Of grit and grace

A scene from “Lipstick Under My Burkha”

A scene from “Lipstick Under My Burkha”  


Chosen for the forthcoming NFDC’s Film Bazaar,“Lipstick Under My Burkha” and “Burqa Boxers” capture the courage it takes for a woman to pursue simple dreams in small towns

A burqa-clad college girl, who wants to be cool. A young beautician seeking escape from the suffocation of a small town. A mother of three realises the dark truth about her marriage. And a 55-year-old widow rediscovers her sexuality. Set in the crowded bylanes of Bhopal, Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha chronicles the secret lives of four women in search of a little freedom. The film is part of this year’s Work in Progress section at the forthcoming Film Bazaar organised by the National Film Development Corporation of India.

“I wanted to explore the feeling of not being free and looking for change from within. It is something that many women grapple with,” says Alankrita, whose previous film Turning 30 found a healthy response from the critics. Alankrita says out of four protagonists only two are Muslim. “Burqa is more like a metaphor for the way women veil their desires. It is like what we want we are not able to reach out for as we tend to suppress our desires. It is an expression for the claustrophobia that many women live with.”

Daughter of an IAS officer, Alankrita says she grew up in a very regular upper middle class educated family. “I studied in Dehradun and Delhi and have been on my own in Mumbai for a decade now. Even with this kind of upbringing I don’t feel that I am fully free. Even when somebody as privileged as me doesn’t feel free what about the women who come from under privileged sections. I am often preoccupied with the thought that whether I have control over my happiness. And perhaps that’s why the theme constantly figures in my films in different contexts. Even in my first film Open Door, I dealt with it.”

For Alankrita it is a personal journey. “I am a more urban person and the story is set in small town India. Still all the four characters are me in some way. I have not experienced restrictions. Still, there is a feeling of guilt for no reason. Sometimes, there is a feeling of shame for no reason. It is a very complex thing. It is not necessarily that your parents have told you that you can’t do this. It’s more absorbed. I feel I am constantly fighting some kind of inner battle with myself even to take myself seriously. I don’t have those external obstacles but what happens to these women who have external things blocking them. The solution lies in the internal overcoming…something has to shift inside you. Ultimately, you have to find the freedom from within your own life. This was the broader theme that I wanted to touch upon.”

Alankrita agrees that in changing India, the desires are coming to the fore more often. “The objects of aspiration stare at your face constantly,” she observes. Some analysts feel it is the market that is driving these desires and the lipstick in the title perhaps reflects those forces. Alankrita disagrees. “I don’t wear any lipstick at all. Lipstick to me means simple, small dreams and desires. It is not like that they are out to change something big or build an empire. Lipstick represents the small things that they want from life, a little space. A little colour in their lives.”

She feels market can be a stimulus but not the reason. “When you see something that is a very free sort of thing it triggers the question: am I happy with the kind of identity I am living with. In general women feel trapped in traditional roles. These triggers can make you question whether I am just playing out a part because I am conditioned like this. Deeper down, it is a battle with the sense of insecurity that women often have. Like your happiness is dependent on something outside of you. Be it marriage or a relationship or a man. And then you realise that no, there is something deeper in life and I can feel accomplished. One should feel that sense of worth from within. All the characters go through this internal journey.”

On the choice of Bhopal, the director says, the city has to reflect the characters’ struggle. “Of being on the brink of transition…the constant battle between tradition and modernity.” Starring Konkona Sen Sharma, Ratna Pathak Shah and Aahna Kumra, Alankrita denies that she is aspiring for a homogenous society. She underlines the value of choice. “Choice is very important in any feminist discourse. I can choose anything but if I don’t have the choice then it is a problem.”

Razia of the ring

At a time when the intolerance debate is threatening to bring even neutral players into the ring and Islam is being painted as the religion of the primordial, Razia Shabnam is a glorious exception. A practising Muslim, the Kolkata girl is a boxing coach and one of the three international women referees from the country. Now Alka Raghuram has captured her trials and triumphs in documentary Burqa Boxers, which is part of WIP section of NFDC’s Film Bazaar this year.

Alka says in the early to mid-2000, the women boxers from Khidirpur (the Muslim dominated neighbourhood of Kolkata) received a lot of press. “I was curious to know more about them. I grew up in Indore, a small town, and I know how difficult it is to break the mould of convention, especially for girls. The stories made me want to find out about their journey.”

A painter and a filmmaker, Alka pursued MFA in Cinema from San Francisco State University, and has made several short fiction and experimental films. Burqa Boxers is her first feature length story.

Excerpts from an interview with Alka, who is now based, in the U.S.:

What are you trying to say?

When I started filming in 2011, I wanted to investigate how learning to box transforms one as a person and what does it mean to overcome fear. The way the story has developed over four years, it’s become a portrait of the first few steps towards coming into one’s own identity as an individual and the grit it takes to pursue dreams.

What is the need to underline burqa/religion in the title?

While the title Burqa Boxers may connote many meanings, at the most literal level, a good title describes the story and Burqa Boxers is a story about Muslim women boxers. The issue of clothing is very important to them, as it is for most women around the world, not simply for aesthetic reasons but because one is constantly judged for the clothes one wears.

When they started boxing, they would sometimes use the Burqa to avoid the scrutiny of the society while going for boxing practices. In that sense they also embraced a limitation and subverted it for their own purposes.

Tell us about the form of the film

It is an observational documentary that follows four characters over the course of four years as they negotiate life, pursuing their dreams, societal pressures to conform, poverty, etc.

How did you meet Razia? Did she or her disciples take time to open up?

I met Razia at the Kiddirpur Byayam Samiti, in 2011. They had just started a boxing club for neighbourhood boys and girls at the time and Razia was coaching there. She no longer coaches at KBS anymore, though she continues to coach elsewhere.

Razia is an extremely confident and articulate person who opens up easily, having said that, it takes time to build relationships with people for meaningful exchanges to take place.

Can you describe them individually?

There is Ajmira Khatoon, who started out learning from Razia Shabnam in 2011. Then her family relocated to Ghutiyari Sharif, a village at the outskirts of Kolkata. Ajmira continued her practice at Sports Authority of India, commuting for about three hours everyday. She is feisty, ambitious and determined.

Taslima Khatoon lives at the shelter provided by New Light, an NGO that rehabilitates children of sex workers. Razia Shabnam coaches at New Light.

Parveen Sazda started out around the same time as Razia Shabnam with the hope of getting a job in the public sector like the railways or the police through the government quota for athletes, but had to give it up because of poverty.

And there is Razia Shabnam, one of the first Indian women to become a boxing coach and an international referee.

Did the film prove to be a personal journey for you as well?

During one of the practice sessions Razia Shabnam tells the girls “once you step into the ring, you have to finish what you started out to do. It’s your responsibility.” Following their story has taught me the value of finishing. It takes grit, patience and perseverance.

What were the obstacles while mounting and shooting?

One of the obstacles for me was my own lack of experience (this being my first documentary). The documentary process is investigative by nature, I know that now, in hindsight, but due to my lack of experience I felt I had to have all the answers beforehand, it caused me a lot of stress and it also came in the way of asking for help.

Finance, of course, is always a big obstacle. The only way to get around it is to beg borrow beg borrow beg borrow repeat.

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Printable version | Nov 20, 2018 3:48:24 PM |

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