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Movie Review

‘Laapataa Ladies’: Kiran Rao triumphs with delightful, nuanced comedy

By Arnab Banerji

Women-centric movies often end up highlighting stereotypes and essentializing people who belong to different gender communities.

But if, as protagonists in a narrative, women get to focus on or are oriented toward issues that confine them to pigeonholes, and also underline their experiences, perspectives, and needs, it can truly be called a gynocentric film.

After wowing cinephiles with her directorial debut in ‘Dhobi Ghaat’, Kiran Rao tells a story in ‘Laapata Ladies’ that does not necessarily define feminism, or deal with it, but it sure delights both men and women with nuggets that describe a variety of facets of our lives, including policies, media, art, and organizations that prioritize the voices and concerns of women.

Set in 2001, somewhere in rural India in a fictional place named Nirmal Pradesh (though shot in Madhya Pradesh), ‘Laapata Ladies’ (Lost Ladies) is about Phool (Nitanshi Goel) and Jaya (Pratibha Ranta), who are two new brides traveling to their in-laws’ place after their wedding in the same city.

It is sheer coincidence that they also share the same crammed coach of the Indian Railways. Phool has been instructed by her mother to keep looking at her feet. The veil, her mother warns, is the reason for the wearer to be the obedient duty-bound wife, forever looking down and being quiet. It is her modesty that will be her husband’s strength.

Wearing identical sarees and bridal veils that hide their faces entirely, the two can barely be recognized by their respective spouses. Quite naturally, Phool’s husband Deepak (Sparsh Shrivastava) mistakenly wakes up Jaya in the night and takes her to his home in his village, while Phool is shepherded by Jaya’s husband, only to be deserted at a railway station.

What follows is a holy mess as the young women have no idea how to deal with a situation when the truth dawns on them and subsequently on the families of their in-laws.

Revealing how it all happens will lead to spoilers. Though largely it is all about the two brides, it is how the two men feel and, more importantly, behave, bring to light the much-maligned and naive small-town young men, unassuming and humble, who are more embarrassed than the young brides.

The identical-in-height young brides, though shaken initially, take it upon themselves to regard the sudden quirks of fate as a challenge. And then begins the journey of self-discovery for the two.

Phool, on being helped by an affable good Samaritan tea vendor at the station (Chhaya Kadam), adjusts to seek pleasure in a new setting, and resigns herself to her fate, though in her heart of hearts, she is hopeful of getting reunited with her husband, Deepak.

Jaya, who is more educated, begins to make plans to get out of the chaos. She even adjusts to and endears herself in the new home and uses her education to help her in-laws, who were working with outdated farming techniques, to deal with the damage inflicted to their crops by doves. .

Adapted from a story by Biplab Goswami, the screenplay and dialogue are by Sneha Desai. Kiran Rao constructs a typical North Indian village as the backdrop and adds her touch of humanism, warmth and love. She gets superbly assisted by production designer Vikram Singh, who makes sure every outfit worn by the characters — from sarees to sweaters — and every other part of their daily lives, from the bedsheets to the cots, to the open courtyards, to the bare minimum lower middle-class necessities in each house, looking both liveable and believable.

Thanks to the odd situation but the utterly believable plot and natural settings, the delightful adventures of two young brides who get swapped and the resulting subsequent chaos they have to grapple with become all the more endearing to the viewers. There are other amusing and colourful characters who are as funny and provide the well-timed humor. Be it the parents of the girls, or their in-laws, all contribute to making the two-hour film a wonderfully heartwarming experience.

Both Jaya and Phool live through occurrences that go on to help them realize their own potential and their passage to independence and womanhood. Their characters are well-written and they get enmeshed in the cultural fabric of the times and background they are set in. And they contribute to the ongoing conversation about gender equality.

As rank newcomers they both impress as actors too. Their screen presence and talent are bound to attract full-house audiences and win them critical accolades too. Both NItanshi Goel as Phool and Pratibha Ranta as Jaya live their respective roles and leave an indelible mark.

Rao’s execution reminds one of Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Nauka Doobi’ written way back in 1906 when it raised many questions of head and heart and the validity or otherwise of social conventions. Barring the similarity about two newly married wives getting changed, Rao’s film has nothing in common with the Nobel Laureate’s story.

Rao adds her touch of feminism and her view of the age-old conventions and beliefs that continue to abound across the country. She uses patriarchal norms to her advantage to narrate her story. And while doing so, she does not need to be self-righteous or morally correct. She uses Phool’s naivete and Jaya’s defiance and quick learning skills to laud women’s emancipation subtly. And she uses the technique of humor to tell her story.

There’s a cop Manohar (Ravi KIshan ) who seemingly is all out to have his way with Jaya when he discovers her plight. But his hard-as-a-nail demeanor makes one do a double take when he uses his position and good-natured attitude to deliver justice to the beleaguered Jaya. Chewing paan throughout, he adds more fascination than intrigue to the case with his one-liners. By not only allowing but facilitating the ultimate victories of the two young women, Manohar empowers the brides undeniably, that too on their own terms.

The four principal characters — Jaya, Phool, Deepak and Manohar — get exposed along the way. Through them Rao sheds light on their bittersweet journeys of deep thought and self-exploration.

For Deepak, his dreams are shattered when his wife goes missing. As an actor he looks thoroughly convincing as the do-gooder husband who has to support his so-called wife Jaya. The innocent Phool is oblivious to the danger of being lost; Jaya utilises the situation to her advantage; and, Manohar, though a wily and corrupt cop, has compunctions and gives up the idea of greed.

Kiran Rao’s strength is doing justice to each character’s trajectory. The storyline moves in a fast-paced tempo while all along edited smoothly to incorporate other stories too.

Music by Ram Sampath is another strength of the film and a couple of songs in the background add the rural and rusty touch to the proceedings. Vikash Nowlakha’s cinematography captures the countryside mood in his lens with the right mix of light and shade. Don’t miss it!

Film: Laapataa Ladies (Running in Theatres) Duration: 120 minutes

Cast: Nitanshi Goel, Pratibha Ranta, Sparsh Srivastava and Ravi Kishan

Director: Kiran Rao Cinematography: Vikash Nowlakha

Rating: ***1/2

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