Laapataa Ladies (2024) review

Laapataa Ladies

There has not been a dearth of films exploring feminist themes and having feminist content in recent times, and it may be observed that most of these films have found an amicable reception across the world. Indian mainstream productions have also consistently explored feminist themes either implicitly or (mostly) explicitly over the past few years, but what makes Kiran Rao’s film Laapataa Ladies stand out is its humanism, which, aided by humour, saves it from appearing overtly didactic and, while maintaining the seriousness of its content, strongly critiques conservative social orders that are particularly cruel towards women.

On the one hand, there exists a promising image of India as an emergent global power. It is one that most Indian citizens would like to associate their nation with. On the other hand, however, there is also an image of India as a “backward” nation, with regressive ideologies, adhering to outdated norms and beliefs, escaping from which seems apparently impossible. Unfortunately, many of the rural regions of India present the latter image. Laapataa Ladies takes place in a rural setting that seems to be endemically regressive, but the film shows that even such hostile spaces are not irredeemable.

In its very first scene, Laapataa Ladies becomes political in form.Phool’s (played by Nitanshi Goel) wedding experience is shown to us through point-of-view shots, highlighting her discomfort and confusion at the rites and the reactions of the women around her. As the ghoonghat (veil) is put over her face, the point-of-view shot makes it seem as if the veil has been put over the viewer’s face, signifying the socio-political stance they have taken (or become a part of) knowingly or unknowingly, while at the same time, making them share Phool’s subjectivity. The society at large and the filmic gaze in particular are not patriarchal simply due to someone’s conscious decisions, but as a result of a long history of social, political, and institutional circumstances and practices. The point-of-view shots in the beginning of the film emphasise on the veiled subjectivity of the viewer, who, in the real world, is already positioned in a patriarchal setting.

Phool and Deepak’s relationship sets up the film’s emotional backdrop in the first few sequences. It is evident that they are happy about their marriage, and despite the lively tone set through the dialogues and the score, there is a feeling of impending danger looming over the young, inexperienced couple as they make their journey through a menacing world full of dangers with nobody to protect them.

Although presented in a humorous way, the film explicitly refers to the popular perception of the police in India. The negligence, unlawfulness, and brutality of the police (especially in rural areas) have been reiterated in Indian cinema as far back as one could look. In this film, the police investigation becomes an important sub-plot, where the veteran actor Ravi Kishan as sub-inspector Shyam Manohar delivers one of his best performances. In fact, every actor in the film puts on a grounded performance, allowing us to connect with the characters and their circumstances more intimately.

One of the interesting things about the film is that none of the male members of Deepak’s family seem to be dominant or blatantly regressive. None of the men in his family can be identified with the idea of a traditional patriarch. As is common in most conservative Indian families, the oldest member of the family assumes the role of the head of the family, but the oldest male member of Deepak’s family, his grandfather, is a decrepit man confined to his bed, unable to speak. Deepak’s father, too, appears to be quite soft and humble. It is also interesting how he once says out of  sheer annoyance: “The ghoonghat will end us all.” The point the film tries to make is that these compassionate men and women (who could be a microcosm of the larger society) have lived in patriarchy for so long that they have simply accepted the oppressive rules as regular, natural parts of their daily lives.

Jaya and Phool get “laapataa” or lost not only because they get separated from their husbands, but for losing their subjectivity in the patriarchal society. Jaya (Pratibha Ranta) is an embodiment of the dreams and aspirations that get forcefully suppressed by conservative societal norms. Phool is a representative of a diffident youth whose subjectivities get crippled by their social (and political) circumstances. Breaking free from such a regressive system can never be easy, but is always possible. Thus, it is their predicament that allows Jaya to unlock her shackles, and Phool to discover herself. Arriving at the railway station, albeit mistakenly, provides them the opportunity to embark on their journey of self-exploration. Throughout the history of cinema, the railways have been used as a symbol of modernity, and in Laapataa Ladies, the two young women’s journey towards modernity actually begins in the train. Their misplacement is necessary for both of them to become independent individuals and regain their subjectivities. For Pushpa to overcome the obstacles and become Jaya (“Jaya” in Hindi means victory), she has to go to the village Surajmukhi, as it is the only space that could facilitate some positive change in her life. On the other hand, Phool has to go to Pateela, comparatively a more hostile space; only its rashness could facilitate her into becoming self-reliant.

Jaya and Phool’s worlds are demarcated with different colours. A warm colour palette with reddish/yellowish hues are used for the station where Jaya ends up, while the station where Phool goes to is shown using a cool colour palette with a blueish hue. Conversely, we see Jaya wearing a blue saree while Phool wears a red saree (her wedding saree) as they deal with their problems.

Nature plays an important role in the film, where humans and the natural world are connected both symbolically and materially. The names Phool, Pushpa, and Surajmukhi are the obvious indicators of this. Jaya wants to study agricultural science, and she introduces Deepak’s family to sticky traps as an alternative to using pesticides. Jaya and Deepak’s friend seem to get closer and develop a romantic connection as they have conversations in the fields, surrounded by greenery.

Laapataa Ladies explores complex themes in a simple yet expressive way with its humanist approach, allowing audiences to empathise with the characters, facilitating its political undertones to reach the masses effectively. The film is successful in its attempt to do so.

Aditya Modak is a film scholar, author and filmmaker from Tripura.

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