Four women of different ages, living in Bhopal, go beyond the so-called social norms, in their struggle to establish their identities but fail to reach anywhere in this male chauvinist world –this is the storyline in the recently released Hindi film, Lipstick Under My Burkha. The film was planned to be released in January this year but got jolted due to CBFC’s refusal of certification. The verdict was – “The story is lady oriented, their fantasy above life. There are contagious [sic] sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society”. Yes, it is a lady-oriented film and deals with the uncensored mindscape of Indian women who are censored all the time through out their lives. And without any doubt, the film portrays its theme quite successfully.
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Writer-director Alankrita Shrivastava uses the backdrop of Diwali to craft this Indian black comedy. Though a little inconsistent in style, the film illustrates the lives of these women who may be going up in flames, but not without a bang.The whole story interestingly is interwoven with a pulp fiction describing the protagonist girl’s repression and desire. This is being read by the senior most of the four women, Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah) hiding it inside a religious book and her voice of reading leads the narrative in a way as a transition joiner among the fragmented events with all other characters. It sometimes works and sometimes remains as a style only. Usha as a character seems affluent and does not accept the end of her sexual life at the age of 56. She joins swimming just to be close to a young well-muscled boy who is fantasized by her over sexual telephonic conversations.
Shireen (Konkona Sen Sharma), is a portrayal of a benumbed Indian Muslim lady who is born to be humped mechanically by her Saudi-returned husband (Sushant Singh) every day, after becoming the mother of three children. She is supposedly a salesgirl who cannot sell a condom to her husband but discovers him with another girl in a romantic relationship. Leela (Ahana Kumra) is a beautician who makes the bride ready for their happy marriage but can neither settle her personal sexual life with her boyfriend (Vikrant Massey) nor with the boy (Vaibhav Tatwawaadi) who plays on the pitch to marry her. Leela is a confident, desperate sexual creature and doesn’t care who knows it: whether it is ‘boy-friend’ (Vikrant Massey) or potential groom (Vaibhav Tatwawaadi).
The youngest among them, a Miley Cyrus fan Rihana Abidi (Plabita Borthakur) who always swings between her two existences – daughter of very orthodox Muslim parents and (in her mind) a liberated soul wearing jeans in public. But she cannot negotiate with her college friends, especially with a boy. So, she is depressed. Using ‘Jeans’ as a symbol of liberation is a bit simplified, cliché and probably annoying if viewed with the theoretical perspective of deglobalisation.
All these instances of depressions and repressions in Lipstick Under My Burkha have expressed quite successfully with believable portrayal of situations. But somehow the film falls short because of some discrepancies in storytelling rather directing a script. It has all the raw materials ready but the dish is not cooked well enough to match the expectations of audiences following the acclaim the film acquired in the film festivals. It lacks competent conflict, potent moments, and does not drive narrative connecting audiences emotionally. It remains unsure in structuring the screenplay as well. Hence, unfortunately, the film does not really land anywhere and cannot make any impact on the audiences even with its strong political idea and proposition.
On the acting front, all the actors are undoubtedly competent, but they lack the sense of direction in their performances required to touch our insides. Believability or true to reality is not the only factors to create a good cinematic experience. Cinema wants to take off, but Lipstick Under My Burkha pulls it down without creating much space for audiences’ imagination. Clumsy visualization, uneven editing, unimaginative sound design do not carry forward the relevant politics of the idea to a great extent. The decision of converting this difficult intriguing idea into a film and the fight against CBFC’s verdict up to the commercial release of the film definitely prove the maker’s concern about the sensitive issue of ‘censored life of all Indian women’ across all classes of society and ages. But the Lipstick could have been allegorized as a knife to tear the Burkha into pieces if only the film had taken off beyond its limitation of a documentative approach.