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‘Laapataa Ladies’ is a light-humoured parable of patriarchy



KARACHI:

Flowers and villages are aplenty and so are married couples. On a fateful night in 2001, two veiled brides mistakenly swap places on a train in director Kiran Rao’s latest offering, Laapataa Ladies. True to her brand, Rao packs a feminist punch in this lighthearted comedy, turning a simple confusion into a parable on tradition and identity.

On the day of the dramatic slip-up, Deepak Kumar weds Phool Kumari. ‘Just married’ couples taking the train too are aplenty, the brides hiding behind a veil like all respectable women. When Deepak and Phool take the train, they comically end up in the same compartment as two other couples. In the darkness of the night, Deepak grabs the wrong bride and gets off at his station. 

Rewind to 2001

That the dramatic slip-up gives way to a host of contretemps is justified by Rao’s travel to the past. In 2001, India was more rural with too many villages to count; it also had scant telecom towers. Even as another groom in the train compartment salivates over his big dowry, he has to admit the mobile phone he has received, among the many offerings, has no use in his part of India.

When Deepak (Sparsh Shrivastav) and his family learn that he has brought home another man’s wife, he blames the veil. However, once the ghunghat comes off, to reveal a sharp-witted, plucky woman (Pratibha Ranta), the irony digs deeper. How could one ever mistake her for the innocent, romantic Phool (Nitanshi Goel)?  

As Deepak runs from station to station, searching for his Phool, the bride at home introduces herself as Pushpa Rani. Initially shocking the family with her audacity, she soon acclimatises. “The veil is nothing short of a tent. It conceals the lady’s face and doesn’t let her see beyond the shoes in front of her,” she blurts out. 

But is Pushpa Rani who she says she is? For one, she is in no hurry to reunite with her husband, Pradeep (Bhaskar Jha), whom she has taken to calling Pankaj. Enter the piggish Inspector Manohar (Ravi Kishan) who has spotted in Pushpa a golden goose. All he wants is a picture of her to send her back to her husband but alas, the veil renders the camera useless. 

‘A respectable girl’

In another village, Phool is stranded at a railway station since Deepak’s blunder. Just past the brink of adolescence, she finds a friend and shelter in Chhotu (Satendra Soni). Refusing to change out of her wedding dress so Deepak can recognise her, at Chhotu’s urging, Phool eventually starts to consider the crisis her new normal. “Things are often not what they seem,” he tells her. Wise and clever, Chhotu introduces her to the no-nonsense Manju Maai, who runs a tea and refreshments kiosk at the railway station. 

If Pushpa is the feminist rebel of Surajmukhi, Deepak’s village, Manju Maai mans the politics of gender at the station. Dubbing patriarchy and its derivatives a “fraud”, she unambiguously declares, “For centuries, women in this country have been duped. This con is also known as ‘a respectable girl.’” Manju draws from her own tribulations – how she kicked out her drunkard for a husband and a good-for-nothing son. 

Laapataa Ladies, adapted from Biplab Goswami’s story and crafted by Sneha Desai, is a refreshing take on social satire with a strong feminist message at its core. The screenplay, enriched by Desai’s dialogue prowess and Divyanidhi Sharma’s inputs, drives home the film’s raison d’être.

Returning home

Politically, it neither breaks new ground nor does it beckon realism. By the film’s end, the pessimistic characters have a reason to smile, the unscrupulous ones find their moral bearings. The film’s articulation of its concerns is straightforward, avoiding heavy-handedness. It’s concise, making its point and moving forward without dwelling on it excessively, keeping a commendable focus on its themes of return and reconciliation.

Like a parable, the moral lesson is right there for the taking. Patriarchy is an obvious culprit. The veil hides, erases, and causes mayhem. Yet, it is the veil that Pushpa uses to escape the shackles of marriage. And it surely is the veil that Phool must shed to discover a new way of being and loving. 

Of course, unlike a parable, these tensions are sometimes delivered with a scream where silence would suffice. Goofs around the veil abound. If Rao had a preset audience in mind, it is easy to tell that it is one who does not need convincing about feminism and women’s agency. While the occasional too-on-the-nose messaging would dissuade many dudebros, one has to wonder why the director did not take more liberties beyond the black-and-white of being a woman. 

Remarkably so, Phool and Pushpa rule the story with their woes and wits without overpowering the narrative. Their struggles exist within the margins of a world inhabited by women redefining ‘home’ while seeking a return to it or plotting an escape from it. Laapataa Ladies is certainly not without its flaws. Ultimately, its trump card is that it does not take itself too seriously.

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