The advertisements and trailers were over. We had dutifully stood up for the National Anthem. And just as we sat down we heard an angry altercation, a group of women shouting at another group “how dare you take our photographs”. We were too far ahead to actually see them but the audio could not have been better. Basically some had taken a decision not to stand up for the anthem, and as they informed the others “this is our decision, a matter of our privacy and so how dare you photograph us.” A couple of men also intervened to say, “yes we also did not stand up, so how does this impact on you, it is our decision.” Those who had (or not) taken the photograph insisted that they were not guilty, and after some more heated exchange the hall settled down to watch Lipstick Under My Burkha.

One could not help thinking half way into the movie, that this assertion by young women in the auditorium, gave a backdrop to the movie that explores women, their thoughts, their dreams, their limitations taking us through their travails with a directness that is overwhelming, and yet a sensitivity that makes the entire experience of watching Lipstick Under My Burka overpowering.

I decided to see it as had heard sufficient criticism about it to make me curious. And while there were sniggers and laughs at portions that were more sad than funny, the movie kept the audience riveted to their seats. That of course is not saying much for a Delhi audience that even a C grade potboiler can achieve the same results with, but even so this was a serious movie with even the sex scenes carrying a strong message.

The title is attractive, but the movie is certainly not about Muslims alone. It is about four women, of mixed religions, who come from a similar conservative, working class mileu, set in the old city of Bhopal. Their stories are different, but they all have dreams that they try to work into their limited realities, and thus escape into a world that is more ideal, more equal, and that looks upon their sexuality, their independence, their desires (to work, to marry a man of their choice), their rights as natural.

There is the young girl in a burkha who provides the opening shot for the movie, in a cosmetics section of a mall, trying out the perfumes. Her father is a conservative Muslim---very recognisable to the old world families---and mother who spends her time ensuring her father’s will is implemented in the household. This young girl is allowed to study and like so many one had seen in Lucknow for instance, goes in a burkha and takes it off before entering the college. She is then like any of the other girls, in jeans, lipstick, taking part in a demonstration by the students protesting against the managements new decision not to allow jeans in the campus. For this young girl, the protest has clearly far deeper dimensions as is revealed when she suddenly raises a slogan linking jeans with jaan. There is silence, the others look befuddled but for her the right to wear what she wants is fundamental to her life, that is spent stitching burkhas at her fathers tailoring shop, and pretending to be what she is not.

There is this girl who too is from a similar conservative Hindu household. She is being forced to marry a man she has no interest in. And in a fit of rebellion sleeps with a local struggling photographer. Her struggle between the two men symbolises her struggle between a life that is imposed on her, and her own desire for independence and the right to make her own choices.

The third is a married woman, whose husband is working in Saudi Arabia, comes back periodically to make her pregnant in acts of sex that have nothing to do with her, and all to do with his own gratification. She is going through a series of pregnancies and abortions as a result, a fact that drives her doctors crazy but something she is unable to handle. Sex for him is also a weapon, as he uses it to chasten her. His tolerance for the children is also always at a low ebb. She takes up a job on the sly, is good at it, but unable to tell her husband who she discovers having an affair. She gets rid of the other woman, gets her husband back, only to be told by him that she has to give up her job.

And then there is the older woman, Buaji as she is known, well respected in the mohalla, consulted by all. She is attracted to a young man, a swimming instructor, and is so carried away that she---a very conservative woman---buys a swimming costume suffering pangs of guilt, and actually joins swimming lessons. She starts calling the man, and not realising she is so old they have phone sex. In the process her story is revealed, of a very lonely single woman, of desires never fulfilled, of a dream that she at the age of 55 years tries to convert into reality as she overcomes deep guilt and enters a world, forbidden till now. She is perhaps the only slightly improbable character in the movie---but Ratna Pathaks performance is so artful that even the exaggerations, based on the real urges and loneliness of a woman who has never married or had relationships, start to make sense.

All four women are struggling between a dismal reality where they are suppressed by parents, husband, society as the case might be, and a dream that they try to implement in their different ways. These dreams come a cropper for all of them, as reality is too stark and too powerful for them to overcome. But what is exceptional about the end is the four of them together, in a bonding that only women know and can experience. Where words do not matter, as the story is known. And then the tentative attempt to lighten the atmosphere, that again spells hope if one wants to look at it like that.

The director is not pontificating and the movie is just a story being told. There are no value judgements, no ‘we told you so’, no ‘this is right or that is wrong’ just a narrative with excellect acting, direction, cinematography that tells a story from what is clearly just part of the life of each woman. What happens next is for you to know, or not know. What has happened while they are with us and we with the movie, is all that matters and every woman and sensitive man will understand the dream, and the need to fulfil it despite the contradictions and the obstacles.

Incidentally, the burkha has little to do with religion. It is just an interesting title, signifying a veil behind which the women try to live out their dreams, in secrecy as the real world they know is unforgivingly intolerant. It is a movie about women, not about religion.

A must watch…!!