrivastava's Lipstick Under My Burkha addresses. Wisely, the film doesn't offer any solutions but the fact of asking deserves applause. Lipstick Under My Burkha is brave and heartfelt. It presents, without melodrama or shrillness, the struggle of ordinary women in this country. What really hits home is that these women aren't chasing dreams of world domination. They are looking for small joys. They want something as basic as the right to live and breathe freely. But even that is a long and arduous journey.
Like millions of Indian women, Bua ji, Leela, Shireen and Rehana must live within the lakshman rekha of their prescribed roles – there is a lovely scene in which Bua ji is asked her name. She hesitantly says Usha, as if she no longer remembers it. The whole neighborhood calls her bua ji – that is her sole identity. How can this woman with streaks of white hair and an authoritarian manner articulate her throbbing passion for a young, strapping swimming instructor?
The dialogue by Gazal Dhaliwal captures the slights, resentments and silent anguish that these women endure daily. But Lipstick Under My Burkha also has a streak of spirited joy and moments that will make you smile. At one point, Leela the beautician tells her fiancé that of course he would never need to visit a beauty parlor. She says: mard ho, mast jungle ugake chalo.
Alankrita, who has also written the film, creates layered, complex characters and finds wonderful actors to inhabit them. The most memorable is Ratna Pathak Shah as bua ji – Ratna gives her a dignity and ache. Her sexual longing is so endearing that you want to protect her from the inevitable humiliation that awaits. Konkona Sen Sharma is lovely as the quietly rebellious wife who can't reveal to her rapacious husband that she has a job. Aahana Kumra as the fiery beautician and Plabita Borthakur as the student who must stifle her desires also bring honesty and heft to their roles.
These seemingly average women have rich inner lives, which grip you. But eventually Lipstick Under My Burkha trips on plot. Post-interval, the multiple story strands become more forced – a scene which reveals Leela's mother's job is especially jarring and the shoplifting sequences are unrealistic – Rehana steals clothes and shoes and noone notices. It all leads to a finale that feels both, a tad contrived and unsatisfying. I also wondered why we need to see these women bonding over cigarettes – surely we are past the point when smoking equals liberation.
Lipstick Under My Burkha has clumsy spots and contradictions. But there are moments here that you've probably never seen in a Hindi film.