The “burkha” in Lipstick Under My Burkha must be viewed with all the baggage the word carries. It is not a literal reference to the form-camouflaging garment worn traditionally by Muslim women. “Burkha” here is a reference both to the piece of clothing and the curtaining off of a woman’s dreams, desires and feelings.
Lipstick Under My Burkha is set in Bhopal where Usha Parmar (Ratna Pathak Shah), Rehana Abidi (Plabita Borthakur), Shirin Aslam (Konkona Sensharma) and Leela (Aahana Kumra) are neighbours in a congested lower-middle class neighbourhood. Rehana is a college student who also chips in at her parents’ tailoring shop. Unknown to them, she rebels against their restrictions and the burkha forced on her.
A stone’s throw from her residence, unknown to an authoritarian husband (Sushant Singh), Shirin has been working as a door-to-door salesperson with great success, only to return home each day to be raped by him. Leela the beautician, meanwhile, has been planning a new business and simultaneously having an affair with a local Muslim photographer (Vikrant Massey), unknown to her fond fiancé or her widowed and financially desperate mother (Sonal Jha).
Unknown to all of them, Usha is lost in a world of sleazy romantic novels, even as she oversees the running of her own sweet shop and a large, crumbling residential building she appears to co-own with her nephews. Lipstick Under My Burkha opens with one of the most charming narrative devices seen in a while in a Hindi film. Shah’s voiceover is juxtaposed on visuals that are designed to mislead. The revelation of her character’s truth is one of the many amusing moments this film offers.
The narrative flits from the slice of one woman’s life to another. The background narration of erotic pulp fiction is the thread that knits all these stories together and lends a definite pattern to the seeming randomness of the putting together of the scenes. The pulp fiction also serves as a metaphor of an escape route, of the many dreams and fantasies of women. On top of it, it also lends a delightful, whimsical, humourous touch to what could have otherwise been a grave and sombre matter.
Shrivastava portrays rebellions as persistent battles than one defining, decisive war. It is evident in the culmination which is realistic enough not to be like hitting the proverbial sixer to victory. It shows that the resistance of these women has to be enduring and they themselves need to remain determined and resolute. The one problem I can envisage is the reaction of men—not a single one comes out with flying colours. All you get are insecure, domineering, jealous wimps.