Film: "Lipstick under My Burkha" Takes US Festival Circuit by Storm
Rehana, played by Plabita Borthakur (left), is the lipstick-wearing, Miley Cyrus-loving daughter of a strict shop-owning Muslim couple.
The compelling movie about four women, initially banned in India because it was ‘lady oriented,’ is now going to the Golden Globes.
It has been a rollercoaster for director Alankrita Shrivastava.
When she set out to make Lipstick Under My Burkha, she had no idea that a modest story about four small-town Indian women would create such a firestorm. First, the national censor board banned the film from screening in Indian theaters, refusing to certify the film, stating that it was too ‘lady-oriented’, whatever that means.
Fortunately, the well-crafted feminist drama was embraced by international film festivals, especially in the United States, building a groundswell of support for the Lipstick team.
Lipstick was the curtain raiser for the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles. Next, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) chose Shrivastava’s film to run for the Golden Globes with an official HFPA screening. This week, the film opened at the New York International Film Festival.
On April 26, an appeals tribunal finally overturned the Indian ban, saying the Central Board of Film Certification “misdirected themselves in denying certification on the ground that the story of the film is women-oriented.” It ruled that Lipstick was suitable for anyone aged 18 and over, and gave the film an adult certificate.
After watching the film, I marveled at what the censor board objected to in the first place, as Lipstick is far from lurid. It is a wildly imaginative yet fiercely precise and bracingly intimate report on being a woman in small town Bhopal at a time when India is experiencing a dramatic transformation.
Bullied by her philandering husband, the burkha lets Shirin (Konkona Sen Sharma) (left) moonlight as a shrewd saleswoman outside her full-time position as an abused housewife.
Passionately realistic, Lipstick is an intertwined story about the daily lives of its four main characters. Plabita Borthakur plays Rehana, the lipstick wearing, Miley Cyrus-loving daughter of a strict shop-owning Muslim couple. She slaves over a sewing machine and wears a full-body burkha at home, but like most high-spirited young adults she yearns to be part of her college’s party set.
For the endearing Shirin, played brilliantly by Konkona Sen Sharma, the burkha isn’t for veiling bohemian tendencies. Bullied by her philandering husband, the burkha lets her moonlight as a shrewd saleswoman outside her full-time position as an abused housewife. Shirin’s husband can barely put food on the table, but he flips menacingly when he finds that his wife has a well-paying job as a sales trainer.
The courageous Leela is played by Aahana Kumra (right).
The most courageous of the foursome is Leela (Aahana Kumar), an equally enterprising beautician unwillingly engaged to an upright Hindu boy chosen by mother dearest. The impending nuptials don’t deter her from continuing her passionate love affair with her Muslim boyfriend.
Then there is a 55-year-old Hindu widow Usha, played by Ratna Pathak Shah. She delivers a brilliant performance as the pious middle-aged aunt while living vicariously through steamy Mills and Boon romance novels.
Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah) (left) is the pious middle-aged aunt living vicariously through steamy Mills and Boon romance novels.
The filmmaker succeeds in making Lipstick’s protagonists wholly likeable despite their imperfections. The audience can’t help but root for these characters as they try to skirt a terribly chauvinistic milieu and the ensuing consequences of asserting their individualities. All four women are trapped in sadly claustrophobic lives and they share a bond in wanting to live a little.
|“The title of the film is a metaphor. Lipstick Under My Burkha refers to the fact that women will not stop dreaming and wanting, no matter how much they are restrained or suffocated. This yearning for freedom and wanting more from life cuts across classes and binds all women together,” director Alankrita Shrivastava told Khabar on the sidelines of NYIFF.|
“I have lived in small town India. The idea for the film script emerged from my own feeling of not feeling fully free. Even though I have been brought up in a very liberal way, on the inside I always feel like something is holding me back. I wanted to explore this idea through characters that have external restrictions on them, because ultimately, so many of our experiences are more or less the same,” added Shrivastava, who was influenced early on by the writings of Doris Lessing and Toni Morrison.
Shrivastava was the longtime assistant to her uncle, well-known Bollywood director Prakash Jha. Shrivastava’s directorial credits include Turning 30! and Lipstick Under My Burkha.
Lipstick is a very rare kind of film, one that is centered on the feelings of being a woman in India—of the physical as well as emotional inwardness of women’s lives. The story is fast-paced, relies on a good script and is told with sensitivity and a great deal of surprising humor.
“My character Leela is torn between her Muslim photographer boyfriend and the Hindu boy that she is engaged to against her will. She is possessed by strong love, strong hate, and one precise longing: she wants to get the hell out of Bhopal and escape to Delhi. I can relate to Leela’s feeling of being stifled because I grew up in Lucknow which has the same Hindu-Muslim society,” said ebullient actress Aahana Kumra, who has strong roots in theater.
“There are so many rules for women. We are constantly policed — told not to talk too loudly and instructed on how to sit, eat, behave, drink. Society is very threatened by women getting a voice,” added Kumra. The brilliance of Kumra’s livewire performance in Lipstick lies in her ability to convey both fragility and strength.
The NYIFF screening of Lipstick drew applause from a celebrity-dominated event which included Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai, Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi, Madhur Jaffrey and Deepa Mehta.
“The cultural zeitgeist at the moment is very concerned with providing more women directors, writers, and actresses with more opportunities, but the numbers have yet to move,” said award-winning actress Madhur Jaffrey, who first shot to acclaim playing a divaesque Bollywood star in the 1965 Merchant Ivory movie Shakespeare Wallah.
“Alankrita’s film Lipstick is one of those rare and beautiful films about women, by a woman. It is wonderfully directed,” said Jaffrey.
Gloriously audacious in its presentation of Indian women in all their complexity and sexuality, Shrivastava’s high-spirited, and sometimes hilarious, feature film is an audience pleaser. It has already won a prize at the Tokyo International Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Glasgow Film Festival 2017.
Uttara Choudhury is a senior writer for The Wire and Forbes India. She is also a consulting editor for Braingain Magazine.
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