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Laapataa Ladies: From screen to soul

“Being happy on your own, is the toughest thing, Phool.”

Kiran Rao's film Laapataa Ladies explores female identity and agency in rural India. Based on a story by Biplab Goswami, with a screenplay and dialogue by Sneha Desai, the film lovingly and gently crafts the North Indian village that serves as its backdrop. The film narrates the story of two newlywed brides who accidentally split from their husbands on a train. Their stories unfold simultaneously as the two young women find themselves and realize their dreams.

Laapataa Ladies: From screen to soul

A train ride in the fictitious central Indian state of Nirmal Pradesh results in the swapping of two brides (blame the social orthodoxy for the women's treatment as misplaced luggage). While the film focuses on a mix-up involving two brides in identical red veils, Laapataa Ladies, or the missing women, could refer to the women we lose each year as a result of the oppressive constructs of morality, virtue, and honor that emerge organically within a patriarchal society. Constructs represented in the film include the 'ghoonghat' or veil, which erases the woman's autonomy. "Ek baar ghoonghat le liya toh aage nahi, neeche dekh ke chalna seekho" Phool is advised by a female elderly relative to 'look down not ahead' now that she has donned the veil. Her movement is restricted, and she cannot navigate freely. The veil only limits and causes problems for Phool, but it liberates Jaya. The veil conceals not only a woman's face but also her identity and prevents her from practicing the power that she has. 

For the protected young woman, a mere four days at the train station is a crash course in the outside world. Phool, like many Indian women, was raised to depend on men in her own family and distrust everyone else. However, she experiences a revelation when she discovers that her skills can earn her money and learns to trust the young men who provide her with shelter. Maai's humorous yet feminist words provide a counterbalance to social propaganda, mocking the notion that women are dependent on men and implying that a suhaagraat and jewelry may be all a husband wants from marriage. 

As I sat by myself watching, I giggled at the well-written jokes and smiled at the nuggets of wisdom that, while a little on the nose, rang true. I also wept at the end when a man told a woman that she should never apologize for having dreams. This line hit me especially hard because if there's one thing we women excel at, it's feeling guilty—guilt over not doing enough as a mother, wife, daughter, or working professional. We can feel unworthy or guilty about any aspect of our lives, but we rarely feel guilty about denying ourselves what we truly desire.

Women, like the film's female protagonists, Phool and Jaya, board a train at the request of their parents and husbands. By doing so, they take on a journey with no agency or regard for whether it will lead them to a destination of their choosing. Only when the two ladies in the film get off the train do they get to choose which direction they want to go?

What distinguishes Kiran Rao's script from mainstream Indian cinema is her attempt to shift viewers' perspective from one of commentary on an unjust world to one of seeing beyond it. The film depicts the stages of maturation of the female characters. Phool's journey is complete, beginning with her refusal to tell the station master her husband's name and ending with her assertive call out of his name. Manju Mai tells Phool that her name is part of her identity and that she should take her husband's name. The ending scene, in which Deepak eventually finds his bride after she calls out his name, beautifully captures the significance of names, identity, and the joy of finding love.

Despite being in a pragmatic register, Laapataa Ladies allows for flights of fancy that should be self-defeating but aren't. Laapataa Ladies' appeal stems from its sweetly optimistic depiction of a vehemently contested milieu, which may have been intentional in an era when the Hindi belt appears to be a battleground. Rao's film, though fictional, pays tribute to a more compassionate and constitutionally bound state, while also implicitly urging its continuity.

Kiran Rao's Laapataa Ladies delves into rural India's female identity struggle, weaving a tale of empowerment as two brides find independence amid patriarchal constraints. Here is how the film touches the soul from the screen of every woman watching it.


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