The Lipstick Under My Burkha team – director Alankrita Shrivastava along with her actors Ratna Pathak Shah, Konkona Sensharma, Aahana Kumra and Plabita Borthakur – are painting the town red with their ‘lipstick rebellion’ and making a bold statement. In a candid conversation with Shweta Kulkarni and Rohini Nag Madnani, these ‘Burkha Babes’ talk about their controversial film and how it came through despite numerous hurdles
First, the obvious question… It has been almost nine months since the first announcement was made and the film finally has a release date. How do you feel?
Alankrita Shrivastava (AS): I am relieved, of course, as it has been a long wait for the film to release. And, yes, there is excitement too.
How is the title of the film – Lipstick Under My Burkha – reflected in each one of your characters?
Aahana Kumra (AK): I think burkha is…
Ratna Pathak Shah (RPS): (Cuts in) Don’t give away the story! (Laughs)
AK: You know, ‘burkha’ is used as a metaphor. I think all of us, every woman, goes through something similar. As a woman, you always have those little things, or feelings, that you need to hide. Like a secret life. And that is what the film delves into.
Plabita Borthakur (PB): My character is a teen, a college-going girl who basically tries really hard to be a part of the ‘in’ crowd in college.
Konkona Sensharma (KS): I play Shirin Aslam and I think the title Lipstick Under My Burkha connotes the inner lives of these central characters of the film. Each of them has their own struggle and each of them is trying to balance the different aspects of their lives… What their inner-most desires may be as opposed to what the rest of their family or rest of society expects of them. Similarly, my character has her inner life and is also trying to find loopholes within this patriarchal system and trying to find ways out of that and fulfill her own ambitions and desires.
RPS: When the film first came to me, it was called Lipstick Wale Sapne, and I thought that the title matched my character very well. In a nutshell, my character is in her late ‘50s, a widow who has brought up her family. Basically, she has done all the right things all her life, and now she has decided to learn to swim. That’s it, that’s my story.
AK: My character is Sheila, a beautician. It is the story about a lot of women who are leading a dual life. They probably don’t have the means to fulfill their desires and they don’t have anyone helping them. So she decides to help herself and is basically struggling between two men in her life. She wants a lot from her life and she doesn’t want to live a life like her mother has. She just wants to break through the things she has seen her mother go through and live freely.
Alankrita, you have assisted Prakash Jha in the past. Your first film Turning 30 too was his production. When you approached him with this script, what was his response?
AS: He was very encouraging of this film. I think he is a fantastic producer in the sense that he doesn’t at all want to control what is being created. And I think that is one of his greatest qualities as a producer. Once he okay’s the script, the next thing he looks at is the first cut of the film. He gives people a lot of space. I don’t think any studio would have funded this film, and Prakash sir has funded this film himself. It takes a lot of courage and vision to be able to fund this kind of film in India, where not many films present a woman’s point of view. I think, without him, this film wouldn’t exist.
At the end of the day, it’s the content that sells yet a film with a woman protagonist is tagged as a ‘woman-centric film’. Do you think it is high time we shed these tags?
KS: Actually, I don’t understand what woman-centric means. I mean, woman-centric is not a problem; there are films that have stories about a few people, some stories about a young boy or an old man, a younger woman and a man. So it shouldn’t really be called woman-centric. You know, it’s like saying a film is only about 50-year-olds.
RPS: Or only lawyers should watch this film. I think, unfortunately, the press needs to assign tags like that. Nobody makes a film like that thinking, ‘Chalo, main ek woman-centric film banati/banata hoon.’
AK: The point is, I mean, this year or in the past also, how many films have you seen which are about women? There are very few stories which are actually about women and this has been a trend at least in our industry for years. Out of so many films made in India every year, only six or seven films are about women, for women, by women, but there will be nothing else to it. Those films are not promoted and nobody wants to put their money on them.
KS: And not that those films will necessarily be good. It is just that everything is shown through the same prism, a certain lens, and I think that’s the problem. ‘Woman-centric’ in itself should not be a problem. English Vinglish – and I hate that term – was woman-centric, in that sense.
