June 8, 2023

 

The “burkha” and “lipstick” are references that stand out since the very beginning in Lipstick Under My Burkha (duh!). But these words must be considered with all the baggage they bring. The “burkha” for its representation of women’s oppression, and the “lipstick”, depending on how you interpret the film, for its representation of women’s hidden dreams and desires, or the mask that we use to hide them. From the get go, it is a film about women living in the shadow of patriarchy, and sadly it fails to become anything more.

After all the accolades and praises, and of course, the irrational ban that the film garnered way before it hit the theatres, it was a given that I’d go watch it. After all, not everyday do we get a film that acknowledges women’s desires on the big screen. And it is indeed a brave attempt to portray sexuality in a way that writer-director Alankrita Srivastava has done, but that’s just about it.

The film is about four women from different age groups and walks of life coming to terms with their desires (of not just sex) through their own escapades. Throughout the length of the film, however, you are left wondering if it has anything more to offer than the trailer itself. Ratna Pathak Shah steals the show in her portrayal of a 55-year-old woman looking to fulfil her sexual fantasies. In fact, she has the best moments in the film. Her character desires what every man her age loves, just that he can be vocal about it but she cannot even think on those lines. As she begins learning swimming and having erotic conversations with her coach while hiding her real identity, the entire set up makes a mockery of all the men who wouldn’t even consider a woman her age desirable, lest even talk about having fantasies.

Then we have the character of Leela (Aahana Kumra), a beautician who is being forced to get married to a man she is not in love with while having an affair with a Muslim boy (Vikrant Massey). Konkana Sen Sharma plays Shireen, a woman who is considered a sex-object and baby-minting machine by her husband. The premise of this character has not been developed fully and the other side of her personality—where she is seen working as a sales representative while hiding from her husband—not used to its full potential. Rehana Abidi (Plabita Borthankar), the fourth protagonist, is a girl who has just joined college and is a huge music and dance buff, an aspect of her personality that is kept hidden from her conservative parents. She’s a rebel, who shoplifts, smokes, drinks and protests the ban against jeans, but she is the demure girl who works at her father’s tailoring shop when she gets home.

The men in Lipstick are also an interesting lot—from an emotionless rapist, a spineless college boyfriend to a controlling father and a confused lover, the range of relationships between men and women explored in the film is truly vast. And the director has not shied away from showing that women are not always on the receiving end—something that feminist films are always rapped up for—in fact, she has shown that women too are capable of causing pain (Leela is seen breaking her lover’s heart and using him for sex).

One aspect that has been beautifully handled in the film is the religious divide; two of the female protagonists are Muslim and the other two are Hindu and there is even a Christian side character. It seems like clever direction on Srivastava’s part to showcase female bonding juxtaposed with two of the major religions in the country. And at no point does this look forced.

The film begins with readings from a erotic pulp-fiction novel in Ratna Pathak Shah’s voice. Excerpts from the novel are intercut with scenes throughout the film and the book’s lead character, Rosy, can be seen as a soul sister to the four protagonists. The narrative gives the entire film a humorous, light undertone despite its grim subject. But it also romanticises gender stereotypes and force, something that is hugely contradictory to the film’s overall theme. Then there is the glorification of issues like shoplifting, smoking, and infidelity, and the use of escapist fiction as a symbol for women’s unshackling, which is patriarchal in itself. The last scene shows the four protagonists, after having been defeated by society, passing around a cigarette and reading the last pages of the erotic novella, Lipstick Wale Sapne. This scene ends up reinforcing the hugely reductive, shallow and stereotypical perception of feminism—smoking as a symbol for breaking free—making us question why the director would end a film with such a powerful subject on such a jarring note.

The beauty of the film, however, lies in the fact that the director has not given it an unrealistically optimistic tone. There is a certain inconclusiveness to the story that is intertwined carefully with the mundaneness of everyday life. The best moments in the film are the ones that portray simple, everyday scenes where the women are there for each other—like the one where Leela (Aahana Kumra) drops Rehana (Plabita Borathakur) to a college party on her scooty—it is moments like this that bring out the female camaraderie, something that is often seen missing in Bollywood films. But even this as a subject has not been explored completely. The character development is incomplete and the actors don’t have any life outside the scenes that they are in. The shots feel incomplete and have often been trimmed before they can make an emotional impact. Several times it feels like the film is more about making a point rather than making a connect. Personal touch is what is lacking the most. Despite having such a stellar cast, there is not one performance in the film that explores human emotions in depth. It is all on the surface.

We have to, however, applaud Srivastava for handling marital rape so maturely. Lipstick is one of the rare mainstream Bollywood films that has actually dealt with the subject and that too in a simple yet powerful way. The director has lent it a quiet routine-ness, which is representative of the lakhs of women who actually go through the problem while leading very normal, mechanical lives, continuing to deal silently with the trauma. 

Overall, however, it seems like a short film stretched over one-and-a-half hours. A lot of reviews might classify it as “powerful” or “a must watch”, but given the age that we are living in, with small-town girls not being afraid to vocalise their opinions or take a stand, what exactly is so powerful about a film exploring the same subjects? For me, it was 2/5 stars for this one. 

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