Review: Lipstick Under My Burkha - What Does It Take to be a Woman?

Lipstick Under My Burkha

  • Director: Alankrita Shrivastava
  • Screenplay: Alankrita Shrivastava
  • Cast: Konkona Sen Sharma, Ratna Pathak, Aahana Kumra, Plabita Borthakur, Sushant Singh, Vaibhav Tatwawaadi, Vikrant Massey
  • Comedy, 117 min

 

Lipstick Under My Burkha is a critically acclaimed film which premiered at Tokyo and Mumbai Film Festivals. Although, having initially been denied a release in India due to allegedly explicit sexual content among other things, the film has turned out to be a critical and commercial success. Lipstick Under My Burkha centres on the lives of four Indian women of different backgrounds and conditions. The film deals with female sexuality and the question what it is like to be a woman in India. Furthermore, Lipstick Under My Burkha includes such taboos as domestic violence and contraception  and “excess” or “inappropriate” female sexual desire.

The film starts with the introduction of a woman named Rosy and her story arc continues on the background for the entire film, while four different women from the same neighbourhood are introduced. The first woman to be introduced is Rehana, a college student who defies her parents by wearing jeans to school instead of burkha - although, she keeps it as a secret. When she isn’t home repairing and sewing burkhas she participates in student protests, listens to Led Zeppelin and tries to enrapture the style of Miley Cyrus, whose style and attitude empower her. She feels that wearing a burkha doesn't give her the freedom she wants to have, and is forced to live a double life.

The second woman is Leela, a beautician, who has been forcefully betrothed to a man of wealth. However, she is in love with a photographer with whom she tries to run off to Delhi. Their affair is accidentally revealed to Leela’s mother when she catches them in action at Leela’s engagement party. Leela is forced to quit her affair with the photographer and struggles to get to know her fiancé who seems extremely dull. The third woman is Shireen who also lives a double life: at home she is a mother and a devoted wife, but outside her home she is a successful saleswoman. Working is her way to empower herself and find some excitement to her sombre life. Her husband, however, considers her as nothing more than a sexual object and the fulfiller of his sexual desires. 

The fourth woman is Usha Buaji who is the matriarch of Hawaii Manzil, the haveli they all live in. She is a 55-year old widow who is a mother-figure for all the kids in the neighbourhood. For a woman of her age and marital status, she is also expected to not remarry or, furthermore, to have any sexual desires. Her defiance against the societal traditions are concreted when she starts attending a swimming class and starts to develop feelings for her swimming coach. In between of changing the point of view, the narration tells the story of Rosy and it becomes apparent that at the same time Rosy is no one and everyone.

The film culminates in a party organised by the residents of Hawaii Manzil to celebrate Diwali. Rehana is there wearing jeans with her new boyfriend and they enjoy the evening. They get stuck at the top in a ferris wheel and talk about life and future. Leela is attending the party with her fiancé whose love for her changes Leela's attitude, and she actually starts to enjoy spending time with him and getting to know him. They run into Leela’s secret boyfriend (who, as it becomes obvious to Leela, is actually trash) and it seems that Leela is over him and ready to start a life with her fiancé. Shireen gets a promotion at her work and her husband happens to be around to hear about it. He seems proud and supportive of her wife, although this is the first time he hears of her work. Usha Buaji enjoys the evening in the company of her swimming coach. Life seems perfect: the women have rebelled and sought to empower themselves. They have gained authority over their own bodies and seem to be in control of their lives. One can ask if that kind of an ending would make an impactful story.

The film is a window to a different point of view from which one can examine issues feminism has to deal with. However, at least for me, the struggles with which the four women are battling with aren’t really that far fetched or foreign I can see it happening here in Finland, and all over the world. The origin of these issues isn’t rooted in one particular culture or dependant of it, which is one more reason to love the film. Another important aspect which the film highlights is that female oppression doesn’t necessarily come from any religion too it is the old custom and tradition of any community tha can enable the oppression. I highly recommend Lipstick Under My Burkha to anyone who is interested in feminism or who wants to familiarise themselves with these issues, or really just to enjoy a good film. Check out the trailer below!

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A strong advocate of pineapple on pizza and a comparative literature major