If Lipstick Under My Burkha hadn't been caught in a censorship tangle, it probably wouldn't have got so much attention. Alankrita Srivastava's film is set in Bhopal and portrays the narrow-mindedness of provincial India, particularly when it means controlling women. So whether it is the widowed Buaji Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah) who is expected to be pious and sexless at 55, to the teenage Muslim girl Rehana (Plabita Borthakur) who wants to get out of her stifling existence to freedom, which, to her means smoking, drinking, wearing jeans and making out with boys. In between are Shireen (Konkona Sen Sharma),who has an unfeeling boor of a husband, and Leela (Aahana Kumra), who dithers between a sexually exciting boyfriend and boring fiance.
There is nothing new that the film says about the condition of women in India, nor is there anything positive or revolutionary about the women's method of escape. It's not that fake positivity is expected from a filmmaker, but if a so-called feminist film does not even provoke a bit of thought - over and above the obvious flag-waving - then it just ends up preaching to the converted. And since when is smoking considered a symbol of freedom?
However, not even the most emancipated woman would say that Leela’s or Rehana' s rebellion is anything but self-destructive, and Buaji' s passion for a young swimming instructor, fuelled by adolescent pulp sex books is anything but immature. None of the stories have hope or a future, and all of them revolve around the acceptance or lack of it by the men around them. Far from being empowering in any way, the sex is just sordid and somewhat demeaning for the women.
Still, a film that even acknowledges women's sexual desires is brave.
And Srivastava does get wonderful performances from her cast, and captures the suffocating milieu of a small city perfectly. Somewhere in the midst of all that chaos is a truly remarkable woman (Sonal Jha) who puts aside shame and raises her daughter by working as a nude model in an art school. That's a story that needs to be told.