RPS: It all depends on what you are showing. Like a film like Gangs Of Wasseypur gives me a glimpse into a men’s world, which I didn’t have before. I didn’t know anything about men like that before. I found that extraordinarily interesting about that film because it showed me something I really didn’t know about, humans like that. Similarly, I think men would be interested to know stuff from a female point of view, as well. But it is all about how things are marketed and packaged today. People seem to love these dichotomies. You know, art film versus commercial film; mainstream cinema versus alternative cinema. They are constantly trying to find these little tags.
AS: Just as Aahana said, these tags will go away only when half the films we make are stories told from a woman’s point of view and are about women. I don’t know whether it’s good or bad but these films are in such a minority that they are inevitably tagged as obscene or eccentric films.
KS: The tag reflects a certain kind of thinking.
AK: Here, we have a woman making a film about women from a female point of view.
KS: It is very sad, it is a pathetic situation. There are hardly any women directing films.
AS: There are hardly any women cinematographers.
KS: And outdoor film shoots are not necessarily women-friendly. For example, there are no proper bathrooms. There are trailers for actors but it is often an issue for women ADs. And, then, there are things like women not being allowed to put on make-up.
AS: I remember for GangaaJal, there was me, there was a girl who was a hairdresser and another girl who was a costumes assistant, that’s it. We were the only women crew.
RPS: I remember times when there was not a single woman on the set, except for the actors and our hairdressers. That was the only female presence.
AK: Even today, when you spot a woman on the sets, it is presumed that she is either a hairdresser or a costume stylist.
RPS: Now, not necessarily, as everyone goes around with a walkie-talkie. Everyone is walking and talking. I love it, I feel like I am in a James Bond movie! (Laughs)
KS: Now it is slightly better. There are certain set-ups which are modern in their structures or are very urban in their outlook. Some of them still have a few more women. In Mumbai, it is easier but if you are outdoors…
AK: It was nice to hear Shah Rukh Khan say in an interview, I think during Dear Zindagi, ‘The set was all women, from our costumes to our AD team to hair, make-up, everybody around was a woman.’ He said that it felt good to be a part of a set with so many women.
RPS: This is how change takes place, one step forward, two steps backwards. But as long as it is happening, it is good. 10 years ago, a friend of mine came here from America for the first time, an American guy, and he asked me, Where are the women? How come I don’t see any women on the streets? I said this is Mumbai, there are women. He said, but so few. For instance, women car drivers, there are so few women driving. He was taken aback by how few women were to be seen.
KS: Our balcony overlooks a lane that is not used very much but it is wide and all the time, especially at night, guys playing football or cricket. And Haroon, my son and I, would watch. I asked him where do you think the girls are? They don’t come out at night, they don’t feel comfortable and this is Mumbai.
AS: I remember being in Patna, after sunset, you won’t see women outside at all.
AK: I was never allowed to go to the market without my cousins.
PB: I have been lucky that way. I am from an industrial town, where it was a much more secure place, and we could go out. But, here, in Mumbai, I cannot walk on the streets at 1:30 at night; I can maybe drive but not walk. I get very jealous of my friends who are boys. They would be, like, ‘I am just going out for a walk; it’s getting too stuffy at home’, at 2 in the morning.
RPS: Girls just sleep at 2 in the morning. That is what we were meant to do. Just sleep, you can go out for a walk in the day time. Come on, nights were meant for that.
KS: No, yaar, nights were meant for more fun things.
RPS: Thousands of years of evolution have made us into this. We were meant to be sleeping at night.
PB: No, but if it is a risk for women, then it should be a risk for men as well.
While scripting, you had to weave together different women of different ages. Was that difficult?
RPS: We had to bribe her to put our age groups in.
AS: Actually, the scripting was like a long journey. I wrote one draft of the script and I took it to the NFDC Screenwriter’s Lab in 2012. After that, I decided that I couldn’t do anything with it. And, at the end of 2013, I decided to work on this film. Then I got a friend of mine, Suhani Kanwar, to do the original screenplay. Then I got Gazal Dhaliwal to work with me on the dialogue. We worked together on it for a couple of months and then finally we got on with the film.
