Review: ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ Celebrates The Women Society Refuses To Acknowledge

[Spoiler Alert]

Let me begin this with a story!

I used to read adult fiction books when I was an adolescent, hiding from everyone in one corner of my terrace. 

Just like any other curious young kid, I used to get excited reading the books. I don’t remember much about the literature, but the kind of vivid images it created in my mind, stayed long in my subconscious. Back then, I had no idea what sex education was, or whether I should be reading the stuff I was reading. But I was told by my friends and society that it was wrong. So, I believed it. Let’s admit, we all did. 

Today, I laugh it off as a childish experiment.

However, think about a scenario where a 50-year-old widow tries it out for the first time. Isn’t it a role reversal!? Especially when she is a woman. Women are generally viewed as the ‘lesser sexually active gender’ in popular discourses.

It is always men who initiate and not the women, when it comes to fantasies on the bed or out of wedlock, right?

Wrong! 

Alankrita Shrivastava, an exceptionally brave director, has stepped out and sent all the lofty full tosses straight out of the pavilion in her film, “Lipstick Under My Burkha”. 

Patriarchy will actually stop and take note where it went wrong, after watching the film.

“Lipstick Under My Burkha”, in its runtime of over two hours, is the story of its four titular characters Shirin (Konkona Sen Sharma), Leela (Aahana Kumra), Rehana (Plabita Borthakur) and Buaji (Ratna Pathak), a.k.a. Rosy. Careful understanding of the characters will divulge the fact that Shrivastava has included every possible phase of a woman’s life and the struggles associated with it.

Be it the college going rebellious Rehana, or the free-spirited and to be tamed by an arrange marriage Leela, or the frustrated by marriage and too many kids Shirin, or the stern and powerful from the outside but tender inside Buaji, Lipstick offers you the perfect blend of female characters.

Individual stories of these four characters provide you with a mirror to see what you have possibly ignored for long. Be it in your life or the lives of others you experience on a daily basis. 

Tell me when was the last time you saw a gynaecologist suggesting to a Muslim woman to convince her husband to use condoms? Or a 50 plus woman having phone sex?

No, don’t expect something cheeky here.

Just because it is not generally heard off, doesn’t mean it’s unnatural. A mid-aged lady, sitting in the row behind me, said during the scene, “Kuch jyada hi dikha diya hai”. (They have gone too far with this).

I am sorry, but, no, they haven’t.

You don’t own other people’s sexual fantasies. Just like the stories I read during my adolescence and formed sexual fantasies, Buaji did the same. And those fantasies stayed with her at a later age. She has her unfulfilled desires. At least, she takes that step to fulfill her desires, unlike many others who fear society and people at large.

 

A still from the film "Lipstick Under My Burkha"
A still from the film ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’

We have seen comedy films with older men hitting on young women and are perfectly fine with it. When we laughed that off, why is it a big deal to see a woman doing the same?

Because this is how we have perceived sexual roles and discriminated gender for ages.

 

Shirin, a conservative married Muslim woman with three kids, doesn’t want her Saudi return husband (Sushant Singh) to gift her another child and thus she pops pills every time they have forceful sex (often to the extent of qualifying as marital rape).

Rehana idolises pop star Miley Cyrus and wants to become a musician and loves dancing. While managing her burkha for the outside world and her parents, she nourishes her aspirations and rebels alongside her college mates for the right to wear jeans.

Leela tries hard to run away from an arranged marriage as she loves her small town studio photographer boyfriend (Vikrant Massey). She manages a ladies parlour and rides her own bike. Two things really close to her heart that complete her and in which she takes immense pride.

But, she wants to support her mother, who had taken up nude art modelling as her profession for years to support the family. For many, it would be a revelation to know that a profession like this even exists in our country and this is probably the first time someone has talked about it in mainstream cinema.

A screengrab of Konkona Sen Sharma in Lipstick Under My Burkha
A screengrab of Konkona Sen Sharma in ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’

The entire ensemble cast of the film packs a punch, credit for which must go to the casting directors Shruti Mahajan and Parag Mehta. But performances of Konkona and Ratna Pathak are the ones that really stand out. The effortless palette of emotions evoked on screen by the immensely talented Pathak is something to look out for in the film. Konkona, with every film of hers, proves how better she gets at the craft she knows best. She effortlessly fits into the skin of Shirin, giving you a feel of a real-life character from your next door.

Be it the bustling metros or a small town like Bhopal, where the film is set, the venom of patriarchy is spewed in every rung of our society. Shrivastava, through her powerful portrayal of the characters, has dealt with the dirt of patriarchy proficiently. She vehemently opposes the idea of having set roles for a housewife. She took charge to challenge the radical and unprogressive Islamic practices and carefully tore down the shackles associated with premarital sex in a country that is laden with too much ‘Sanskar’.

With exceptional control over her characters, Shrivastava hits hard with her dark humour in some of the remarkably well-shot scenes throughout the film. In its entirety, “Lipstick Under My Burkha” is one of the most progressive films of our times. Not because it deals with sensitive subjects, but the manner in which it does so.

However, the second half of the film looks patchy at times and in an attempt to reach a common point of conflict for all the characters, there are bits that feel stretched. Despite the crisp editing of the first half, it somewhat loses its sharpness in the second.

But, a masterstroke awaits at the end of the film suggesting the battle that started with “Lipstick Under My Burkha” is on, and women will not stop until they get what they deserve.

‘Lipsticks’, hiding behind many ‘Burkhas’ wanting to come out in the open, will certainly be delighted.

Youth Ki Awaaz is an open platform where anybody can publish. This post does not necessarily represent the platform's views and opinions.