LAFF 2017 movie review: ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’

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The closing gala screening at the first Leicester Asian Film Festival was ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’, written and directed by Alankrita Shrivastava. The film, which has caused a bit of controversy over recent months, played to a sold out screening both in the London leg of the Festival and in Leicester too. The story follows four main characters and watches their individual lives unravel.

The scene is set in a small colony called Hawaei Manzil tucked away from the busy streets of a small town in India and here live four different families who collectively live as a joint family though not related. At first glance you would think they’re all living normal lives as every other family, but as the story starts to unravel, all is not what it seems. To give some background the film revolves around Usha, Shirin, Leela and Rehana.

Usha, played by Ratna Pathak Shah, is a widow who is lovingly known as Buaji (auntie) to everyone. She lives with her extended family and is the heart of the colony. Running a successful business with her nephews, Usha is forever battling with government officials and property developers who are desperate to acquire the colony to build a mall. But no matter how much they are willing to offer, Usha stands her ground and refuses to cave in to their demands.

Usha became a widow in her 50s and has a secret liking for romantic, fiction books – something which is hidden from her family members. ‘Lipstick Dreams’ is the book which ignites her inner passion and sudden realisation that there is a void in her life she wishes to fill.

Shirin, played by Konkona Sen Sharma, is a full-time housewife and mother of three children who is also a well known aspiring sales agent – one of the best in her area. Shirin is married to Rahim, (Sushant Singh), who works for a property developer in Saudi Arabia (the same one trying to acquire Hawaei Manzil) and generally comes back to India for two weeks in a year to visit. He is opposed to the idea of Shirin working, though this doesn’t stop her from achieving her ambition.

Leela, played by Aahana Kumra, is a young self employed beautician who lives with her mother who is a single parent. Brimming with ambition, Leela’s dreams are to leave the colony and live her life freely with her beau Arshad (Vikrant Massey) in Delhi, where they would run their own photography business capturing the best of honeymooning couples. Her relationship is shunned by her mother as he is Muslim and in her eyes has no prospects, so she sets out to get her married off to the only son (Vaibbhav Tatwawdi) of a traditional Hindu family, who is the innocent, cultured and successful type, perfect some would say. Eventually Leela is torn between the two guys. Does she elope with the one she has truly loved or does she marry someone who is willing to give her everything, including an improved life for her mum?

Then last but not least Rehana, portrayed by Plabita Borthakur. A burkha-clad young college student who is stuck between living a life as an obedient daughter to very orthodox Muslim parents who want her to excel in her studies, but deep down behind closed doors and away from her parents knowledge she aspires to be a pop star like her idol Miley Cyrus. As well as studying she is expected to help out with her parents tailoring business in the evenings. She tries hard to fit in with the popular crowd, and auditions for the college band, at the same time allowing her to fulfil her desire to sing. Here she meets Dhruv (Shashank Arora) who charms his way into Rehana’s life and makes quite an impression, much to her parents’ displeasure.

Shrivastava manages to grip the audience with a great storyline which has moments of comedy, emotion and realness, which may resonate with the audience in one way or another. It tackles subjects which are considered taboo within the Asian culture, but also highlights what does go on behind the scenes in India. Women’s wants and needs are brought to the forefront. Whether that is ambition or desire in their personal or professional life or both. The need to find equality in a man’s world and the trials and tribulations of conforming to family and societal pressures everyday. The story flows quite seamlessly on four strong female characters, each having equal screen space for their story to be told. There is a quite a bit of sexual content, whether there was a need for so much is questionable.

The climax was executed really well, Shrivastava managed to bring all four characters together without losing the momentum of each of their specific story-lines. They understood the challenges they were facing and found solace. It would be fair to say that it didn’t feel like a closed ending, a sequel to this film could possibly work.

Each actor played their character flawlessly, but Pathak Shah and Sen Sharma really stood out with their performances. Where the story could have developed a bit more is around Leela’s mother. Though her scenes were limited, there was definitely room to explore her struggle bringing up a daughter as a single parent after leaving an alcoholic husband.

‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ was entertaining, eye-opening and thought-provoking. It’s good to address issues of oppression and domestic sexual abuse, but at the same time telling the world that women are strong, and most of all human who do experience intimate feelings and there is nothing wrong with that either. However, it can be argued that it’s more suited to a mature audience.

BizAsiaLive.com rating: 4/5

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