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Bollywood Finds Bharat: An Appreciation of “Laapataa Ladies”

I, along with my wife, started watching “Laapataa Ladies”, the celluloid saga of lost brides, on Netflix. I was sceptical about the cinematic value of social commentary dressed up as movies. When the scene with pan-chewing Ravi Kishen as the police inspector came, I thought it was too much of a stereotype and turned off the TV. After a few days, my wife persuaded me to watch the movie again and I obliged, much against my better judgement. However, as the story progressed, I sat through it entranced. ‘Sat through it’ is an understatement. The fact is that I enjoyed every glorious minute of the 122-minute movie. Writing an appreciation is my way of seeking pardon from Kiran Rao for my monumental lack of judgment.

The story, happening in Nirmal Pradesh — every square inch, the cow-belt country — in 2001, is credible. Two bridegrooms travel with their ghoonghat-clad brides on a train. Deepak, (Sparsh Shrivastav), is travelling back to his home with his newly married bride Phool Kumari (Nitanshi Goel). Disembarking at the Pateela station at night in a rush, Deepak rushes out of the train dragging a girl, Pushpa aka Jaya (Pratibha Ranta) he believes to be his lawfully wedded wife. The mistake is realized only after they reach his home. Meanwhile, the other ‘laapataa’ (lost) lady, Phool, continues her journey and realises that her groom is missing. In Murti, a station further down, Jaya’s husband Pradeep commands Phool to accompany him, mistaking her to be his bride. Phool realizes what happened, gets away from Pradeep and approaches the station master for help. However, he is unable to help her as she does not recollect the name of Deepak’s village. Phool decides to remain at the station hoping that Deepak will come in search of her. She is helped by Manju Mai (Chhaya Kadam), a life-hardened, middle-aged tea stall owner who declared her independence after kicking out an abusive husband. Manju engages Phool to work at the tea stand and starts a process of unlearning to make her independent and find an identity of her own. She inspires Phool to think of taking up work when she reunites with her husband.

Deepak goes to SI Shyam Manohar (Ravi Kishan) who starts investigations by following Jaya around to get her face photographed. He suspects Jaya to be a thief as he finds her selling jewellery. Jaya settles down with Deepak’s family and helps them with her knowledge of organic farming. Deepak’s sister-in-law draws Phool’s portrait to help search for her.

Convinced that Jaya was a thief, Manohar arrests her. Jaya confesses that she was compelled by her family to marry Deepak against her desire to study organic farming. When Deepak drags her off the train, she thinks that this is an ideal opportunity to free herself from an unwanted marriage and to follow her dream of educating herself. She began selling her jewellery to raise funds for her college fees and the trip to Dehradun.

Pradeep, being informed of his wife being found, reaches the police station to collect her. He assaults Jaya in front of Manohar. This, and the story Jaya had recounted earlier makes Manohar decide to help Jaya get her freedom from Pradeep. He warns Pradeep to stay away from Jaya who is released. Meanwhile, the portraits prepared by Deepak’s sister-in-law come to Phool’s attention and she can finally contact Deepak, catch a train and reach Pateela. Laapataa Ladies ends on a hopeful note: Phool reunites with her husband and Jaya is free to pursue her dream of education. In the end, both women find their freedom in their own ways.

‘Laapataa Ladies’ is adapted from Biplab Goswami’s story ‘Two Brides’. The movie, scripted by Sneha Desai and directed by Kiran Rao is a commentary on patriarchy, misogyny, gender inequality, women’s lack of self-respect and their lack of spirit to struggle against social norms which oppress them. The dialogues, written by Sneha and Divyanidhi Sharma, are clever and insightful. The screenplay is taut and keeps the story flowing smoothly. The humour is directed to deliver a strong social message. Kiran Rao has done an exemplary job of creating a powerful film with a social message delivered subtly but clearly, never straying from the plot.

The symbolism of the ‘ghoonghat’ is essential to the portrayal of “Laapataa Ladies”. It serves as a metaphor for the patriarchal constraint on women’s independence. In the end, both Phool and Jaya lift their ghoonghat literally and metaphorically and assert their freedom.

There are occasional flashes of artistic brilliance dispersed in the movie. The flush of embarrassment on Deepak’s face when he declares “I love you” to his new wife. Jaya’s nuanced acting to make you suspect that she has her own agenda. The pride and self-satisfaction with which Phool wraps up her first earning in the palloo of her sari. Her impulsive shouting of Deepak’s name in the railway station breaking the age-old taboo against taking one’s husband’s name.

The film has well-defined characters and powerful performances. The characters of Phool and Jaya are portrayed by Nitanshi Goel and Pratibha Ranta respectively with insight, vulnerability, and honesty. The supporting characters, including those played by established actors like Ravi Kishan and Chhaya Kadam, enhance the narrative with nuance and emotion.

Bollywood is enthralled by spectacles of unbelievable affluence, superhuman heroes and choreographed dances and fights. Kiran Rao’s “Laapata Ladies” stands out against this background as a refreshing and sentimental chronicle of ordinary people finding their way through extraordinarily complex situations. The film portrays events that happen in the backdrop of a remote village in the cow belt country. The viewers are taken on a two-hour-long cinematic journey filled with humour, pathos and moments of in-depth introspection.

Every character is impaired but engaging, especially SI Shyam Manohar, the greedy policeman with a conscience. Ravi Kishan is outstanding in his portrayal of a man, who, while being corrupt is also conscientious. The brides, Jaya, Phool and her husband Deepak convincingly portray their characters.

After 12th Fail, Laapataa Ladies convincingly proved that social commentary appropriate to the times and context could create an engaging story. The pastoral ambience is plausible, the dialect and costumes seem natural, and the events connect naturally. The rustic compositions of Ram Sampath and Divyanidhi Sharma enrich the emotional intensity of the narrative. Vikash Nowlakha’s photography, with a compulsive preference for close shots chosen for most of the movie further intensifies the sense of intimacy.

‘Laapataa Ladies’ more than adequately confirms the potential of socially committed cinema, urging Bollywood filmmakers to leave their la-la land and support more such endeavours. With the dominance of digital platforms established, and the prevalence of digital access assured by Jio, films like this hold the power to catalyse meaningful societal transformation, reaching audiences deep in the rural heartland. The box office success comes as icing on the cake of raising socially relevant issues and hoping for their transformative impact.

The Hindi cinema industry which has always lived in a synthetic world which one could never relate to is slowly turning towards villages to create content that has a close connection with ordinary people. One can only hope that the box office success of stories like Laapataa Ladies and 12th Fail would inspire more and more producers to follow this trail.

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