Tejas Nair | September 09, 2017
Rating – 6/10
While forcing himself on his wife, the man utters, “You are a married woman, don’t try to be the husband,” as a retort to one of her actions earlier that day that he didn’t approve of. The busy streets of Bhopal outside don’t pay heed to this little indoor activity capable of instigating a sense of horror and revulsion in the viewer. You can look the other way and ignore what’s happening on screen, but writer-director Alankrita Shrivastava will not let you as she takes you on a superficial journey of four women as they try to fight stigmas and oppression in a male-dominated country that still hesitates to consider marital rape a criminal offence.
The brouhaha that erupted before the film premiered in India in July 2017 was centered on a single issue: obtrusive female sexuality on screen. The nation’s film certification board (CBFC) even received flak from the junta for refusing the certify the film and its comments complaining its nature as something that tries to exhibit female sexual fantasies in a vulgar and exaggerated way. If you are wondering, that is exactly the point of this social drama that hopes to raise and address few questions. Sex may still be a taboo in India, and that is why the narrative opens with Leela (Aahana Kumra), a beautician, enjoying a quickie with her photographer boyfriend while her future husband awaits her arrival so they could get formally engaged. She is forced into an arranged marriage by her widow mother who is not too jubilant about any of her escapades, let alone sexual, because she is a girl who has to eventually end up as a husband-pleaser. The base story is same albeit in different contexts in the neighboring houses where certified babymaker Shirin (Konkona Sen Sharma) will soon be admonished for “trying to be a husband”, pseudo-kleptomaniac college girl Rehana (Plabita Borthakur) goes to some uncool extents to blend in with the cool kids at college but still staying within the limits of Islam, and senior lady Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah) tries to find sexual satisfaction through pulpy literature. They all live in the same complex as the viewers are taken through their individual life stories slightly interwoven for reasons favoring a moral climax.
The leading women in Lipstick Under My Burkha are rebellious and opportunistic. Motivated by self-interests, which the film often likes to attribute to inhibited female sexual desire, these four women are trying to find their own ways to fight oppression in a patriarchal society. Among their adversaries are objectification, societal dogma, and preconceived general notions related to feminine desire – all of which have a combined effect against their common cause. All that Shirin wants from her philandering husband is a word or two wrapped in love, but what she gets instead is a loveless activity that has already massively affected her health. Even her attempts at using protection are perceived as an attack on his male ego, further worsening their conjugal relationship. In this regard, the film tries to unearth hidden stories of everyday lives in India and elsewhere even in the 21st century.
However, the boldness and vivacity of these stories should not be considered as a bona fide encapsulation of stark issues it so rapturously tries to raise. Other than Shirin’s story, which you may have already seen in one medium or other, the remaining three give a peek only from the periphery. What is Usha’s history and why does she behave the way she does? What is Leela’s problem? They are wafer-thin subplots that do not go deeper, thus failing to come up with any solutions to the problems. The film suggests everything, but resolves nothing – and that is what troubled me as a viewer. A tinge of misandry could be sensed in the screenplay but the writers cover it up by introducing colorful secondary characters, some of whom we even go and root for. Leela’s potential husband is the “good guy” and I enjoyed watching him play.
But, what you may not enjoy is the sexual sequences. It can easily get uncomfortable as the film moves ahead, with oodles of one-dimensional nudity and implications. The cinematography is poor, especially in these sequences, and is most evident with Leela as she tries to satiate her coital needs. I would also blame the poor direction of supporting actors. The focus seems to be only on the four women and their immediate causes of trauma; the supporting cast look like they are in a lowbrow Television serial. There are small bulb shoots of sweetness scattered all over the film directed at those viewers looking for comic relief and revenge. The soundtrack helps in the montages here but fails everywhere else. The songs are direct consequences of scenes, thankfully for a Hindi film, and certainly, adds up to the glamour.
A wonderful cast, led by Sharma and Shah, give out a memorable performance. Kumra is impressive too, but Borthakur looks like she was forced out of her sleep to act. Nothing wrong in that, but if the makers’ intention to capture authenticity was on the agenda, it definitely failed. The competition is really between Sharma and Shah, both of whom portray their characters with total conviction, making us get into their skin and feel their hardships. Sharma’s Shirin is the housewife present in a majority of Indian households, and I am sure all of them will admire her acting. But, how many are going to watch it? Shah is equally good but slightly more courageous in her role. Even as Usha debates (with herself) going for a swimming class, Shah enables her to think in a way that the senior community can relate with where there is no place for sexual fantasies, as we see later in the film. If the theme is something that convinces you to watch this film, then it’s the phenomenal cast performance that will keep you from leaving the hall between a sex scene.
Remove the theme and you will see the problems with Shrivastava’s amateur filmmaking. The soundtrack often starts after every meaty turn in the film as if this is Aesop’s Fables and the lead characters are introspecting. It also disregards a lot of important plot points (which can be converted into plot holes, if you like to call that) and hesitates to clarify them, giving the informed viewer something more to chew on. It is clear that the makers just wanted to scratch the surface without aiming for perfection, and when the fruits are already blooming, what more do you ask?
I do not usually get angry while watching films, but this one is a subject that should make you angry. Lipstick Under My Burkha is not intrinsically vulgar, but something that can be perceived as one. And that is what makes watching it worthwhile despite its shortcomings.
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