In a scene, an engagement is abruptly suspended when the lights go off. The bride sneaks into the store room for a quickie with the photographer. The buaji goes to check on the fusebox and bumps into an elderly gent; the two share a moment while collectively fixing the fuse. “Andhere mein aakhein kaise khud hi adjust kar leti hain,” she notes, flickering her eyes in the candle light. Just then, the lights come on, and a middle-aged woman emerges to introduce the two — the man as her widowed “bhaiyaji” and her as “buaji” — a noun that instantly extinguishes her prospects. And this “buaji” image is so deeply ingrained in the character that later in the film, when a young male enquires her name, she takes a while to recollect it. And when she actually utters it, her distant look spells her faint association with the person she used to be. This isn’t (just) a story of a sexual repressed society, but of one where women are forced into a life where their identity is defined by the role assigned to them. Consent? No, thank you.
Lipstick Under My Burkha opens to a VO about how there comes a time in a woman’s life when she yearns to feel like one. It is when her “jawaani kaante ki tarah chubne lagti hain”. And this translates in the lives of the four protagonists: a middle-aged Buaji or Usha Parmar (Ratna Pathak Shah), whose steely exterior barely reflects her sexually deprived existence, Shireen (Konkona Sen Sharma), a burkha-clad housewife who moonlights as a door-to-door saleswoman, Leela (Aahana Kumra), who runs a beauty parlour and doesn’t want to hold out for her suhaag raat to get between the sheets, and Rehana (Plabita Borthakur), an average teen in college and a burkha tailor at her family-run outfit. The four share the same abode — Hawa Mahal (possibly ironic of their suffocating lives) — owned by Buaji and rented by the rest. The story unfolds with a parallel narration from a desi erotica, Lipstick Wale Sapne,whose lead Rosy pictures herself fulfilling her venereal fantasies by dreaming up idyllic situations. And just like Rosy’s “jism ke andar ka toofan” is far more devastating than the “bahar ki aandhi”, our four dreamers feel compelled to follow their own, fully aware of the consequences of their actions.
The film culminates over a fateful Diwali evening, when the burkha comes off for some and the lipstick gets smudged for others. But despite the tense buildup and crisp narrative, over-explanation ruins the climax. Yes, you all are like Rosy and relate to her sexual needs and desires but we don’t need dialogues that reinforce this in as many words.
Set in Bhopal, the film drafts characters embroiled in situations that will resonate with many across the country. Who hasn’t heard of or encountered a husband who approaches intercourse with zero intimacy or a fiance who offers his to-be the thrilling prospect of seeing the world at the click of a remote control, making the need to leave home pointless. Then there’s the husband in this film who asks his wife to pass the remote control while watching TV and when she does, he grabs her hand and deposits it in his pants — all this without as much as looking at her.
The film explores India’s twisted relationship with intercourse. Patriarchy defines it as a male need delivered by a female who can barely voice whether the act evokes pain or pleasure. And it is this voice that the film deliberates while referring to ‘sapne’ and how Indian women can’t dare to see them.
Ratna Pathak Shah delivers on her Buaji’s closeted desires with decided restraint and rehearsed uncertainty and is the finest of the lot. Konkona’s submissive Shireen silences her screams and snubs her husband’s lover with equal determination. Debutant Aahana Kumra essays her feisty Leela with the enthusiasm of a newcomer and the restraint of a veteran. That Plabita Borthakur’s Rehaana had the weakest plot link here, doesn’t undermine her performance.
Alankrita Shrivastava, who made her directorial debut with the underrated Turning 30, balances this one well with deliciously risky moments paired with tense ones and racy commentary that spark latent desires. She also strays from the pitfalls of “lady-oriented” films and keeps things fluid and for the large part, far from preachy.
For a film that received much press for its “oral pornography”, Gazal Dhaliwal’s dialogues touch a necessary nerve. Agreed, the film has a scene where a middle-aged woman masturbates while having phone sex and there’s a passing reference to someone’s lips kissing her “jannat”. But aborting this sequence from the film wouldn’t circumcise the spectrum of emotions that so many Indian women even dread to acknowledge, leave alone experience.