Comedies can engage with themes or characters as weighty or thoughtful as any drama, so it’s always a pity to see crummy comedies, either from decades past or in modern times, that refuse to combine some depth into their yuks. The likes of “The Great Dictator,” “Superbad” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo” are able to skillfully weave in more thoughtful ideas with a healthy supply of yuks. Now, there’s nothing wrong at all with being a comedy solely interested in generating laughs (just look at the likes of gut-bustingly funny films like “Hot Rod” or “Wet Hot American Summer”), but when you’re a subpar comedy that fails to even pull off the most basic joke properly, one can’t help but be reminded of how thematically ambitious the best comedies can be. The likes of dismal 2017 comedies such as “Fist Fight,” “The House” and “Baywatch” remind one just how thoroughly lacking in either substance or jokes supposed comedies can be while Alankrita Shrivastava’s new comedy “Lipstick Under My Burkha,” conversely, is a wonderful reminder of just how well laughs and thoughtfulness go together.
“Lipstick Under My Burkha” chronicles the lives of four women residing in India who each are at different stages of life. We’ve got a college student Rehana Abidi (Plabita Borthakurwho) who wants to be a singer and establish her own identity separate from her overly strict parents who see her only as a tailor and a wife-to-be. There’s also Leela (Aahana Kumra) a brash young lady stuck in an arranged marriage she dreads being trapped in, while we also have dutiful wife/mother Shireen Aslam (Konkona Sen Sharma) who has to conceal her occupation as a successful salesperson from a distant and uncaring husband. Finally, we’ve got 55-year-old Usha Buaji (Ratna Pathak) who yearns for the kind of romance in the steamy romantic novels she loves so much and begins to think she might find such a connection with her hunky swimming teacher.
The feature crisscrosses between these various stories, with a singular character occasionally making a brief intrusion into another person’s story. Otherwise, these tales stand on their own as they each attempt to tackle a specific facet of conventionality ingrained into society that hinders women from fully embracing their own personalities. For instance, Rehana wants to go to parties and socialize with her peers, a clear violation of her parents own wishes, while Leela’s mother is forcing her daughter to partake in an arranged marriage just as Leela and a wedding photographer begin to hit it off. Meanwhile, Shireen is grappling with how she’s constrained by her husband’s idea of what a wife should and shouldn’t do and Usha must be covert in her attempts to find romance considering her friends and family think she is far too old for such emotions.
In addition to directing “Lipstick Under My Burkha,” Alankrita Shrivastava is also responsible for penning the screenplay that puts these four women and their internal problems in the spotlight and the best part of her writing for this movie is just how well it succeeds at rounding out types of characters who are written off as only fodder for mockery in other films. This is particularly true of Usha and her desire for a romantic connection in her life that results in a burgeoning crush on a much younger swim instructor. Considering how one of the more prominently featured gags in the ad campaign for the 2010 Adam Sandler comedy Grown Ups entirely revolved around mocking the idea of Rob Schneider dating a woman far older than him, it’s not hard to imagine many people tossing the character of Usha aside as something that you couldn’t possibly find any depth in.
By contrast, Shrivastava makes Usha a fully-formed character, one whose presence in the plot is so pronounced that she ends up being the individual who provides omnipresent narration throughout the movie. Shrivastava recognizes the obvious truth that everyone, young and old, desires a deeper connection with another person and being cognizant of that fact makes Usha’s plotline may be the most quietly tragic of all the storylines explored in “Lipstick Under My Burkha.” Usha must go around in her day-to-day life with societally-ingrained ideas of what an older woman should and shouldn’t be defining her instead of letting her make that crucial decision for herself. Presenting her storyline through this lens, while also making sure to make it clear who Usha really is, ensures one can’t help but be empathetic to this poor character’s plight.
There’s a similar level of depth to be found in the other three plotlines that comprise the entirety of this motion picture and while Shrivastava’s writing does sometimes struggle to balance these four disparate plotlines, most notably with Sharma’s character who vanishes from the movie for distractingly long periods of time for instance, it’s mostly able to juggle the individual storylines and is very much fully successful in lending a sense of compassion and humanity to these trio of tales. The same sense of looking past pop culture stereotypes that inform the decision to treat Usha like a person also result in some nice storytelling expectation subversions in the other three plotlines. Most notably, Borthakurwho’s embracing of the party scene at college, as well as her procuring a boyfriend she garners at one such party, are not used as a setup for her eventually learning partying is bad and then retreating into a more conventional life her parents always wanted for her. Instead, the world of college parties is shown to be a perfectly healthy social environment for a college-aged woman to explore if she wants to!
Once again you can clearly see the sense of looking past conventionality and discovering humanity in that specific storytelling beat that informs the entirety of “Lipstick Under My Burkha.” The performances of the four lead characters compliment the more introspective nature of the writing as the actors chosen for the quartet of protagonists do a sublime job infusing their roles with a sense of realism that makes their individual journies all the more engaging to watch. Particular props should go to Ratna Pathak as Usha — she’s just great at coming off like an actual human being in both her instances of sorrow and romantic yearning while further kudos should go to Aahana Kumra for imbuing her character with a fitting sense of unshakable of conviction that’s thoroughly entertaining to watch.
While “Lipstick Under My Burkha” finds plenty of time for moments of levity in its runtime, I think my favorite scene of the entire production comes at the very end, as the story closes out on a somber note that feels fitting for a movie dealing with a hefty topic like constricting gender-related double standards. Instead of tying up the entire film in a tidy manner, “Lipstick Under My Burkha” instead goes for a solemn conclusion reinforcing just how going against the grain of convention doesn’t automatically mean you escape forces that want to reinforce said conventions at all costs. But there is an element of sweetness here in this closing scene with both the darker and slightly hopeful elements here working so well because the four lead characters have become so well-defined and rich. “Lipstick Under My Burkha” has lots of great laughs for sure but, like many high-quality comedies before it, it may just work even better on multiple other layers, with this particular feature also working extremely well as a piece of biting and empathetic social satire.