If the story of Alankrita Srivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha is about four women who refuse to be told what to say and what to do, the attitude of the movie’s cast and crew is no different.
Take, for instance, Ratna Pathak Shah, who plays Usha, a woman in her fifties who wants to learn to swim and unleash her repressed desires. When asked about the recent battle with the Central Board of Film Certification that almost derailed the movie, Shah said, “I wish they had drafted their letter of objection to the film with some intelligence.”
In its letter, the board had initially refused a certificate on the grounds that “the film was lady oriented, their fantasy above life”.
“The Board came out looking very, very silly,” Shah told Scroll.in. “It was a controversy that didn’t need to be made at all. But, for us, this was a good thing in a sense. This controversy really focused attention on what the film is trying to say – that we are battling patriarchy all the time, in small and big ways. And every day, this battle chips away at a woman’s sense of self. This is what the film is really talking about. All four women in the film are fighting to have a sense of self worth.”
Apart from Shah, Lipstick Under My Burkha stars Konkona Sensharma, Aahana Kumra and Plabita Borthakur. The movie will be released on July 21.
When the script came to her, Shah immediately jumped at the idea. “Alankrita just sent me a script one day and said this is the role and I’m thinking of you,” Shah said. “When I read the script, it took me less than a second to decide if I wanted to be a part of this project. It is not the kind of role that comes to an actress my age very often. It is a very well-written script and talks about something that I really find very interesting myself – the way in which women are perceived and how they perceive themselves. I wondered how people would respond to a film like this and whether we would even be allowed to get it made or show it.”
Usha is a special character for the actor who has done a range of interesting roles over the past several years, including in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na (2008), Khoobsurat (2014), Kapoor and Sons (2016) and Nil Battey Sannata (2016). “For one, a woman her age wanting to learn how to swim...I thought it is such a gracious idea, I really fell for that idea,” Shah said. “She could have wanted to do anything else, for instance. Learning to drive, perhaps? But swimming has such poetry to it somehow. It also appealed to me personally. I’m very scared of water. Throughout my life, I’ve wanted to be a swimmer but never got down to it. For me, Usha and all the other characters represent the idea of overcoming fears.”
Up until the CBFC kerfuffle, Lipstick Under My Burkha was having a healthy run on the film festival circuit, picking up awards at various events and drawing good notices for the cast. “The response that we’ve got for the film across festivals has taken all of us by surprise,” Shah said. “Everywhere people have found things to connect to and men everywhere have come up and spoken about the film.”
How will Indian audiences respond to the movie? “My real hope is that men take lots away from the film,” Shah said. “Women will identify with it. They will see themselves, their aunts, their family members. Some will be somewhat shocked. Some will say yes, this is true, but do we need to talk about this? I’m expecting that both kinds of responses may come from the general public but all the same, I don’t think there will be any real opposition from women who watch the film. Whoever comes with an open mind will get a lot out of it. Men or women, young or old, doesn’t matter.”
One of the roles that made Shah a household name is Maya Sarabhai, the snobbish high society mother-in-law from the television series Sarabhai vs Sarabhai. The show was aired on Star One in 2004, and its sequel is available on the streaming app Hotstar.
Sarabhai vs Sarabhai gained a cult following during its time, but its fame began to spread only during reruns and bootleg uploads on the internet. “I think we suffered because we were on Star One,” Shah said. “Had it been on any other channel, I think we would have had a much greater impact. They didn’t do too much to promote us. Did you know the TRP while we were on air was .63 per cent? It was the repeat telecasts and the internet that helped us spread the way we did.”
Shah attributes the show’s success to the writing. “”Maya Sarabhai came to me exactly when I think I had figured out the business of acting and I was getting more and more sure of myself as an actress,” she said. “Had it come earlier on, I think I may not have been able to pull it off the way I did. Also, the fact that here was a show for television that was well written. I can’t tell you what a delight that is. You’ve got to read some of those scripts to know what I’m talking about. The rubbish that one has to plough through every day. “
For Shah to take up a project, the script and the team behind it are of greater importance than the size of the role. “For instance, the film I’m doing right now, it’s called Love Per Square Foot, and for the first time, I will be playing a Christian woman,” she said. “I just look for ideas and scripts that excite me.”
Shah cut her teeth in parallel cinema in the 1980s, alongside forging a career in theatre. The difference between parallel filmmakers and the current lot of independent-minded directors is that the new crop is telling stories that are more honest and personal, she pointed out. “I wasn’t very much a part of the beginning days of parallel cinema, I was more of an onlooker,” she said. “So I’m only talking with that much authority about the parallel films of the past. Those films definitely brought out subjects that shook me up, subjects that had not been brought out in cinema before. They were really important to me and my development and to the general development of the cinegoing public.”
Contemporary cinema is more interesting and nuanced, according to Shah. “They are being made by directors who definitely know what they are talking about,” she said. “When Dibakar talks about Delhi, I know the man knows what he is talking about. The same way with Anurag [Kashyap]. I never felt that way about the filmmakers of my generation. They took on issues as stories and therefore, there was a certain distance between themselves and their subject matter. Here, I feel a palpable heart, a strong visceral sense of something. Of course, this is when the films are working. Not all of them do.”
There are also more female directors than before – a big change from the older days. “The numbers can improve even further, yes, but the attitude of these new female filmmakers who are confident and are saying, judge a film for what it is worth and not because it is made by a woman – now that’s beautiful,” she said.