Bollywood digs bromances. Films which feature women and pass the Bechdel test are few and far between in Hindi cinema. There was the much touted "Parched" which I didn't like and "Angry Indian Goddesses" which was just poorly made (I finished it but oh, it was hard). And then there is "Lipstick Under My Burkha" which is both well made and intelligently told.
The film is about 4 women, remotely connected to each other because they live in the same locality. Each one faces gender inequality. Usha Buaji (Pathak Shah), who is the narrator of sorts, is the 55-year old widowed matriarch of a family in Bhopal. Shirin (Sen Sharma) is a young Muslim mother who, unbeknownst to her conservative husband Rahim (Singh), works as a top-performing saleswoman. Leela (Kumra) is a beautician who is engaged to be married into middle-class domesticity, but has her heart set on another man and a life of excitement. Rehana (Borthakur) is a young college-going student, slowly suffocating under the weight of the burkha and social mores forced upon her by orthodox family and friends.
Buaji is perceived as "old", everyone deems it fit that she attend Satsang (prayer sessions) because at the ripe old age of 55, what must a woman do but vegetate ? . Men of her age, by comparison, are shown shopping for new wives, preferably in the 35-40 year range! Similarly it is socially acceptable for Shirin's husband to boss over her, rape her, hit her, traumatize her, and offer her no leeway to pursue her own desires. So also with Rehana and Leela. Their subjugation is built into the social fabric. Women who rebel and think differently are considered uppity for one, and have very little support and choices.
I loved this film because it told it like it is. Inspite of the constraints, the women find ways to let loose - Rehana ditches the burkha en route to college, Buaji reads Hindi Mills-and-Boons (do those even exist in Hindi?) and joins swimming classes, Shirin goes to work while her husband is in Saudi Arabia, and Leela plans to elope. But in all their plans - and here's the heart-breaking rub - the women have to be stealthy and so very careful, watching over their shoulders, lest society at large suspect them of impropriety.
This film is not bombastic. It is layered and told very carefully with great character development - the women are flawed too. It helps to have a fabulous star cast, and a skilled director. Kudos!