By Pankaj Sachdeva

Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha is about four women at different stages of their life—Rehana (Plabita Borthakur), a college student who loves to sing; Leela (Aahana Kumra), a beautician who harbors the dream of having her own business; Shireen (Konkona Sensharma), a mother of three children who works as a saleswoman; and Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah), everyone’s Bua Ji, a widow who owns a building where a number of tenants stay. The fifth character in the film is Rosy from the book that Bua Ji is reading—Lipstick Vale Sapne. She does not have a physical presence in the film but her story connects the story of the other women. The four women relate with Rosy’s story at different points. They are Rosy in some way or the other. These women live with their lipstick vale sapne in a building called Hawai Manzil, appropriately named, as the fulfillment of their dreams seems difficult. There is a lovely scene in the film when Leela tells Shireen, “Pata hai, Di, hamari galti kya hai. Hum sapne bahut dekhte hain.” Their fault is that they dream too much. As women, they have to keep their desires under the veil of burkha. Hence, the title Lipstick Under My Burkha. Lipstick becomes a symbol for expressing their desires that have to be kept hidden. Lipstick Vale Sapne Under My Burkha.


In Anshai Lal’s Phillauri, there is a scene when Shashi (Anushka Sharma) finds out that she is pregnant and her friend Amrit (Nidhi Bisht) asks her, “Sharam nahi aayi.” Shashi initially nods yes, but then says no and starts smiling. It is a heartwarming scene that a woman in the early 1900s has no qualms in admitting that she had premarital sex. It is this sharam (shame) that the women in Lipstick Under My Burkha are constantly reminded of. Rehana is asked to not dance in a family function because of this sharam. Rahim asks his wife if she was shameless enough to purchase a condom from the chemist shop. Leela’s mother calls her shameless after she finds him having sex with Arshad. Bua Ji’s nephews tell her that she should be ashamed after they find out about Jaspal. Sharam, as is often said in our films and in our society, is a woman’s jewel. But it is also said, “Jisne ki sharam uske phoote karam.” These four women try to fight this patriarchal sharam to live the life they want to, with their limited means.


The film also shows us different contrasts in the lives of these women. There is Rehana who stitches burkhas for other women, but in her college, she protests against the ban on women wearing jeans. As a mark of protest, she tears her jeans. There is Shireen who is the best saleswoman in her company, and can sell the most ridiculous of magical products but can’t weave some abracadabra to sell the idea of her as a working woman to her own husband. There is Leela who is stuck between two men—one who can give her the security of a home without her ever needing to step out, and, the other with whom she has the chance to travel far but no security. There is Usha who has to pretend to follow the path of Swami Ji but what, rather, who she really wants to do is her swimming coach. She is the owner of a hundred-year-old dilapidated building and takes her first trip to a newly constructed mall to buy a swimming costume.



There is a point in the film when Shireen plans to tell her husband that she got a microwave by being the top-performing saleswoman at her company. She bakes a cake for her husband hoping that he would allow her to work. But telling him was no piece of cake. She enters the room and sits on the bed; however, her husband does not even look at her, and is busy watching the television. She tries to speak but he asks her for the remote. She hands him the remote, and, then, he grabs her hand forcing her to give him a handjob. The remote scene is telling because Shireen’s husband remote controls his wife for the fulfillment of his sexual needs whenever he wants; like switching on the television at his will, without caring that sex is an activity that requires mutual consent. He shows no concern for her pleasure. He does not even bother about the basic comfort of Shireen during sex.


During the same above scene, Rahim is watching Keh Do Ek Baar Sajna from Prakash Jha’s Mrityudand. This is a self-reference in the film as Prakash Jha is also the producer of Lipstick Under My Burkha. It is also significant as Mrityudand is also an important film that dealt with the issue of women empowerment, and did a better job of portraying it. In Mrityudand, there is a point where a building contractor Vinay (Ayub Khan) tells his wife Ketaki (Madhuri Dixit) that she should not try to become his husband. She had refused to sleep with him after he physically abuses her. He taunts her that she has to respect his needs by saying, “Dekhiye Srimati Ji, apna aukat me rahiye. Hamra marad banane ki koshish mat kijiye.” She should stay in her limits and not try to become his husband. Ketaki replies, “Aukaat ko taakat ka taraju me tolne ka koshish mat kijiye. Aap hamre pati hain, parmeshwar banane ka bhool mat keejiye.” You can’t define limits with violence. You are my husband, not God. As Rahim (who also works for a building firm, like Vinay) is watching Mrityudand, a similar scene appears in his story only. During the end, when Rahim rapes Shireen (again) after she finds about his affair, he tells her, “Biwi ho, shauhar banane ki koshish mat karo.” She is his wife and she should not try to become a husband. Ketaki and Shireen, who are much smarter than their husbands, are told by them to remain in the limits of being a wife, and not try to become a husband.


After Shireen feels humiliated by Rahim who does not eat the cake, she goes back to the kitchen. Silently crying, she eats the piece of cake all by herself. The scene took me to a similar one from Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do where Neelam (Shefali Shah) also eats cake in front of the mirror after her husband humiliates her yet again. Her philandering husband keeps mocking her eating habits. At the onset, it feels that it was a usual taunt, but only after this scene, we realize, she is compensating the love that she craves from her husband with food. The characters in Dil Dhadakne Do belong to the rich upper class but that film also portrayed some of the same issues that women have to deal with as it is depicted here. Whatever be the class, women have to fight the same prejudices. In that film, there was Aisha (Priyanka Chopra), a smart entrepreneur, who runs her own company but her mother-in-law is not happy that her daughter-in-law works instead of taking care of household duties. Aisha is on the pill, and does not want to have kids. There is Farah (Anushka Sharma), a dancer, who belongs to a conservative family, and was always told that she has to be a good housewife in life. So, she runs away to do what she wants. Shireen and Rehana from Lipstick Under My Burkha are very much like Aisha and Farah from Dil Dhadakne Do. Maybe Shireen, like Aisha, will someday come out of a loveless marriage, and Rehana, like Aisha, will rebel and run away, to do whatever she wants.


The character that got the most sympathy from me was Bua Ji. She is a widow. At some early stage, there is a scene where the electricity fuse goes off and she goes to fix it. She meets another widower. She tells him that when there is no light, our eyes get adjusted to darkness automatically. Humans get used to the darkness. The darkness that she talks about is her own life. She has got so used to living the life of everyone’s bua ji that she has forgotten that she is Usha—a woman. At the swimming pool, she has to think for a few seconds when she is asked her name. She has forgotten her own name. She pretends to read a religious book of prayers, but underneath that, she secretly reads a Hindi Mills & Boon romantic novel. She craves for sex. She meets a swimming instructor, and has phone sex with him pretending to be Rosy. An ageing widow indulging in such activities is ridiculed because as per the rules of the society, she cannot have any sexual thoughts. In a hilarious and a depressing contrast, the sister of the widower whom Bua Ji met tells her that she is looking for a girl for his brother. Even a young girl in her late thirties will be a good match for him. Every year, the Indian media reports the same story of widows of Vrindavan celebrating Holi. As per tradition, they are not supposed to enjoy any worldly pleasures. The fact that this is news itself says a lot about the rules that the older women, especially the widows, have to live by. Having an active sex life is considered sacrilege. It is, then, heartening to see that the film treats Usha’s desire with grace and dignity. There is never a cheap moment in the film, and Ratna Pathak Shah gets under the skin of the role beautifully. Though I must say, I kept thinking what if the roles were reversed. For instance, if a man in his fifties lied about his age, and did the same with a girl, as Bua Ji did to Jaspal, would the people have treated the man kindly without labelling him a creep?


Leela and Arshad have an idea of business in which they plan to go along with newly-married couples on their honeymoon to click their pictures. They want to go on a trip like the characters of Imtiaz Ali, but using someone else’s money. It is a bizarre and a silly idea, which can only work in a city where people are stupid and rich enough. Perhaps, that is why it makes sense for them to run away to Delhi. Shruti and Bittoo from Band Baaja Baaraat, who Leela and Arshad refer to while selling their idea, actually had much smarter ideas. I also understood the point of view of Leela’s mother and will not judge her because she knows the importance of having a roof over head given her experience with Leela’s father. It is kind of natural for her to be skeptical of Arshad’s intentions over Manoj’s who promises to buy a house for her. There is also a little bit of Delhi-6 in the film. Bittu (Sonam Kapoor) wants to be a singer (like Rehana) and plans to run away (like Leela) with a shady photographer.


One other thing that struck me was the aspect of personal space and privacy in the film. Leela’s home is essentially a single room where she and her mother stay together. When she visits the house of her fiancé Manoj, there is absolutely no sense of privacy in that place. The house is filled with so many people, all the women in one room and all the men in one room. It must be suffocating for her to even think of living a life among them. She immediately goes to Arshad’s place. But he also does not have his own room. He sleeps in a room with many other people. Leela and Arshad have sex sitting uncomfortably on a toilet seat. Film critic Meenakshi Shedde recently wrote a short article on furtive sex in India talking about the lack of privacy in India. Later, Manoj finds out about Leela and Arshad when he saw their sex video on Leela’s phone, again, highlighting the lack of privacy in her life. She is furious at him and asks him whose permission he took to watch the contents of her phone. Bua Ji has to go to the toilet when she is speaking to Jaspal because some children are sleeping in her room. Rehana is lucky that she has her own room but still, she has to listen to the music on her headphones and be doubly sure to not make any noise. This lack of a secure private space is deeply saddening; which is why startups like this should be encouraged more. It is also entirely befitting that the film is set in Bhopal, a town located in central India that is at the cusp of modernity and tradition.


Lipstick Under My Burkha has interesting women characters. But the portrayal of other men and women in the film makes us empathize with these women more. Of course, there is no denying the fact that men like as shown in the film do exist in real life but there is a thought-provoking article that Romit Chowdhury wrote which puts this in a better perspective. He writes, “If it [oppression] operated only through coercion and hurt, it would perhaps have been easier to reject domination. Patriarchy succeeds because it offers love and affection as rewards for subservience. This is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to opt out of patriarchal scripts.” It is, actually, quite true. The actions of some of these women range from illegal to unethical. Rehana steals expensive clothing and makeup items from a mall. Usha lies about her identity to Jaspal. Leela lies about her boyfriend to Manoj. The film does not condone these actions, and these women bear the consequences of their actions, but we are willing to forget these because the other people around them are just so insensitive. And, these women only have each other for help. There is a lovely moment in the film when Bua Ji goes to the mall, and a young girl helps her get on the escalator for the first time. When Bua Ji feels embarrassed purchasing a swimming suit, it is Shireen who helps her. When Rehana has to go to a party, it is Leela who drives her there. When all of Bua Ji’s belongings are thrown by her nephews, no one comes for her help except these other three.


Additionally, the performances by everyone in the film are excellent; however, Ratna Pathak Shah and Konkona Sensharma are simply outstanding. Also, the film in a few scenes talked about safe sex practices. Shireen’s doctor warned her about the effects of the i-pill. Sometimes, it is these little scenes that help educate and bring awareness to the public.


The film finds its closure in a burkha shop as if making a point that these women have to go back under the veil. There is a burkha-wearing mannequin head that falls from a table, and Rehana picks it up when the four of them are sitting together. Maybe the mannequin is Rosy. Maybe the mannequin is all of them. Rehana tells them that these stories are all lies. Usha counters her by saying that these stories might be a lie, but it is these stories only that give them the courage to dream these lipstick vale sapne. The women of Hawai Manzil will continue to dream but, like Rosy, they also have to find a way to step out of their cages to make these dreams a reality, and they have to do this on their own because the key for opening the cage lies nowhere but in their own hearts. Pinjare me band sapno ki chaabi aakhir Rosy ke dil ke andar hi thi.

[The author blogs on films at:]