Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016)–IFFLA 2017

This year’s IFFLA programming boasts of a number of women filmmakers: Konkona Sen Sharma, Ananya Kasaravalli, and Alankrita Shrivastava, Bobby Sharma Barua, Shirley Abraham, and Sonejuhi Sinha. It is a rare, celebratory, and well-deserved programming accomplishment, a tribute to the unseen but vibrant part of Indian cinema.

That this year’s program opens with a film in which four women, different backgrounds, ages, and desires, is also a momentous event. The very title of Alankrita Shrivastava’s film suggests something rebellious, laced with a slightly transgressive gesture. It is that and more too! Four women mark their arrival in a new era of rebellion against patriarchy and orthodoxy on many levels of Indian life. The narrative is a roller-coaster of four-pronged narratives that do much less to transgress as to show the un-expressed desires that prohibit women from taking command of their own lives. If you isolate the scenes and images that appear transgressive, or in the eyes of the Indian Censor Board prohibitive, then you are good at isolating women from their contexts. That is, you are merely reducing their lives to select gestures of your own choice, a standard hallmark of patriarchal power. If you notice a language yearning to come out from these scenes, from how women want to break the mold of codes imposed on them, then you are doing justice to the film. It may not be an easy exercise, but an essential one.

The film is an omnibus of sorts, four narratives woven together in which women take steps to show the initial conceptions of freedom in a repressive culture. Shirin (Konkona Sen Sharma), a Muslim mother of three tends to her family by working as a sales girl with a grit, innovative and bold in her moves to make certain she is successful. When her husband returns from the Gulf, he is aggressively hungry for sex, without regard to the passionless wife who suffers through it all. Rehana (Plabita Borthakur), pursues a life of modern clothes, music, drinking, parties and boyfriends. A college student, she also joins in the cause to wear jeans as an expression of freedom. When contained in the house, her family wants her to sew clothes.

Leela (Aahana Kumra), a beautician has a Muslim boyfriend even as her family works to find her a mate, an ever-so-boring clean slate who wants to wait till marriage to have sex and whose image of a wife is contained to four walls of the house. Leela’s pre-marital sex is explicit, even as she records one encounter on a cell phone so she could contain him if needed in the future. In the fourth role, Ratna Pathak Shah, portrays Auntie Usha, an older woman who wants to protect her property against anyone eyeing it. Her secret life involves a crush on a young life-guard, an idol of her erotic fantasies.

In each case, a woman from a different station in her religious, family, and sexual life, is living at the edge, wanting to cut the cord that binds them, and yet resisting against pressure from the orthodoxy that chains them. A voice of “Rosy” hovers over the images as a narrator, whispering in our ears to look at the lives with a sensual interest. The lives of these women criss cross. Their friction with orthodoxy comes in all directions, from their boyfriends, husbands, fathers and friends. The multi-pronged attack takes on the task of steering the audiences that repression takes different shapes and the rebellions must also speak the language of the multiples. When the four lives merge in the films, it is a true women’s moment; they understand each other’s troubles, immerse into each other’s worlds. It is as if no further language is necessary for them to communicate but be together.

Shrivastava’s single narrative told on four levels gets tangled at times, decreasing the intensity of one against the other. This is a tough task a story with melodramatic tone comes up against one with humor and the other with crisis and the other with pleasure-sex. This is an ensemble film with its own challenges. But unlike what the censors tell us, it is not a controversial film. Neither is it advocating a direct critique. It is simply asserting voices that are repressed. There are hardly any gratuitous moments here. Should the guardians of morality who allow an “item number” in mainstream films should have any right to say anything about sex or sexuality that is part of the narrative, hardly presented for voyeuristic pleasure?

It is vital that we support this film, particularly because the voices of repression are railing against it. And, support it in the most legitimate way. In the theaters, at the festivals and elsewhere. Women filmmakers deserve support so more films like this will be made and released.

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