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‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’: Lusting and taboo-busting in small town India

In Alankrita Shrivastava’s chick flick, four women living double lives in Bhopal try to break free.

Respectable matron Usha Parmar has a secret that emerges when the lights are turned out. Usha consumes pulp romances by night and takes the mildly salacious prose so seriously that when the hunky swimming coach offers to give her lessons, her dormant libido floats to the surface.

Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah) isn’t the only one leading a double life in Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha. For her second movie after the shambolic Turning 30!!! (2011), the filmmaker turns her attention to the stifled lives of small-town Indian women. If Turning 30!!! posited that deracinated urban women were not free from social pressures, Lipstick Under My Burkha sets out to prove that female misery extends to the cities that lie beyond the supposedly progressive metropolises.

Usha is connected to three other women who live in the house that she owns – the significantly named Havai Mahal. Beauty parlour owner Leela (Aahana Kumra) is burning up the bedsheets with a photographer (Vikrant Massey) and is on the threshold of a marriage she doesn’t want. College student Rehana (Plabita Borthakur) slips out of her burkha as soon as she has left her home and dreams of being Madhya Pradesh’s answer to Miley Cyrus. Shirin (Konkona Sen Sharma) is a smooth-talking sales representative, a fact she has managed to hide from her sexually demanding husband (Sushant Singh).

The setting is Bhopal, which is depicted to be small enough to make the mere suggestion of taboo topics shocking (female sexual desire, masturbation, marital rape) but large enough to easily absorb the consequences of all the lusting and thrusting.

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Lipstick Under My Burkha.

The F-word in a movie in which a lip-colouring agent is treated as a tool of empowerment, on par with the burning bra and the brandished broom, isn’t feminism but freedom. Like the Lebanese movie Caramel (2007), which featured the owner of a beauty parlour and her clients, Lipstick Under My Burkha gives women’s problems the light and bright treatment. There is enough realism to make the narrative credible and enough glamour to ensure that these women are not confused with their messier real-life counterparts. The women learn the hard way that a step forward is two steps behind, but the agony and emotional attrition that results from being shackled and misunderstood are missing.

The movie is structured as a series of episodes that connect only in the climax. The approach allows Shrivastava to map out strong individual graphs for her characters, but it also eliminates the prospect of female solidarity. Unlike Parched, which came out in 2016, the four women in Lipstick Under My Burkha fight lonely wars, each sallying forth on her own, without the benefit of a similarly sagging shoulder to cry on.

The post-feminist approach is at its starkest in Leela’s story. Her mother has an unusual career choice that holds lessons for her daughter, but gets neglected in a narrative packed with characters.

The bar is set low in terms of psychological shading, and some tracks fare better than the others on the strength of acting calibre. Shrivastava deftly handles her ensemble cast, but two stand out: Konkona Sen Sharma as the baby producing machine who yearns to be taken seriously, and Aahana Kumra as the difficult daughter who craves love and sexual satisfaction rather than familial responsibility.

Usha’s gradual sexual awakening is played for laughs to make it more palatable. Jagat Singh Solanki, as the swimming trainer, is this movie’s male item girl, the subject of Usha’s Mills and Boon-inspired fantasies.

Ratna Pathak Shah in Lipstick Under My Burkha.
Ratna Pathak Shah in Lipstick Under My Burkha.

Forbidden fruit turns out to be more easily available than one would imagine. The ease with the women get away with behaviour that would be caught out even in big cities is enviable. Leela, for one, is so successful with her assignations that her angst beggars belief, just as Rehana’s ability to hoodwink her parents is strictly on the level of adolescent fantasy. Rehana’s parents should have been onto her merely by looking at her incredibly sharp eyebrows and immaculately made-up face, but they are too busy living up to the stereotype of orthodox minders who simply don’t get their kids.

The sexual politics isn’t always on target, but the emphasis on sexual freedom is. The script wobbles as the four tracks evolve and get far too complicated to be smoothly straightened out, but it is at its entertaining best when the women get all hot and heavy. The beauty parlour, the boudoir, the swimming pool and the college campus are transformed into erogenous zones. Our favourite isn’t Leela having it off with her boyfriend while her hapless fiancé waits for her, Rehana cosying up to her moody drummer classmate (Shashank Arora), or Shirin getting a Brazilian. Usha is a vision as she blissfully floats in a pool, coming closest to the pulp heroine of her imagination.

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Advice from an ex-robber on how to keep your home safe

Tips on a more hands-on approach of keeping your house secure.

Home, a space that is entirely ours, holds together our entire world. Where our children grow-up, parents grow old and we collect a lifetime of memories, home is a feeling as much as it’s a place. So, what do you do when your home is eyed by miscreants who prowl the neighbourhood night and day, plotting to break in? Here are a few pre-emptive measures you can take to make your home safe from burglars:

1. Get inside the mind of a burglar

Before I break the lock of a home, first I bolt the doors of the neighbouring homes. So that, even if someone hears some noise, they can’t come to help.

— Som Pashar, committed nearly 100 robberies.

Burglars study the neighbourhood to keep a check on the ins and outs of residents and target homes that can be easily accessed. Understanding how the mind of a burglar works might give insights that can be used to ward off such danger. For instance, burglars judge a house by its front doors. A house with a sturdy door, secured by an alarm system or an intimidating lock, doesn’t end up on the burglar’s target list. Upgrade the locks on your doors to the latest technology to leave a strong impression.

Here are the videos of 3 reformed robbers talking about their modus operandi and what discouraged them from robbing a house, to give you some ideas on reinforcing your home.

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2. Survey your house from inside out to scout out weaknesses

Whether it’s a dodgy back door, a misaligned window in your parent’s room or the easily accessible balcony of your kid’s room, identify signs of weakness in your home and fix them. Any sign of neglect can give burglars the idea that the house can be easily robbed because of lax internal security.

3. Think like Kevin McCallister from Home Alone

You don’t need to plant intricate booby traps like the ones in the Home Alone movies, but try to stay one step ahead of thieves. Keep your car keys on your bed-stand in the night so that you can activate the car alarm in case of unwanted visitors. When out on a vacation, convince the burglars that the house is not empty by using smart light bulbs that can be remotely controlled and switched on at night. Make sure that your newspapers don’t pile up in front of the main-door (a clear indication that the house is empty).

4. Protect your home from the outside

Collaborate with your neighbours to increase the lighting around your house and on the street – a well-lit neighbourhood makes it difficult for burglars to get-away, deterring them from targeting the area. Make sure that the police verification of your hired help is done and that he/she is trustworthy.

While many of us take home security for granted, it’s important to be proactive to eliminate even the slight chance of a robbery. As the above videos show, robbers come up with ingenious ways to break in to homes. So, take their advice and invest in a good set of locks to protect your doors. Godrej Locks offer a range of innovative locks that are un-pickable and un-duplicable. To secure your house, see here.

The article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Godrej Locks and not by the Scroll editorial team.