By Subhash K. Jha
Film: “Lipstick Under My Burkha”; Director: Alankrita Shrivastava; Starring: Ratna Pathak Shah, Konkona Sen Sharma, Aahana Kumra, Plabita Borthakur; Rating: ****
Here is a film that deserves a rousing ovation for bringing out the sexual fantasies and other unspoken yearnings of four middleclass women in a non-metropolitan milieu eking each out an exciting existence from the hard brutal raw material of her inert life.
But the film falls short of being genre-defining. Shrivastava whose earlier and only film “Turning 30” only hinted at the post-feminist explosion of “Lipstick Under The Burkha”, takes charge with an all-knowing confidence of four women from different walks of life and belonging to separate generations.
Perhaps to offset the mess that they make of their lives, the lineup of women is a little too tidy and symmetrical. Usha(Ratna Pathak Shah) is 50-plus, Shireen(Konkona Sen Sharma) is 30-plus, Leela(Ahana Kumra) is in her 20s and Rihana (Plabita Borthakur, the baby of the empowering harem, is in her teens.
It all adds up with a tantalizing cohesiveness, leaving nothing to chance. Maths in place, I had seen the same galactic configuration of representational women in Leena Yadav’s fabulous Parched last year, except for the fact that Parched though a celebration of feminism at the grassoot level, was a visually beautiful film thanks to its desertscaped panorama which caught the women’s sexual candour in vivid colours.
“Lipstick Under My Burkha” revels in its deliriously designed dimensions of dinginess. This is Bhopal at its most basic strata. The film resolutely refuses to capture the film’s beauty, focusing instead on the crowded stifling lanes and gullies where furtive sex is undertaken in community toilets and where women have to toil over sewing machines and microwaves while father, husbands, boyfriends and lovers sow their wild oats and come home in time for the cornflakes.
This film is actually about four women leading dual lives and hiding dark dirty secrets from the men in their lives.The men of course are blinded by the floodlights of patriarchy. They are not allowed to show in sensitivity.
To their credit the vast cast has a blast breaking one kind of gender stereotyping that such films breaks, and also dodging the trap that a film of this nature lays down for actors who have to talk about condoms casually . Ratna Pathak Shah is expectedly outstanding as the repressed Bua who has phone-sex with her swimming instructor(Jagal Singh Solanki, excellent).
She manages to make the character’s inviolabe coyness a cute cocoon awaiting metamorphosis. But the explicitness of her conversations with her sex-object(interesting reversal of traditional roles here) elicits more giggles than shock from us.
Surely, this Buaji could have done better that…errr…this. Konkona Sen Sharma has the most sympathetic and therefore most difficult role as an oppressed Muslim wife who gets raped every night before sleep.Yawn! While the actress is habitually competent here I find Konkona relying excessively on stock expressions of wistful yearning. Sushant Singh as her insensitive husband shines in a thankless role even when he has to utter banal lines like, ‘Biwi ho shauhar ban-ne ki koshish mat karo.’
And I thought this line of spousal thought went out of fashion with Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam.
The youngest rebel of the quartet Rehana(newcomer Plabita Borthakur, just about adequate) throws off her burkha , steals Britney boots from malls and parties wildly with girls from homes far more privileged than hers and romances a drugged drummer(Shashank Arora, dutifully dazed). And when her mortifying secret life is discovered by her shamed father we are supposed to feel protective towards Rehana.
Sorry, not happening.
The most unsympathetic protagonist is Leela, played with persuasive gumption by Kriti Kumra. Leela has a perfect (read: boring) fiancé(Vaibhav Tatwawdi, excellent), a mother who leads a life of shame to bring up her daughter(the mom has been posing for nude paintings for years, she tells us and we are meant to sob), and yet all Leela wants to do get intimate with her scummy photographer boyfriend(Vikrant Massey doing an incredible volte face from his virgin angel act in A Death In The Gunj).
What does Leela want? I can’t say. Neither can she. Kumra playing beautician, shares some excellent erotic screen-time with Konkona in a sequence where the former removes the latter’s hair in private places. Again this sequence has a direct echo in Parched where Tannishtha Chatterjee sponges the abused wife Radhika Apte’s breasts.
A pity, “Lipstick Under The Burkha” couldn’t do to the post-feminist genre what Dunkirk has done to the war epic. It moves with seductive stealth through the lives of the four women but does not eventually evoke the memorable images from the great feminist and post-feminist films of Indian cinema including Parched.
Nonetheless this is a vital and in many ways, great film more remarkable for what it doesn’t say about women who long for sexual salvation than what it does say, so explicitly.
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