Film Diary: Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017)

Lipstick Under My Burkha.

I had forgotten that Lipstick Under My Burkha (henceforth, LUMB) had come to Amazon Prime. And, yes, it is the uncensored version. But that didn’t really help.

I am sorry to say that the intent and spirit of LUMB is noble and courageous, no doubt, but I found the film to be like one of those ’70s NFDC productions that Kamal Swaroop once called “complaint box” films.

The film follows four characters – Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah), Rehana (Plabita Borthakur), Shireen (Konkona Sen Sharma) and Leela (Aahana Kumra) and is set in Bhopal.

Society matriarch Usha’s age (55) has turned her into a sexless mother figure in the neighbourhood. People keep calling Usha “Buaji” to the point that even she answers “Buaji” when her name is asked.

Leela’s parents are getting their daughter married off against her wish. Leela, however, has Band Baaja Baaraat-like business plans of her own, and she wants to work on them with her lover Arshad (Vikrant Massey) after eloping to Delhi.

Rehana is a college-going Muslim girl who is stuck in a frustratingly conservative household. When she steps out of her home for college, she gets rid of the burkha, changes into jeans, and sings Miley Cyrus songs, hums Stairway to Heaven, smokes and gets drunk, dances and parties… all the things that her parents consider to be blasphemous.

Finally, Shireen is a middle-class Muslim housewife with a brute of a husband (Sushant Singh). Shireen works as a sales girl and is pretty good at her job but she hides it from her husband who will never allow her woman to step out of line. He not only keeps having unprotected sex with Shireen, leading to the birth of three kids and multiple abortions, but is also revealed to be cheating on Shireen as the story progresses.

Phew. As you can understand, all four characters live under heavy-duty oppression, and the film is about them daring to dream and escape their cages. All well and good. Except that the screenplay is that of a feature-length film made out of what could have been four short films revolving around the same theme.

So, the script chops up each story and serves a small scene from, say, Usha’s track followed by a little of Rehana’s track or Shireen’s track or Leela’s track and so on. They are not really interconnected and a plot development in one character’s track doesn’t lead to an organic change in another’s track. These results in a series of singular well-written scenes which either show the woman being oppressed or her making an attempt to break free. The only difference from scene to scene is that the protagonist keeps changing. This makes the film monotonous. I was honestly bored out of my mind, but kept watching it because A. the actors are so damn good and B. the individual scenes themselves are written really well…

And this made me wonder if LUMB could have been a better film if it was an anthology film? Like last year’s excellent Island City which consisted of three thematically related short films which come one after the other, LUMB could have, perhaps, gone down that route, and that way, it could have been a more interesting film.

Because if you have repetitive scenes around the same theme or of the same tone without follow-up scenes to release that tension, things are bound to get dull. In an anthology film, you can have a 20-minute short film which is quick build-up and release. And like I said, the stories of the four women did not demand to be chopped up and rearranged alongside each other. The only motivation was to, maybe, somehow, bring the four women together in the now-famous final scene where Rehana, Leela, Shireen and Usha smoke and laugh.

By the way, what is the conceit used to make the stories (cosmetically) interconnected? Oh, make the four women neighbours. So that they can, sometimes, run into each other and say, “Hello.” How convenient.