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Laapataa Ladies: The Invisible Women

A newly married husband mistakes another bride to be his own. Can you blame him as the brides (in rural heartland of India) have their
'Laapataa Ladies' brings home painful truths about women’s place in our society
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A 14-year wait seems worth it. After ‘Dhobi Ghaat’, where Kiran Rao etched her name as a talented debutant director, she presents ‘Laapataa Ladies’ after a gap of as many years where she makes us look unblinkingly at our patriarchal society. Telling the story of two brides getting interchanged on a train journey and the drama that follows thereof with dollops of humour, it nonetheless brings home painful truths about the place of the women in our society.

A newly married husband mistakes another bride to be his own. Can you blame him as the brides (in rural heartland of India) have their faces covered with identical red ‘ghughats’ (veil)? Who knows how the woman looks behind the veil? What does she think? At one stroke, the ‘invisibility’ of a woman in a household, lost in churning the incessant wheel to keep it run smoothly, hammers home.

At one stroke, the ‘invisibility’ of a woman in a household, lost in churning the incessant wheel to keep it run smoothly, hammers home
At one stroke, the ‘invisibility’ of a woman in a household, lost in churning the incessant wheel to keep it run smoothly, hammers home

In the story, set in 2001, teenage bride Phool (Nitashi Goel) accompanying her husband Deepak (Sparsh Srivastava) to her in-laws’ house finds to her shock that she got down at a railway station with a stranger. She hides herself as she hears the lecherous, dowry-hungry man talking to his friends, who have come to receive the couple that he got enough dowry and could look for her later, and meanwhile preferred to spend the night with his paramour ‘to celebrate’ his marriage.

What is commendable, is how Rao tackles serious social issues with a satirical twist - a genre we hardly come across these days in Hindi films
What is commendable, is how Rao tackles serious social issues with a satirical twist - a genre we hardly come across these days in Hindi films

Meanwhile Phool’s husband happily leads his wife to his village home and only when his mother lifts the bride’s ‘ghughat’ to do the ‘aarti’ to welcome her that the people around discover the bride switch.

This bride Pushpa Rani /Jaya (Pratibha Ranta), however, is not like the servile Phool and has a few tricks up her sleeve that makes the kind police ‘daroga’ of the thana (Ravi Kishan, a scene stealer) suspicious. Cases have been filed by both parties about the missing brides and he probes. A referral point for the police is the wedding photo, but how to make out the bride’s face? It’s covered in a veil.

About how the mystery is solved, and problems sorted out, it could be a spoiler to reveal. Suffice it to say it ends in a positive note.

What is commendable is how Rao tackles serious social issues with a satirical twist – a genre we hardly come across these days in Hindi films, the most memorable being Kundan Shah’s ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaron’. Based on a story by Biplob Goswami (‘Two Brides’ that won a prize in a competition launched by Aamir Khan, who is also the co- producer here) and developed with co-writers Sneha Desai and Divyanidhi, Rao articulates through dialogues and situations many of the circumstances that choke a woman’s voice in the society. When Phool trips on a stone on way to the river ghat for her onward journey, a kindly woman relative cautions, ‘aagey nahin, neechey dekh ke chalna seekho’ (don’t look ahead, learn to walk looking down) now that she is a married woman and was going to be a daughter-in-law. ‘Looking ahead’ could spell trouble, after all.

Kiran Rao and Aamir Khan - the director and co-producer of the film respectively
Kiran Rao and Aamir Khan - the director and co-producer of the film respectively

Phool doesn’t even know her husband’s village name (‘sounds like a flower’s name’). She is taught how to cook, to look after the marital home, and keep her husband and people of the ‘sasural’ happy, but she is not taught the basics that governs one’s life or destiny, if you will. So, she cannot help the kind station master to trace her husband’s village location. There are hilarious moments when sympathetic Chotu (Satyendra Soni) who lives on the platform, and Manji maai (Chhaya Kadam), the no-nonsense tea-seller, who gives Phool shelter, try to help her to recall the name, cite all the flower names hoping it would sound a bell, but Phool does not recognize any. Another problem: She is not supposed to pronounce her husband’s name as per custom.

After 14 years since she made 'Dhobi Ghat', Kiran Rao is back with 'Laapataa Ladies'
After 14 years since she made 'Dhobi Ghat', Kiran Rao is back with 'Laapataa Ladies'

Jaya/ Pushpa Rani is, however, of a different ilk. In her temporary ‘home’, till she can go back home (she misleads with her village name), she asks Deepak’s mother why she doesn’t cook the dish she liked in her parents’ home just because here they didn’t like it? She discovers Deepak’s brother’s wife who lives with the family (her husband works in Kolkata) is an expert sketcher. She hides her husband’s sketch she has done to look at it when she misses him. Pushpa buys her drawing papers and pencil to indulge in her hobby – in secrecy, of course.

 

The title ‘Laapataa Ladies’ can be interpreted in two ways: Literally, two ladies who get lost; or, all the women who have lost their identities in the milieu.

 

The film gives enough cues to examine the societal pressures on women in our country (and in similar set-ups beyond) that throttle their voices without being preachy. The message comes in small doses coated in light-weight humour. It also avoids being stridently one-sided depiction of the ‘other’. Phool’s husband is as innocent and lovable, and his family members as caring if insensitive to women’s place – they are products of the society after all, in contrast to the greedy husband (and parents). 

At a meet with women journalists in Mumbai recently (before the movie was released on March 1), Rao commented, “Women have lots of talents but much of their time goes to give support to families.” Indeed.

All images: Google and YouTube

Ranjita Biswas is an independent journalist, author and translator. She is an award winning translator of fiction and has seven published works to her credit so far. She won KATHA awards thrice. Among her translated works, “Written in Tears” (Harper Collins) won the Best Translation Prize in English from Sahitya Akademi in 2017. “The Loneliness of Hira Barua” (Pan Macmillan) won the PFC-Valley of Words award in 2021. “Dawn” (Kali for Women/Zubaan), the first book she translated of Arupa Patangia Kalita, the author of these books, was also translated into Hindi. “Areca Nut Tree and Other Stories” (Vitasta, 2022) is a selection of contemporary short stories by the new age Assamese women writers. Biswas is also an award winning writer of children’s fiction.

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