The first thing that strikes about Indian director Alankrita Shrivastava is her aura of equanimity. But this is deceptive. Her rebellious streak emerges as she begins talking to this writer soon after her second feature, Lipstick Waale Sapne or Lipstick Under My Burka, is premiered at the ongoing Tokyo International Film Festival on Wednesday. A girls only boarding school upbringing at Dehra Dun followed by a life in a girls only Delhi college may well have shaped her thought process. “This girls only existence gave me a certain perspective in life where I could think and assimilate my ideas without the distraction of boys... It gave you the freedom from wanting to be validated by men. I grew up not thinking how the guys were sizing me up. This was liberating.”
Although her home is Bihar, she is fascinated by Bhopal -- where she helped director Prakash Jha with two of his movies -- Raajneeti and Satyagraha -- developing a close bond with the city. “What I loved about the place was the unusually strong camaraderie between Hindus and Muslims there,” she avers. “Two of my characters are Muslims and two are Hindus and I loved the old part of the city. This is why I chose Bhopal to set my narrative.”
True to this, Lipstick Waale Sapne is a story of four women, two Hindus and two Muslims, who live in Bhopal. They are unfulfilled and unhappy, but with the gutsy ability to dream and desire.
Beautiful Rehana (essayed by Plabita Borthakur) hails from a family of tailors, goes to college and is enamoured of all things feminine. She cannot, of course, buy them, but she can steal, and shoplifts with a devil-may-care confidence hidden beneath a veneer of disarming innocence. It begins with a tube of lipstick, goes on to clothes and finally boots -- and all these help her win her place among snooty students at her college and, well, a boyfriend. That he turns out to be a cad is another thing. But Rehana learns the hard way that freedom from her suffocatingly conservative family, ruled by a father stingy on compassion, cannot be had that easily. Even the guy she meets in college and with whom she gets intimate walks away when she lands in trouble.
In fact, Shrivastava’s male characters are uni-dimensional. There seems to be very little goodness in them. Take the photographer boyfriend of Leela (Aahana Kumra), who on the day of her engagement with a rich guy, does not flinch while taking advantage of a short power outage to have a quickie with her. And she is all game for this, having been in love with him, but forced into a marriage with a guy she does not care for. But the photographer turns out to be slob.
Shrivastava’s lines up two more men, also utterly unfeeling towards the women they know. Shirin (portrayed with nuanced ease by Konkana Sen Sharma) has three little sons and a husband, who has just come back from Saudi Arabia. He treats his wife with unimaginable coldness. He demands sex from her, does not care whether he satisfies her and refuses to wear a condom -- forcing Shirin to go through a series of induced abortions. What is even worse, he blows a fuse when she finds out about his mistress, and stops Shirin from working as a salesgirl.
It is clear that Shrivastava’s protagonists are a mighty suffering lot -- having to be associated with men whose sole motive appears to be curtailing the women’s freedom.
The fourth woman in the tale is a 55-year-old widow, Usha (played with superb finesse by Ratna Pathak Shah) -- a darling of the ‘mohalla’. Addressed reverentially as Bhuvaji (aunt), she whiles away her time reading pulp fiction, and when she meets a hunky swimming coach, she fantasises through mobile telephone conversations with him, pretending to be one of the characters in the novels she reads. Usha turns into Rosy and clings on to the hope that she would find romance by the pool. But one fine day, when truth is out in the open, she finds herself on the streets, having been mercilessly forced out of her house and abandoned by her neighbours -- who perhaps owed their very home and hearth to her. The coach, who was instrumental in letting the cat out of the bag, slinks away.
Shrivastava says that the plot stemmed from her own urge to explore a feeling she has been harbouring -- a certain hesitancy in expressing what she wants to. “As a woman I have felt that I cannot say all that I want to. I do not know what exactly holds me back, and this is what I have tried to analyse in my film, although the milieu is very different from the one I grew up in.”
Shrivastava thinks that her cloistered boarding school life in Dehra Dun also played a part in her penning Lipstick Waale Sapne. “I have been very influenced by that period.” Later, while working with Prakash Jha and living in Mumbai, Shrivastava came across several unhappy women, and their experiences have also gone into her script.
“Above all, it is a very personal movie,” Shrivastava adds. “I have really laid myself bare by writing this story. Although the setting is quite different, I feel that in terms of fulfillment, Lipstick Waale Sapne is very me. It is about my own struggles, and of course those of many other women -- who presume that they have all the freedom in the world, but actually they do not.”
Lipstick Waale Sapne, contends Shrivastava, is also an attempt to help her understand her own constraints, despite coming from a “liberal and chilled out family...Why is it that I feel so restrained”.
There are no easy answers to this. And Shrivastava knows this only too well.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Tokyo International Film Festival.)