Director: Alankrita Shrivastava
Cast: Ratna Pathak Shah, Konkona Sen Sharma, Aahana Kumra, Plabita Borthakur, Sushant Singh, Vikrant Massey
Early on in Lipstick Under My Burkha, it becomes clear that all four of Alankrita Shrivastava's female protagonists essentially symbolize different life stages of a singularly smothered existence. In fact, Rehana (Plabita Borthakur), the rebellious shoplifting teenager, might have logically grown into Leela (an on-fire Aahana Kumra), the oversexed and two-timing hustler. One can imagine Leela then being suppressed after her "wild past" and sedated into the childbearing future of Shireen (Konkona Sen Sharma; in top gear), a submissive housewife with secret ambitions of a sales career. And finally, Usha (an outstanding Ratna Pathak Shah), the withered widow and everyone's universal "Bua ji," is an organic and reawakened old-age extension of poor Shireen.
In spite of simultaneous narratives based in the same space, these four are virtually the same woman – and yet, they are many women. They belong to one story, and yet they are a bit of every story. The specifics of their situations keep changing, but her fate between age 18 and 55 remains the same.
When we see all four of them together, it's hard not to think of how they're perhaps chatting with different versions of themselves. How they're maybe reflecting and visualizing a future and past they cannot escape. And how, despite their tiny phases of happiness and hope and morality, they will eventually turn into the next person.
Usha has discovered the giddy promise of erotic fiction ("Lipstick wale sapne") late in life, after perhaps never being touched and indulged on equal footing. In a way, all of them are well on their way to shunning actual men in favour of their own fertile imaginations. Rehana is breaking out and falling for the quintessential bad boy (Shashank Arora; wasted), while Leela is stuck in the throes of young, rough passion with the dodgy local photographer (a terrific Vikrant Massey). She craves to be pounded, both emotionally and literally, because her volatile temperament knows no other sensation.
Shireen is used as no more than a piece of meat by her crude Saudi-returned husband (a one-note Sushant Singh). Which all sort of leads to why someone as physically "retired" as Usha would find in the pages of smutty books all the gentleness and fantasies she – and they – have been denied at their prime. It's almost as if she is trying to live, and earn love, for all of them.
When she initiates a heated phone romance with a young toy-boyish Haryanvi swimming coach (perfect casting), it might seem entertaining and occasionally funny. It might look endearing, even, that she starts reacting dreamily and theatrically like Rosie, the saucy protagonist of these adult novels. But most of all, it is tragic because it's the purest thing she has ever done. It's purer than what her younger neighbours will ever do, because it's as real as a cyber sex chat room. The veil – or burkha – of anonymity allows only her to derive the kind of sexual gratification they are all missing.
The setting is an interesting locality in Bhopal. It's the kind of area where religious discrimination pales in comparison to gender inequality; where sexual restlessness and patriarchal control outweighs the relevance of social class divides. The second-class citizens of their own household don't quite have the energy or bandwidth to worry about sensitive communal issues. Neighbourhood functions are unabashedly public and large-hearted events, with private little pockets of intolerance blooming in the shadows.
Rehana and Shireen belong to conservative Muslim families, all of who live in close vicinity to their senior landlady Usha's benevolence and Leela's beauty saloon expertise. They probably judge others from behind closed doors, but it's not their choice of attire, length of beard or holy customs that define their interactions. Rehana slips out of her burkha every day before college with the bravado of a superhero slipping out of a commoner's clothes to reveal her real armour. She even enters what looks like an ATM booth to quickly change back into her burkha before rushing home.
The lead characters remain human, swaying between desperately flawed, unintentionally amusing and depressingly feeble, just like their environment has shaped them to become
Shrivastava subverts a lot of careless filmy clichés to outline the reality of small-town misogyny. Initially, smoking is another loose-morals device as one of Rehana's mean-girl college bullies puffs away with Bhandarkar-ish intent. But slowly, cigarettes become a device of fleeting freedom, with each of the four sneaking puffs even though they aren't really fond of how it tastes. It's the only time they feel independent and in charge of their own mistakes.
All the main performances are in sync with the film's ear-to-ground tone. Ratna Pathak Shah and Aahana Kumra's tracks are particularly spin-off worthy. They're full-blown movies on their own, unlike the other two, which often descend into a zone populated by stereotypes and loose threads (Rehana's dramatic "resolution," for example, seems to be missing a few crucial expository scenes in a rush to pace itself with the others' simultaneous unraveling).
Srivastava's film offers no real closure – like, say, the more bombastic Angry Indian Goddesses felt (commercially) inclined to do. The end is therefore quite abrupt, because there is actually no end to stories such as theirs. It refrains from making its lead characters "heroines" who're meant to hit back and win us over just because they're part of a film. They remain human, swaying between desperately flawed, unintentionally amusing and depressingly feeble, just like their environment has shaped them to become.
It's difficult to like any of them, and easier to empathize with them, while being acutely aware of the fact that "coming of age" is a luxury they cannot afford. It's a genre they cannot occupy – not this time, at least. This gaze isn't pessimistic; it's just not an unnecessarily optimistic and cinematic one. The lipstick, whether we like it or not, is smudged away every night.
Watch the trailer of Lipstick Under My Burka here: