Movie Review: “Lipstick Under My Burkha”

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If the future is indeed female, then the most frightened corners of the Earth must be in the rigidly patriarchal, often Islamic states of the developing world.

And India, with its vast Muslim minority, certainly qualifies. Why else would the rude and irreverent Indian comedy “Lipstick Under My Burkha” be “Banned in Bombay,” censored in Sikkim?

This comedy by a female director, starring women and scripted by women, bashes India’s long-conservative screen boundaries as it lightly tells the tales of four Bhopal women coping with the last gasps of female repression by rebelling — mostly in secret, increasingly in public.

Rehanna (Plabita Borthakur) is a teen growing up in a sternly Islamic household where her duties are school during the day, slaving away at a sewing machine, contributing to the family’s bottom line, at night. But in her room, she hides Miley Cyrus posters. Under her burkha, she wears makeup — which she pilfers, along with skirts and shoes, from the mall. The burkha hides a world of sin.

She dreams of singing, sneaks out to parties and hangs with legions of like-minded girls whose families have lost control of a generation. Strict dress codes for women? Not for much longer.

“Right to jeans! Right to live!” Rehanna chants at school protests.

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Leela (Aahana Kumra) is a sexy young woman with designs on a career and a life with the young photographer/entrepreneur she loves. But with an arranged marriage in the works, she has to get her groove back on the side. Hot, furtive sex in an Indian comedy! Still a rarer than rare thing.

Shirin (Konkana Sen Sharma) is a rising star “Magic” products door-to-door saleswoman. But her brute of a husband figures keeping her pregnant between his stints of work in Saudi Arabia is the best use of her life. She has abortions behind his back and longs for birth control to prevent the consequences of his selfish sexual urges.

And the landlady everybody calls “Auntie” (Ratna Pathak Shah) finds herself overheated by the prospect of a hunky lifeguard at the local pool, struggling to find modest swimwear in a country that grows more Western by the minute. She narrates our tale, recounting breathless passages from a steamy romance novel whose liberated heroine, “Rosey,” is a surrogate for all four repressed women.

Filmmaker Alankrita Shrivastava presents a vivid setting, a post-“gas tragedy” Bhopal full of working class/middle class life and clashing gender mores.

All of the women strain under the yoke of oppression, but Rehanna’s generation will be the ones to break it, is the implied message.

So many RULES for women, she gripes to a video reporter who shows up at a class rally. “Don’t sing. Don’t dance. No END to rules facing girls.”

But there is an end. And it’s coming.

“Why does our freedom SCARE you so?”

“Lipstick Under My Burkha,” in Hindi and English with English subtitles, nods to Bollywood (there’s a little song and dance, and like Bollywood comedies, it sort of waddles on too long) but hurls itself at the Subcontinent’s conservative sexual barriers with a giggling vengeance.

The comic shocks may play as “scandalous” in much of the world, but not to Western audiences. They’re still funny, as are the characters — funny with a feminist edge.

The performances are more real than fantastical, with Shah finding the humor in an older woman availing herself of “modern” liberation, Kumra suggesting resignation to her fade, but romantic/sexual longing, Sen getting across “I’m more than what this man is letting me be” and Borthakur bristling with teen social fears — fitting in — and finding herself as a woman by protesting restrictions on her behavior and attire.

To borrow an age-old American expression, how’re you going to keep them down under a burkha after they’ve seen the likes of wild and free Miley Cyrus?

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Cast:  Plabita BorthakurAahana KumraRatna Pathak ShahKonkona Sen Sharma MPAA Rating: unrated, with explicit sexual situations, smoking

Credits: Directed by  Alankrita Shrivastava, script by  Gazal Dhalimwal, Suhani Kanwar, story by Alankrita Shrivastava.  An Star Synergy release.
Running time: 1:55

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