Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha opens to a burkha-clad figure in a plush store of a mall. She moves from one shelf to another, sampling perfumes of different brands: Gucci, Armani, Dolce and Gabbana. That store – upscale and quiet – seems to be located in an Indian metropolis, and she – hesitant and unsure – seems like a conservative older woman. Both the assumptions, it soon becomes clear, are wrong. The store is in Bhopal, and the connoisseur of perfumes is a college girl called Rehana (Plabita Borthakur). The implications are two-fold: appearances can be deceptive, and unlike scent, desire cannot be bottled; it’ll find its own way, its own method. In the next scene, Rehana tucks a bottle of perfume under her burkha and flees the mall. Desire, in the crowded by-lanes of old Bhopal, can be dangerous.
Desire links the other characters of the movie, too. Leela (Aahana Kumra), a beautician, is about to get married, but she’s still trying to make things work with her boyfriend, Arshad (Vikrant Massey). Shireen (Konkona Sen Sharma) is married to a man (Sushant Singh) who considers her his property, ordering her to stay at home, cook and, when he wants, please him sexually. But Shireen has wants. Unbeknown to her husband, during the day, she works as a saleswoman. There’s ‘Bua-ji’ (Ratna Pathak Shah), a headstrong 55-year-old widow, who owns a sweetshop and is smitten with a local swimming instructor. And then there’s Rosie – unabashed and unrestrained by her desire – a character in an erotica, Lipstick Waale Sapney, whose story, narrated by Shah, becomes the film’s voiceover and, ultimately, defining statement.
The women in Lipstick Under My Burkha live double lives. Shrivastava, however, is not just interested in exploring what they are and who they want to become, but also the spaces in between – spaces that make them angry, helpless, and confused. She underlines that point – with masterful economy and lyrical simplicity – in two scenes. One involves Rehana, the other Bua-ji.
In the former, Rehana, after getting scolded by her parents, retreats to her room. She bolts it from inside, puts on music and breaks into a dance. Rehana’s enjoying herself, but she’s also annoyed and angry. She dances till she’s exhausted, giving her anguish a form – something she can own. Shot with a handheld camera, mimicking her addled mindscape, Shrivastava shows a world-within-a-world (the room hides posters of Miley Cyrus and other musicians), which, depending on who’s looking, is either captivating or liberating.
In the latter, Bua-ji is reading Lipstick Waaley Sapne by the poolside, and sees that a kid is about to drown. She cries for help, but there’s no one around. She keeps shouting, hoping someone would come. Bua-ji can’t see herself jumping in the pool, and it’s not just because she doesn’t know how to swim, but because she’s denied herself a life beyond the duties of business and family. Eventually, she takes the plunge. Soon after, emboldened by Rosie, she eyes Jaspal, the young swimming coach and tells him she wants to sign up for the class. He asks her name, handing her an application form. “Bua-ji,” she answers. He laughs. She takes a while to answer “Usha Parmar” and, moments later, trails her finger on her name on the form, as if remembering a long-lost love. Usha had not just forgotten her name; she had forgotten herself.
Shrivastava’s writing and filmmaking soar in scenes like these, and Lipstick Under My Burkha has quite a few of them. More notably, she isn’t interested in gift-wrapping liberation and presenting to her characters. She frees her protagonists, asking them to find their own freedoms, their own meanings. Very few Hindi films – feminist dramas or otherwise – treat their characters as entities, as people who have lives of their own. They’re mostly part of a bigger picture, illuminating it at the cost of their selves. But Lipstick Under My Burkha is considerably smart. Equally important, the characters in the film aren’t ideological mouthpieces or symbols. They’re way too busy – and frustrated and irritated – sorting their own shit out.
Unlike several mediocre productions, this isn’t a film that postures as a problem-solving machine; it neither chides nor preaches. It understands that empowerment isn’t come easy (and, more importantly, isn’t even available to all). And how can it in a society where desire is so systematically and mercilessly squashed that the ones on its margins forget who they are. In such a scenario, rebellion is not a reality, but an abstraction. When Shireen is told by her boss that she could be promoted to the position of a sales trainer, which would mean “stopping her kids and abortion business,” it takes some time for her to smile and even that comes feebly. Because for Shireen, who can’t convince her husband to use contraceptives, even a chance – a promise – of an alternate life is enough.
In a film like Lipstick Under My Burkha, the indictment of toxic masculinity is almost inevitable. But even here, Shrivastava sweats the small stuff. Even though most men in the film fail themselves, they aren’t prototypes; they’re all around us. By slotting her protagonists in different age groups, Shrivastava is able to comment on different kinds of men, and their reactions when their masculinity is threatened or questioned. For Rehana’s father and Shireen’s husband, even a slight deviation from convention is unacceptable; for Usha’s family members, the definition of a woman – especially someone who’s “old” and “dignified” – is cast in stone; for Leela’s ex-boyfriend and husband-to-be (a part that’s refreshingly nuanced), their insecurity and upbringing are paramount; for Rehana’s boyfriend (Shashank Arora), who, unlike others, is urban and suave, self-preservation comes first. But, more importantly, this film doesn’t unfold like an us-vs-them narrative. There are several scenes where one protagonist slyly judges, and takes out her frustration, on the other – most evident in a bit where Leela is abrasively waxing Shireen, causing her pain.
Shrivastava’s women are funny, resourceful, and charming. And barring few scenes – where college students are protesting against the ban on jeans, and smoking cigarette is posited as shorthand for empowerment (the former is heavy-handed; the latter is clichéd) – she lets them be. Lipstick Under My Burkha also benefits from brilliant casting and performances. Shah and Sen Sharma are masterful actors (and, to no one’s surprise, they nail their parts), but to watch them in the same film evokes not just delight but also gratitude. Borthakur and Kumra, two new actors, turn in credible performances, too.
We’re in 2017, and the saddest part about Lipstick Under My Burkha is that, in parts, it plays out like a wish-fulfillment fantasy.