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Lipstick Under My Burkha review: Fine performances guide this well-written drama of women and their dreams

Release Date: 21 Jul 2017 / Rated: A / 01hr 59min

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Sonal Pandya

The story of four women from Bhopal and their inner hopes and ambitions, starring Konkona Sen Sharma and Ratna Pathak Shah, had its Indian premiere at the 18th Mumbai film festival on 26 October.

Writer-director Alankrita Shrivastava follows four women from different generations living in the same housing complex in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. All four have dual lives; one they would like to lead and the one they are actually living.

Shirin Aslam (Konkona Sen Sharma), Leela Mishra (Aahana Kumra) and Rehana Abidi (Plabita Borthakur) reside in the building, Hawai Manzil, owned by 55-year-old widow Usha Parmar (Ratna Pathak Shah), called ‘Buaji’ by practically everyone.

Shirin’s husband Rashid (Sushant Singh) has recently returned from Saudi Arabia and joined a construction company. Shirin has three sons and three abortions in quick succession; she also moonlights as a top salesgirl for a home products company. Her husband has no idea that she works.

Rehana is an impressionable young fresher at university trying to fit in with cool kids. She is a Miley Cyrus fan and wants to be a pop singer like her but has to struggle to fit her musical interests with those of her conservative Muslim parents who own a burkha shop.

Leela is the local beautician whose marriage has been arranged to a perfectly respectable man except that he’s not her photographer boyfriend Arshad (Vikrant Massey).

Meanwhile Buaji has been fending off offers to raze her building and put up a shopping mall in its place. Her shop, Hawai Halwai, has even won a Limca record for their giant samosas. She likes reading romantic novels in Hindi. The one she is engrossed in throughout the film is titled Lipstick Waale Sapne in which the title character Rosy is pursued by a Rajkumar (Prince Charming).

One day, she comes to the aid of her nephew’s child who she believes is drowning, and she realizes she had better learn swimming, especially when the young coach Jaspal asks her real name, not just the title she had been hiding behind. Thus begin her lessons and a passionate affair on the telephone with Jaspal.

Shrivastava, in her second feature, shows the inner struggles the women have to face on a daily basis – from their own family members, from so-called friends, from colleagues, from their lovers. They all want their own forms of independence. Rehana would like to be free to wear what other young girls her age are wearing and not travel in a burkha. Leela yearns to escape the confines of Bhopal to a big city like Delhi; her fiancé wants them to return after the honeymoon.

Meanwhile, Shirin has received a promotion at work which means she can’t afford to have another child. She wants a career to ease her money woes and possibly stand up to her husband who demands sex often. And Usha, who narrates the film with Rosy’s musings for love and passion, finds that she is open to these new romantic and sexual feelings she thought were closed to her after her husband passed away.

But in contrast to these beautiful, strong women, the men in their lives bring them down repeatedly. From feckless boyfriends to husbands to a possible love interest, they only worry about how the situation is affecting them. Who will be there to support them? It’s the bond that they have formed, seeing these small injustices fostered on them over time, which will eventually endure.

Shrivastava’s story has great merit, once you get to these women, you are concerned what will happen to them. That feeling remained when I saw the film and walked out of the theatre as well. Though the men are supporting characters in the film, their presence looms large. Massey and Singh play the cads well, but it’s the women – Sen Sharma, Kumra, Borthakur and especially Pathak Shah – that you can’t take your eyes off.

There is no doubt that Sen Sharma and Pathak Shah are more experienced actresses; they give their characters extra depth, whether it’s the former crying alone in the kitchen or the latter's astonishment at using an escalator for the first time. My heart broke a little for both their characters.

Lipstick Under My Burkha will be labelled women-centric cinema and that is a shame because in the end, it’s human stories that are being explored in the film. Shrivastava and her largely female crew have created an inspiring film about four unyielding women who dare to dream against insurmountable odds.

(This review was written when Lipstick Under My Burkha premiered at the MAMI Mumbai International Film Festival in October 2016)