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While overtly feminist films have been trending for some time in the Arab world, in India none are as bold and colorful as Alankrita Shrivastava’s second feature, Lipstick Under my Burkha. Despite its catchy title, not all the characters are Muslim or wear a burkha. But the metaphor holds for all of these freedom fighters as they seek personal and sexual liberation from domineering husbands, overbearing boyfriends and a claustrophobic society. Bright and breezy, the M-appeal release is aimed at women and could find some art house dates after its festival showcases. In Tokyo, where it premiered just before Mumbai, it won the Spirit of Asia award.
In India, Bollywood vulgarity is OK but onscreen kissing is an issue and nudity is limited to art films aimed at foreign audiences. In this context, Lipstick is audaciously outspoken about women’s sexual desires and fantasies, both visually and verbally. All this is pretty tame stuff in the West, but one wonders how the Hindi-language film will be received locally and whether its frankness will be cause for scandal. Its quartet of neatly interwoven stories, shot in vivid pop art colors, have a gentle humor that takes some of the sting out of the outrageous way the women are treated.
Writer-director Shrivastava, whose first feature was the girl-loses-boy tale Turning 30!!!, casts her net wide to include four Indian women of different ages and backgrounds. They hail from small-town India, depicted as a dusty palimpsest of time-worn back alleys and courtyards. Konkona Sen Sharma plays the warm, enterprising Shirin, a young mother of three whose husband has recently returned from working abroad. She tolerates his loveless love-making with gritted teeth, but hides from him the fact she’s earning good money as a door-to-door saleswoman.She rightly suspects he won’t approve.
Leela (Aahana Kumra), an ambitious beautician, offers herself as a bridal consultant in tandem with her Muslim photographer boyfriend Arshad. Her open desire for him leads to several sex scenes where she takes the lead, even filming one of them on her phone to use as blackmail in case he ever decides to dump her. Meanwhile she reluctantly lets her family get her engaged to a nice, well-to-do Hindi boy, who tells her he wants their home to be so comfortable she’ll never have to set foot outside it.
The other two stories are the most curious. In one, college freshman Rehana discovers the sensual world of perfume, clothes, music, drinking, parties and boys, but has to hide it all from her strict Muslim parents. Ironically, they keep her sewing burkhas all night in their tailoring shop, while Cinderella dreams of dancing in the disco. As Rehana, newcomer Plabita Borthakur is a one-woman cultural contrast, a caged bird itching to taste the world but too inexperienced to avoid its traps and pitfalls.
The film dips into outright comedy in the tale of Auntie Usha, delightfully played by veteran actress Ratna Pathak Shah in a multi-layered performance that is alternately pathetic and hilarious. It is she whose soft voice reads the story of “Rosy” offscreen in key moments of the film. Rosy is a character in the erotic women’s fiction to which Auntie is addicted. While the competent Usha takes care of her grandkids and fends off developers eager to demolish her historic home, her fantasy life is lustfully elsewhere, with Rosy. But when she develops a crush on a hunky life-guard that progresses to steamy phone sex, she gets in deep water. It would have been easy to fall into the grotesque in these scenes, something director and actress skillfully avoid all the way to a bitter but satisfying denouement.
Akshay Singh’s cinematography is generally bright and busy, but he also skillfully uses color to set these daring women off from their conservative environment. Zebunnisa Bangash’s music adds rhythm to the scenes.
Production company: Prakesh Jha Productions
Cast: Konkona Sen Sharma, Ratna Pathak Shah, Aahana Kumra, Plabita Borthakur, Sushant Singh, Vikrant Massey, Vaibbhav Talwawadi, Jagat Singh Solanki, Shashank Arora, Sonal Jha
Director: Alankrita Shrivastava
Screenwriters: Alankrita Shrivastava with Suhani Kanwar
Producer: Prakash Jha
Executive producers: K. L. Chhabra, Sudhirbhai Mishra
Director of photography: Akshay Singh
Production designer: Vikram Singh
Costume designer: Rohit Chaturvedi
Editor: Charu Shree Roy
Music: Zebunniasa Bangash
Casting: Shruti Mahajan, Parag Mehta
World sales: M-appeal
Venue: Tokyo Film Festival (Asian Future), Mumbia Jio MAMI Festival (India Gold)
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