Kiran Rao’s Latest Film Laapataa Ladies Is A Must Watch Gem In Theatres Now

14 years after her last feature film Dhobi Ghat, storyteller extraordinaire comes up with her new film, Laapataa Ladies, a must watch.

*Some spoilers alert*

Every religion around the world dictates terms to women. The onus is always on women to be ‘modest’ and cover their faces and bodies so men can’t be “tempted”, rather than on men to keep their eyes where they belong and behave like civilized beings. So much so that even rape has been excused on the grounds of women eating chowmein or ‘men will be men’. I think the best Hindi movie retort to this unwanted advice on ‘akeli ladki khuli tijori ki tarah hoti hai’ (an alone woman is like an open jewellery box) came from Geet in Jab We MetKya aap gyan dene ke paise lete hain kyonki chillar nahin hain mere paas.

Two brides in ghoonghat get mixed up by their families on a train

The premise of Laapataa Ladies is beautifully simple – two brides clad in the ghunghat that covers their identity get mixed up on a train. Within this Russian Doll, you get a comedy of errors, a story of getting lost, a commentary on patriarchy’s attitude towards women, a mystery, and a tale of finding oneself, all in one. Done with a mostly light touch that has you laughing and nodding along.

The film looks at rural India with a loving gaze while still showing its jagged edges. One of the in-law families reacts with shock and despair, while the other is transactional to the extreme, more upset that the lost bride was wearing jewellery gifted by them than the loss of the bride herself. The chilling reference to bride burning that has been hushed up because the groom was a local strong man, the forceful pushing of a girl into marriage just because it’s what society expects, rather than asking the girl what she wants, bringing up a girl to be useful in her sasural rather than independent – these themes are so relevant even today. It goes into recognisable territory with the MLA, closeness to whom confers a certain amount of influence to prod the local bureaucracy into doing their job, but who couldn’t care less about the people he represents unless he can use them for electoral benefit. The director has been careful to point out, in an ironic scene, that it is all religions, not just Hinduism, that women’s identities are covered up – a necessity in the republic of taking offence.

Excellent direction by Kiran Rao

A fun detail is the sports quota female cop who is hardhanded but who ducks out of meetings for her ‘anda’ allowance. The movie also has an optimistic heart – when you think of what ills might have befallen these women vs that they mostly meet good people and land on their feet. Little touches like the groom trying to impress his new wife by speaking English, or the way the bride finally finds the courage to call him by name in public are very sweet, while a mother in law and daughter in law pondering the idea of ‘teraying’ to forge a new equation makes you smile.

There are many metaphors woven in subtly, or perhaps that’s just the overanalyst in me. For instance, there is a hinterland custom of getting into a train wherever it halts, if there is no station nearby. This is jugaad but also a marker for a directionless life where you are just blown along by circumstances. The fact that one of the bride’s doesn’t even know the name of her destination underlines the way that so many women just have their life’s course decided for them.

Though there are certainly some tropes

The cast is fabulous, be it the newbies or the older, experienced actors. Sparsh Srivastava as the naive, loving new groom brings a sweetness to his role and is ably backed by Nitanshi Goel as the naive, helpless, trusting bride who is almost childlike in her reactions. Her transformation is believably done, without her turning into either a cynic or a revolutionary. Pratibha Ranta looks a little too polished to be a village girl but that could be my stereotypes coming into play, and acts her part well. Durgesh Kumar as the clueless cop is recognisable as the memefest-favourite ‘Dekh Raha hai Binod’ from Panchayat, while Chhaya Kadam does the trope of a cynical but goodhearted woman without any surprises. Ravi Kishan is having a blast as you can see, with his corrupt, pan chewing, cynical cop take and walks away with any scene he is in.

Among the few weaknesses is a tendency to pontificate and the trope of new bride changing old attitudes, like we saw in Rocky Aur Rani, with the transformations coming about a little too quickly – the action is supposed to have taken place over a period of 4 days. But that’s forgivable in a movie that gives you so many reasons to tear up, or to laugh, including the ‘bidaai’ scene with its retort of ‘tu hi saath chala ja’ – IYKYK!

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In a Bollywood now dominated by ‘projects’ – large bloated budgets mostly vehicles for star presence and many lacking a coherent story or characterisation, direction marked by louder-bolder-darker, Kiran Rao’s movie is a gem. Subtle direction, a fabulous story and authentic performances make it a truly special one. There is a 14 year gap between her last film, Dhobi Ghat, and this one. But I hope she will not be Laapataa for as long before her next venture!

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