The script has evolved a lot but these four characters were there from the very beginning. In fact, when I was doing the lab, my mentor Urmi Juvekar asked me many times to change it from four women to three as she felt four was a lot to handle. But, for me, all four characters were really crucial and equally important. For me, they are all one. Of course, it was a challenge as all four women are at different ages in life. In fact, age-wise, the first three characters are not very far apart but are at very different stages of their lives. So it was fun as well as challenging. But I got fantastic actors.
Was it difficult to get them on board?
AS: It was not very tough. I think I asked Koko (Konkona) and Ratna at around the same time, for the two parts. And for the other two, it was hard to cast because we went through a huge auditioning process. I must give full credit to my casting directors, Shruti Mahajan, and to Parag Mehta. We must have auditioned all of Mumbai! But we were all in agreement about casting both of them because they were always bang on with their parts but they went through a lengthy process for us to be totally satisfied with casting them. There wasn’t any confusion about who would be Rehana (Plabita’s character) but then she lost so much weight and I was so stressed.
PB: But I put it on.
AS: During the auditions, she had those chubby teenager cheeks and when we were about to start shooting, she suddenly lost weight and I asked her to put it back on. The good thing about all four of them is that they gave themselves completely to the film and to their characters. I trusted them completely and I think they took the film somewhere else from what it was initially.
Right from the scripting stage, it has been an unusual story, something we don’t usually see in Indian cinema. Did you ever think it would be so difficult to release the film?
AS: No, if I had known, I don’t think I would have made it. I wasn’t expecting it to be so difficult. Also, I started out making a film about the secret lives of these four ordinary women and I had assumed it would release in due course. But I had lots and lots of issues with getting the film out and the censorship battle was also very long. I had applied for a censorship certificate at the end of December last year. I finally got it on June 3. I wasn’t anticipating that kind of struggle but I think because the film was banned in India, it made me realise that it was perhaps much more relevant than I had thought it to be.
For me, it was just this small story of these four women but this struggle was a wake-up call for me. I suddenly became even more determined to release the film. We received so much support from so many women across the country, support from people from all over the world, and that kept me going and strengthened my resolve to release this film.
The film is going to many festivals, you are winning accolades for it, and back home you were not able to show it to your own audience. How annoying was that?
AS: It wasn’t annoying for me, it was, like I said, a wake-up call. I suddenly realised that, as women, we are not free to express ourselves as we imagine ourselves to be. I also realised that the freedom that guaranteed to us by the Constitution of India will only be real if we claim it. If we don’t extract that right, and if we don’t keep living out that right, it will soon be dead.
So I wasn’t annoyed; rather, I became very very clear about the importance of women telling their stories. I had not thought about it as much as I did during this period, and I think it was nice that the film was simultaneously travelling because we got so much love from audiences across the world. The way the film was embraced, gave me courage because it validated everything that this film was about. It enable me to sort of continue, otherwise it would have been very hard because you only see the downside.
The encouragement I received from common people as well as filmmakers and festival organisers, and writers from across the world was unprecedented. Also, emotionally, the way people embraced the film motivated me. It also makes you realise that stories are very universal, even if they have a specific cultural context, they can still translate for other cultures. I think it was a very very interesting experience and it’s nice that the film is still travelling, it has been to almost 40 festivals by now.
For each one of you, apart from your own character, which character really intrigued you?
AK: For me, it was both Shirin and Usha bua, they have really strong characters. I mean, a 60-year-old who can express her sexual desire is unheard of from any point of view. I have never heard of it. I mean, I had never thought about it. I thought women stop thinking of sex at around 40.
KS: I agree, for me too it was Usha bua. That’s mainly because there are so many stories about young women, regardless of who is telling those stories, that nobody is talking about older women. We have placed so many restrictions on ourselves because we have internalised these things. I mean, how many of us will walk out with hair on our legs today? We don’t but why is that? Men do and women don’t, and I think that’s awful, it’s patriarchy at its worst. It’s so arbitrary.
