Lipstick Under My Burkha is no utopic film. Cited as 'ladies-oriented', it brings nuance to the very idea of desire, by portraying it as something fundamentally tied up with questions of identity and agency.
From the college fresher to the fifty-plus widow, the female characters all possess desires that they do not find adequate routes to fulfil. Burkha-clad Rehana, played by Plabita Borthakur, is a college fresher living a classic double life as she changes into jeans and rocks out to Miley Cyrus the moment she escapes her parents' watchful gaze. Aahana Kumra plays Leela, who lusts after her boyfriend even as her marriage to another man draws closer. One of the most powerful narratives is that of Konkona Sen Sharma's Shirin, suffering at the hands of an abusive husband while striving to achieve some form of independence. Ratna Pathak shines with her performance as Usha or Buaji, who reads erotica beneath the covers of her prayer books and spends much of the film gathering up the courage to, so to speak, make a move. By dwelling on the lives of these four women, the film underlines the hypocrisy that pervades society today with regard to conventional gender roles and sexuality – the latter of which becomes a metaphor in the lipstick, which they don as they prepare themselves for battle.
The lipstick then also becomes a symbol of fearlessness, and the film spares no sexist double standards. But it must address the problem even as it adopts a critique, and something that the film repeatedly highlights is that desire can render women vulnerable in a way that men are exempt from. A woman visiting her lover's house unannounced may be a display of agency, but this act can transform into something else altogether when the threat of rape is posed. An older widow daring to think of a relationship places herself in an extremely precarious position, while her male counterparts would have to face none of the flak and ostracism that she would draw. The scene of Leela shooting herself and her boyfriend in the heat of the moment and referring to the video as a possible tool for her to use as blackmail turns a serious reality on its head. But as the narrative progresses, this gives rise to the question: what does a woman have to lose that a man doesn't?
In this vein, the film looks at the women who step out of the boundaries prescribed to them and are attacked by the very shackles they attempted to cast off. And these painful casts are what make sure that their sexuality is expressed not on their own terms, but on those of a powerful patriarchal society, if at all. It is on this tangent that the film rejects the adage of sex as something that either must be left to the imagination, or characterised only by glimpses of shapely bodies resting together. Because this imagination is precisely what Lipstick brings to a reality by laying bare on screen, where no one who watches can quite escape it. It does not romanticise such scenes, nor does it provides sensuous and airbrushed female bodies for 'aesthetic' pleasure. It revels, instead, in making its viewers uncomfortable, asking them to question this very discomfort and the hypocrisy that goes hand-in-hand with it. This is acknowledged further with the voice-over of Usha reading an erotic novel, which is sensuous, tantalising, and shows semblance of sexual fulfilment, possibility, and hope – unlike the lives of the characters on screen.
With its clever use of juxtaposition, the film draws attention to the political nature of such 'personal' struggles that women face, in order to, hopefully, start a conversation. And so it poses no solutions to the problems that the protagonists face – it only brings them to light and zooms in on them, touching on imperative political issues such as marital rape, reproductive health, and economic independence. As it dwells on these issues and their daily relevance to women’s lives , it is marked by some extremely powerful moments that, in very little words, speak volumes. That is the film's task, and it does it well.
These powerful moments in Lipstick are scattered across the arc, however, in its approaching climax, it is marred by a few messy scenes involving Rehana. The narrative reaches a point where it rushes through, leading to banal scenes of revelation that stick out unevenly in an otherwise decently structured film. As a whole, when seen in light of the other three women, Rehana's part does fall short. Her transgressions and their execution on screen are not marked by the strength that is required of the other women in their struggles. Even though part of the message that the film conveys appears to be that things only do get worse for women as they age, I did wish for her parts to be more smartly drawn in terms of characterisation as well as dialogue.
Finally, the film has garnered much attention with the Censor Board controversy pre-certification, and its offbeat marketing strategies after. But is there a dissonance between what the trailers and social media campaigns offer, and the actual film? Not an ideological one for sure. But if one goes into the theatre looking for the uber-liberating narrative of Queen or the incisive attacks of Pink, there will be disappointment. If one holds the aesthetic of Parched as a standard, Lipstick will not match up, precisely because its politics lies elsewhere, and it does a pretty fine justice to them. It does not pretend to be set in a scenic landscape, or provide aesthetic pleasure – instead it thrusts the viewer into the dark frames and uncertainty of four women residing in a small-town mohalla. There is a fearlessness required for a woman to wear her desire on her sleeve, and to be upfront about her sexuality, precisely because the consequences can be lethal. It is, all in all, an important film that must be watched, and must be reflected on for the perspective it provides and the ways through which it provides it. It is a story that implicates its viewers in a society that makes life difficult for women, especially as they age – and they are made to watch their desire drift further and further away.