NYIFF 2017 Film Review “Lipstick Under My Burkha”



First, the Recap:

Repressed. Fettered. Bound. Subdued. When any group of people is placed under manacles that overtly prevent their freedom of action, speech, pursuit of their dreams, even their very choices, it usually leads to only one place–rebellion. Yet, how does one even rebel in a society where it seems every facet of life, of expected behavior, is strictly dictated? In the small town of Bhopal, India, this dilemma is explored by four women, Rehana (Plabita Borthakur), Leela (Aahana Kumra), Shirin (Konkona Sen Sharma), and “Auntie” Usha (Ratna Pathak), all of whom have aspirations and yearnings stifled, often totally smothered, by the culture’s current conventions and attitudes towards the fairer sex. It is from this harsh environment, however, they all seek to break loose.

College student Rehana chooses to engage via discovering every possible aspect of existence that is frowned upon by her restrictive parents, from perfume and music, to jeans, lipstick, and boys. Leela finds herself about to be married to a nice Hindi man, even as her own career ambitions and passionate attraction to another draw her further away from an arranged life. Shirin, a young mother of three, barely withstands the loveless marriage to a husband recently returned from abroad. Her vain attempts to initiate a deeper relationship is only met with further disdain and brutal apathy. Usha, a grandmother and stalwart protector of what’s hers, escapes to a lustful fantasy world via a character from an erotic novel, if anything to simply feel alive again in her widowed actuality.

However, even as all four take on their respective flights of defiance, they soon find paths converging as the ramifications of their decisions, and the ensuing exploits, bring release but jarring reminders of the reality they will continue to strive against.

Next, my Mind:

A bluntly candid, potently compelling, emotionally raw, and highly provocative effort, there is no denying director/co-writer Alankrita Shrivastava was ready to send a powerful and poignant feminist message, which was very effectively accomplished, to the point of the film initially being banned by India’s censor board. Presented with a no-holds-barred approach that drives the film’s primary theme about the suffocating, trapped worlds the four women inhabit, the deft combination of humor and frank drama propels the viewer through the myriad of methods they’ve found to own some semblance of self and the desires they encounter. Having to carry it off clandestinely which, while yielding successes, also reveals bitter truths about the price paid when exposed, it’s a sobering, deeply affecting, greatly relevant prompting that speaks volumes to the subject matter and intentions delivered.

An ensemble effort through and through, Shrivastava hits it out of the park casting-wise here, utilizing a wonderfully wide-ranging group of actors to see this story spring to life. Borthakur’s Rehana is a realistic portrait of young adult restlessness and the need to have the means of expression as only a woman who’s been told so many things are forbidden would therefore desire to seek out. Kumra’s Leela is performed with a heated fervency as she navigates a plain life vs. one filled with passion and success, even though the expected results may not match her heart’s desire. Sen Sharma’s excellently understated turn as Shirin only aids in emphasizing the character’s heartbreaking circumstances of wanting to simply feel sincerely loved and respected, while being a mother and a free woman. Finally, Pathak’s hilariously sexually frustrated widow Usha is played with incredible intentionality, illustrating that life isn’t supposed to be over as a widow, though how she chooses to pursue all if it is questionable for sure.

As one then might anticipate, the men here are truly the villains, with perhaps the exception of Leela’s quietly longsuffering fiancé. But, what impacts you here is that these men, all played with intentionally varying degrees of intensity and bravado by Shashank Arora, Vikrant Massey, Sushant Singh, and Vaibbhav Tatwawdi, each accurately paints a caricature-like picture of the types of men that are out there, like it or not. From the multiple cads, to the disinterested, unloving workaholic, to the one decent guy in the whole scope of things, it is a reflection of real life and meant to elicit the reactions to them we rightly should. The actors embody the traits of these individuals with deft precision and almost ruthless purpose in most cases, making you truly want to reach through the screen and throttle them, with the exception again of Leela’s poor fiancé, whom you will feel sorry for ultimately.

In total, with it’s uninhibited, undisguised but non-gratuitous and impactful sexuality placed in conjunction with the equally unapologetic, haunting and soul-stirring message about the treatment of women in India, “Lipstick Under My Burkha” assuredly stands as a battle cry for social awareness, an even louder cry for a new commitment to change, and a bold challenge to a culture and a country as only the independent film platform can provide.

As always, this is all for your consideration and comment.  Until next time, thank you for reading!


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