PB: It’s all about conditioning. I feel everybody should wax, men too.
KS: That’s what I am saying, the way it has been for women for centuries…
RPS: I have read that ‘women are the only group that has been idealised into oppression.’ Maa, devi, clean legs, perfect arms – idealised into oppression.
AS: The whole concept of purity, honour and honour residing in the female body…
RPS: This is one area that is not necessarily underlined in our film. Usually, women’s stories end up focusing on social aspects of women’s existence a lot more. But here’s a story that talks about various people with hopes and desires and stupidities and ugliness of all sorts, and I found that extremely interesting. These four characters are real people. They were not ideal versions of anything, you know, stereotypical versions of anything, and that was a first for me in the script. Apart from the fact that I had a role like this; I never thought I would see a part like that.
So which character in the film did you like most?
RPS: Actually, all four characters… I wouldn’t like to choose. They are unusual stories. Rehana’s story is one that you have heard before even from the male perspective, in some form or the other. And so is Leela’s story. These are stories of people wanting individual progression of a certain sort. But I felt Shirin’s story, in particular, was probably a first. So is Usha’s story, hers is probably definitely a first. Otherwise, here is an area where people have gone touched a little bit and come away, withdrawn before anything serious could be said about. That’s why I think Shirin’s is truly a difficult story to stomach.
AK: These are stories that people don’t talk about openly.
RPS: I can imagine many members of my family objecting strenuously to my character. I mean, ok what happens to Shirin happens but dikhane ki zaroorat hai kya? Har gandi jeez dikhane ki zaroorat hai kya? Imagine in 1942, Saadat Hasan Manto said, ‘I write with a white chalk on a black blackboard, I don’t use a black chalk. I use a white chalk because I want to show the blackness that is behind it.’ The idea of shinning a light in dark corners doesn’t come easily to us Indians. We shy away from it and we live very happily with hypocrisy, on a day-to-day basis. How does a young, educated girl do karva chauth? How? Why? Even I have done it, I haven’t done karva chauth but I have done a Gujarati version of it. But you buy into these bloody ideas because you are conditioned to do so.
KS: It is all about conditioning, the feeling of my cultural inheritance …
RPS: (Cuts in) And, in India, I don’t think it’s the women who are at risk, I think the men are in a worse state because they don’t even have any role models. Look at their own fathers. Most of our fathers don’t even make decent role models. They are abusive, they beat up their children, they think this is how they should bring up kids. They don’t have any communication with their sons, we are a warped society in many ways. Patriarchy takes a huge toll on men. I mean, we look at it only from our own perspective.
As women, what strengths did you discover about yourselves or surprise yourselves with, during the shooting of this film?
RPS: My scenes, the sex scenes, if you want to call them that. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it but after a while I completely tuned out my environment and I was happy to know that I could do it. It wouldn’t have been possible had the unit not been the unit that it was, particularly the camera crew because in that little room, it was just me and the camera crew. And the time, even one bad vibe would have made it impossible to perform well.
KS: And our locations were all so crammed.
RPS: Yeah, all these girls had really crammed locations. At least, I was all alone.
AK: I was always with someone in the most uncomfortable locations. In a car, in a bathroom… I had the most uncomfortable spots in town.
PB: As a woman, I don’t know if I surprised myself, but as an actor I felt I certainly did. I always thought I would play characters that were either very different from who I am or very similar to who I am. Rehana was somewhere in the middle. I was not sure if I would be able to pull that off but thankfully for all the workshops we did, I was quite happy that I was able to look at life through the eyes of so someone similar but a little different from me.
Lastly, what is the one message that will come across when one sees the film?
AS: Well, I hope that the film doesn’t look like a message kind of film. What I want is for everybody who watches it, to feel the joys and sorrows, the laughter and the dreams, and the victory and deceit of these four women. At the end of those two hours, one should be able to feel exactly what it’s like to be these women.