Prakash Jha Productions and Alt Entertainment present: “Lipstick Under My Burkha.”
Produced by: Prakash Jha
Directed by: Alankrita Shrivastava
Written by: Alankrita Shrivastava, Suhani Kanwar & Gazal Dhaliwal
Music: Zebunissa Bangash
Starring: Konkona Sen Sharma, Ratna Pathak Shah, Ahana Kumara, Plabita Borthakur, Vikrant Massey, Shashank Arora, Vaibhav Tatwawdi, Jagat Singh Solanki, Sonal Jha & others
We all know the mainstream template of Hindi cinema. There is also a second arty-dark template, where they blend realism, expletives, sex-laden sequences and repulsive violence – the forte of men like Anurag Kashyap. There is a third template – of being real but confused with big stars in the cast, as in “Tamasha” or “Dear Zindagi” or even “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.” But any of the second, third or other formulae have two more things in common as ‘climaxes’ – either open (confused???) ends, or culminations that are like a burst balloon, where dares against social repression or oppression are finally steamrolled into conventional defeat rather than fostering a successful revolution!
Here, it is all about the repression faced by four women, the married and working Shirin (Konkona Sen Sharma), married to a cad who works in Saudi Arabia, comes home once in a way and is just interested in sex without love. Shirin, bright at her job as a saleslady, thus has had three children and four abortions. Professionally, she is on the way to a huge promotion, but her dictatorial husband, who is also shamelessly carrying on with another woman in India itself, does not know Shirin works, and when he comes to know, does not digest it.
Buaji aka Usha Parmar (Ratna Pathak Shah), a widow in whose jaded mansion in Bhopal everything in the film happens, is a widow who would also like to be sexually satisfied. Her way out is reading love stories (Bills & Moon, as seen on one cover!), masturbating while talking phone sex at night (calling as a young girl named Rosie!) to her swimming instructor (Jagat Singh Solanki) and, in fact, buying a swimsuit and joining swimming classes just to be close to him in the daytime!
Feisty Leela (Ahana Kumara) wants sex frequently. Both highly rebellious and libidinous, this girl who runs a beauty parlor has a paramour in photographer Arshad (Vikrant Massey) but is forcibly hitched by her mother to a ‘gentleman’ (Vaibhav Tatwawdi). However, she carries on with Arshad, and they have plans to elope. What’s more, Leela’s mother (Sonal Jha) is also a nude model to earn money, as the family is heavily in debt.
Last but not the least is Rehana (Plabita Borthakur), sole daughter in a conservative Muslim family that earns their livelihood by stitching burqas. A fascinating character of the four, she is lucky enough to be allowed to go to college but leads a double life. In college, she removes her burqa and becomes a jeans-and-top wearing girl who loves to sing English songs! And how does she get the modern wear? She steals it from shopping malls when she cannot rob money from home!
The first half introduces these characters and their frustrations and how they try and deal with them. In the second half of this 1.59 film, everything comes to a head as they are exposed one by one. The four are known to each other and share their dreams and angst. But there is no positive culmination for any of them in the end.
Now that is the worst part of this otherwise engaging film. It’s like a balloon well-loaded with good-quality hydrogen that is pricked with a pin just on the eve of take-off. And shying away from a nice culmination for at least one or two of the four women (we are making a “realistic” film, see for awards, acclaim, and festivals abroad where we can again show India in a regressive light, see?) ruins the impact of this film.
For example, Shirin and Rehana, at least, deserved the professional and personal freedom they desired. And their happily-ever-after ending could have been made real and not fairy tale – easily, realistically and believably. The cad husband deserved to be shown his place and Rehana should have got her ounce of responsible freedom like so many young liberal Muslim girls in 2017-and-earlier India.
The film scores in its mood cinematography (Akshay Singh) and the sets by Vikram Singh. Mangesh Dhadke’s background score remains wonderfully in the background while doing its underrated and noble work, and Zebunissa Bangash’s “Le Li Jaan” is a nice song among the two or three numbers.
Shrivastava has a deft hold, but either needed to be (much) braver in her treatment or opted for a simple, non-issue-based script. We do not know what has been axed from the film, but the censorship controversy looks silly for this adult film. Gazal Dhariwal’s lines are fabulous, and the screenplay (Suhani Kanwar with Shrivastava) is fine, but for the over-tame conclusion again.
What matters, however, is the strength this film acquires from its performances. We are amazed at how Ratna Pathak Shah is offered and chooses a high level of work; I do not recall a single film or serial (having never watched her in the theater) where Madame Shah has been below-par, ditto the product. She is magnificent as Buaji, bold enough to follow the demands of the role (including the skin exposure) and astounding in her expressions. Here’s to the Best Supporting Actress award of the year to her!
Aahana Kumara and especially Plabita Borthakur are the surprises here. Kumara’s role is more to the gallery and thus easier, but Borthakur is simply brilliant in a multi-layered character – bold in college, brazen at lying and stealing, and meek at home!
Konkona Sen Sharma does not rise above her stereotypical self as Shirin. A “Mr & Mrs Iyer” (2003) level of performance seems a distant and impossible dream now. She is okay, that’s all.
The men are all negative, and Sushant Singh is the most repulsive, as meant to be, of course. Vikrant Massey is very good as the lensman, and Shashank Arora in a briefer role makes a small impact.
Having lost a star for its lack of gumption (which in a way also reflects a shortfall in sensitivity), we wish the film had made such an impression too!