(An edited version was published in The New Indian Express)
In Alankrita Shrivastava’s ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’, women in Bhopal – in what counts as a second-tier city setting – are trapped in myriad ways. The setting is important. We’ve seen independent women in Hindi cinema before and we see them almost week in week out now, but almost all of them belong to a different class. They come with jobs the majority has seldom heard of and they vacation in countries the majority cannot point to in a map. But Bhopal is different. The microcosm Shrivastava creates here is different. Here are four women with their own shackles to fight against and their own glass ceilings to break. Patriarchy is an endless pit and they are stuck at various levels finding different cracks to hold on to and climb above. Lipstick Under My Burkha tells the story of four women in different stages of their lives – a teenager trying to negotiate the ways of a conservative Muslim household, another about to get married but with dreams in her eyes and a paramour in front of them, a middle-aged housewife kick-starting a late career surge and a widow in her sunset years attempting to swim in a pool and against the harsh currents of prejudice that her age and aspirations seem to attract.
The appropriately named Rihana (Plabita Borthakur) – there is a performer lurking under her burkha – has a conservative family to deal with, outside, and her own need to fit in and be part of the cool crowd in college, on the inside. Not to mention her music dreams. Ratna Pathak plays Usha – the trickiest character goes to the most experienced actress – someone almost in her sunset years but wanting to bask in life’s pleasures that passed her by. She must deal with the prying eyes of a judgmental neighborhood and her own guilty conscience that outwits her when she’s not looking. Shireen (Konkona Sen Sharma) has a husband only in the books and she is, for all practical purposes, a single mother running the house and choosing the best for her kids. Aahana Kumra’s Leela is by far the most interesting character. She is the phataka of the gang and the one you cannot slot under a rigid definition. She has a boyfriend (Vikrant Massey who wowed everyone a few weeks ago in A Death in the Gunj) and she has both marriage and career plans with him. She may have a future charted out but she can make or break her life in a moment. And everyone is aware of her nature. Like her shenanigans in the middle of her engagement. Her mother catches her and chastises as if she just caught her daughter with her hand in the cookie jar. That the cookie jar was with its pants down doesn’t surprise the mother.
Leela is a fascinating character from Shrivastava because she is the sort of woman who knows what she wants, can get what she wants, is single-minded and yet if you ask her what is feminism, she may just give you a blank stare. Very few things matter to her and she is the one in the driver’s seat of both her relationship and her career. At least that’s what she wants. This is what Shrivastava’s film does so well. Without fanfare, it establishes that feminism could mean different things for different women and there is and can never be a single definition for all. Different issues have different solutions. Same issues contain different solutions for different women. One person’s 101 may be another person’s advanced course (apologies for this episode of mansplaining; Or I am just conveying what the film spoke to me. How does this work?). Not that all of this comes together as one organic film. Some tracks work better than the others and it depends on whose travails you buy into more. For instance, Shireen’s arc has a fantastical nature to it that belongs in another film.
To talk about Lipstick Under My Burkha in 2017 (the film premiered in the Mumbai Film Festival in October 2016 and had subsequent screenings in various festivals worldwide) is to talk about the burkha-less elephant in the room – the Indian censor board controversy. I watched Shrivastava’s latest feature during its Mumbai premiere and liked it. But the current pre-wide-release hype for Lipstick Under My Burkha has suddenly shifted the scales. The film’s latest trailer now has snapshots of the media coverage of the censor issue. The term “lady-oriented” – used by the censor board to deny certificate – is now a catchphrase. The trailer mentions they said this and they said that about the film. There was promotional material with a poster showing a raised middle finger in the form of a lipstick. Suddenly it became a bigger film than what it probably aspired to be. Lipstick Under My Burkha is now the poster child of the post-woke Internet. Will one emerge out of it alive if one were to have reservations with the work? The film went from winning the Oxfam Award for Best Film on Gender Equality in the Mumbai Film Festival to something that uses and pushes feminism as a product or marketing tool.
But all of that is just thinking out loud and belongs in a different column. The promotions and the discourse may be of highfalutin nature but Lipstick Under My Burkha is free of such ornamentation. For all the offence that the censor board members took personally, you wonder what is it here that they have never seen before. As in, this is no Parched. But Shrivastava’s film goes to places that one wouldn’t expect a mainstream Hindi film to get to (though the treatment is mainstream) and for that alone it works. It’s here to tell four compelling stories that put a mirror in front of patriarchy but doesn’t bother itself trying to smash it. Possibly its bravest decision. The protagonists don’t get a prize ceremony in the end. They just sit around, share a smoke and take in the rare quietness in their lives. The silence conveying a bond forged in shared experience. They live to fight another day.