Sunday, August 06, 2017

Critics misread Alankrita Shrivastava's "Lipstick Under My Burkha" . It is not about feminism's liberation theology

I was reminded of Paul Haggis' 2004 film, "Crash" when I watched Alankrita Shrivastava's "Lipstick Under My Burkha". In "Crash", Haggis traced the lives of black and white individuals -- four of them, two blacks and two whites -- from different middle class and poor backgrounds. The film is a tapestry of multiple narratives. Shrivastava does the same thing in her film when she traces the lives of four women -- two from Hindu and two from Muslim backgrounds -- in Bhopal. The women in "Lipstick Under My Burkha" is not really about sexual liberation. It is so partially in the case of Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah), the older and richer woman, and in many ways this is the weakest link of the movie. But Shrivastava manages to carry it on the shoulders of Ratna Pathak Shah. The story of Leela (Aahana Kumra) is more about love and emotional stability as opposed to mere stolidity of lower middle class married life. She is confused and she struggles to make a choice. Leela's story goes beyond notions of sexual freedom. Shirin (Konkona Sen Sharma), is a mother of three pursuing her career as a door-to-door saleswoman, and she is not fighting for sexual liberation. Rehana (Prabita Borathkur), a college student, from a lower middle class background, where the father is a shopkeeper and the mother a housewife, and who sends the daughter to college. Rehana flirts with the joys of college life and air of rebellion that goes with it. It is music that seems to attract her as a mode of rebellion though sex and love come as part of the cocktail. In her case, there is also the temptation of the girly indulgences that only money can bring -- scents, boots, lipsticks, which she cannot afford. Shrivastava tells the four stories as competently as she can, keeping them separate and pursuing them deftly. It is here that the parallels between Haggis' "Crash" and Shrivastava's "Lipstick Under My Burkha" stand out.
The title of the movie is catchy but misleading, because the only one bothered about lipstick under the burkha is Rehana hers is not the only story in the movie. It shows the bigger, social picture with its ironies, contradictions and its elusive pleasure points. And all this within the constricted context of a provincial town. The success of Shrivastava is in conveying the social complexity and its little sorrows and joys, its emotional crises. And she does all this without any comment and this is the virtue of the movie. The last scene where all the four protagonists come together is the only point where it is made out that the women thrown down by the dominant norms of the small city have something in common. But here too, there is admirable restraint. There is no dogmatic declamation. The movie would have however been more powerful without this last scene where the women gather.
What Shrivastava succeeds quite brilliantly is conveying the dark shadows that dominate social life in a small city and there are no escape routes. It is a dark conclusion and a bold decision on the part of the director to leave it at that.
It is disappointing that many of the reviewers and critics of the film missed out on the essential part of the movie --its deft narration of four separate lives that play out in the same small city.

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