Film Review: Lipstick Under My Burkha
About halfway through Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha comes a scene that’s as casually beautiful as anything Hindi cinema has offered this year. Fifty-five-year-old Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah) has come to mall to buy a swimsuit—a terrifying leap outside the safety of her normal existence. But there’s another first that must be negotiated before that: the escalator. As she stares at it with a look of dread, a series of little girls, each holding the next one’s hand, step on to the moving stairs. The last one takes Usha’s hand and she’s borne up, recovering sufficiently to allow herself a shy smile.
You could read all sorts of things into this moment, or nothing at all. This makes it a rarity in Lipstick, a film that’s sure about what it’s saying, and which says it clearly and loudly at every turn. Female desire, in all its forms, is the fulcrum around which the film’s four stories turn: college-goer Rehana (Plabita Borthakur) wants to wear jeans and sing Zeppelin and jam with drummer Dhruv (Shashank Arora); Leela (Aahana Kumra) is engaged to a man she barely knows and in heated love with another; Shireen (Konkona Sensharma) is trying to get her brutish husband to be a little nicer to her; and Usha is balancing being the unofficial matriarch to the apartment complex in which all these characters live with lusting after a much younger man and reading steamy paperbacks.
The downside to making a film with intersecting but nonetheless separate storylines is that it’s difficult not to compare them to each other, to re-edit one’s own film even as the one in front of you unfolds. Though each of the stories represents a markedly different situation, the Rehana and Shireen strands are restrictive in ways that the other two aren’t. In showing how these two characters must deal with the inflexibility of society, Shrivastava (who’s also the screenwriter) opts for an inflexibility of characterization that stifles the stories. In both cases the oppressors—nightmare conservative parents in Rehana’s case, a despicable husband for Shireen —are so unvaryingly unpleasant and narrow-minded that there’s a feeling of watching a game whose outcome is pre-decided.
The other two stories, however, are wonderfully constructed and executed. Leela’s moral quandary is complicated by the fact that both her options are flawed but not without merit: boyfriend Arshad (Vikrant Massey) is tempestuous and clearly unreliable, yet has undeniable charm; fiancée Manoj (Vaibbhav Tatwawdi) is thoughtful and sweet but also hopelessly square (when he shows Leela his home, there’s a lovely shot of a group of senior citizens silently watching TV, a vision of her future which sends her right back into Arshad’s arms). Leela herself is a fascinating character, prone to making potentially life-altering decisions on the spur of the moment. This results in one of the film’s most whistle-worthy scenes, when, after vacillating between passion and stability, she goes with stability and supplies the passion herself.
All the protagonists in Lipstick place themselves in varying degrees of risk, but none has quite as much to lose as Usha. A widow, a hard-nosed businesswoman and the neighbourhood bua-ji, she can’t help but read soft-core romance novels at night. When she comes across a doltish swim instructor (Jagat Singh Solanki), she buys a bathing costume and starts taking classes with him. Soon, she’s calling him anonymously at night for phone sex. It’s unlikely this particular scenario—a woman in her mid-50s lusting after a young stud—has ever been attempted in this fashion in Hindi cinema. And it might have seemed too cruel or silly here had it not been for Ratna Pathak Shah. In her quiet way, Pathak has become one of the most reliable character actors in India today. Her Usha—hesitant yet impelled by desire—is a baring of the soul that’s as fearless as it is heart-breaking. It also makes for a great contrast with the brassiness of Kumra, who supplies the film’s other standout performance.
Lipstick isn’t much for obscuring its message; the audience is kept abreast of the action at nearly every step. Purely filmic solutions—like the sound of a drill or a train to convey mental agitation—are few, and sometimes the dialogue is so direct it grates (Shireen’s boss at the department store asks her: “Do you only intend to keep having children or do you want to be a sales trainer?”). The setting, Bhopal, is shorn of local colour until it could be any middle-class neighbourhood in any first- or second-tier Indian city. Perhaps this is deliberate—using a place that isn’t Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata as a sort of representative space free of audience associations. Still, it feels like a missed opportunity. Lipstick is at its best when it’s being specific. Early in the film, it’s hinted that Leela’s mother has an unusual profession. I won’t spoil the revelation, but it’s the sort of detail that adds virtually nothing to the plot but nevertheless remains lodged in one’s mind.