Warning: Here be spoilers!
Here is a movie that could have been wonderful, if only the makers had chosen to tell the story that had the most potential. A woman from a once-rich family in Benares goes to Mumbai to earn a living and solve her family’s financial problems. To paraphrase Simon & Garfunkel, she gets no offers, just a come-on from the leering boss of a BPO. Out of sheer desperation, she agrees. Soon enough, she has become a high-class escort. Only her mother knows about this, and it breaks her heart. Her younger sister, on the other hand, is blissfully unaware of all this and falls in love with a colleague at work. It all begins to unravel at the sister’s wedding, where the protagonist finds out that her sister’s brother-in-law is a man she met once and fell in love with. However, thanks to the open-mindedness of all the major characters, everything gets resolved and both sisters marry the loves of their lives.
The line I’m leaving out here is: And they lived happily ever after. Because here’s the rub. When you consider the fact that the lead couple have to deal, not with the concept of her having been a prostitute, but the reality of it, things aren’t so easy.
The husband may not be the sort of man who suspects that his wife is still in the line, so to speak. But would he be the sort of man who is not bothered by the possibility that she might accompany him to a business gathering and be recognized by one of her former clients? And would she be able to deal with her insecurities about how her husband really feels about all this after the nobility of the grand gesture has faded into the background of their daily lives?
Now there’s a story worth telling. A compelling drama that could’ve asked hard questions and asked its actors to go to some difficult places. If you’re looking for parallels, look at Chasing Amy, which began with an interesting premise (straight man falls for gay woman), took that to a satisfying conclusion (she loves him too) and then had the courage to ask itself: what now?
What LCMD does is play it safe and stop when the guy gets the girl. More than anything else, it is the timidity of its approach that I am most disappointed by. The timidity applies even to the way this story unfolds. There are very few scenes that are even potentially hard-hitting, less than the story promises. And in scenes where the potential does exist, the performances usually don’t match up.
Vibha’s initial descent into prostitution is an example. The set-up is well-done, as is the scene where she has a crucial phone-call with her mother. Jaya Bachchan’s performance in that scene is top-notch. But look at Rani’s performance in the scene after she has been used by the unscrupulous man. Her eyes convey sadness, sure. But there’s so much more that a woman in her position would probably feel. You see none of that. You don’t even see her eyes going dead – that would’ve been effective too. But no, you just see her crying. Hell, any fool with glycerine in her eyes can cry.
I remember this other movie called Aastha where Rekha plays a middle-class housewife who gets drawn into prostitution. Frankly, I didn’t think that the way she gets into it was conveyed convincingly enough, but the scenes where she has to deal with herself in the aftermath of that event had such an intensity that I could barely watch them. Rani’s performance in a similar situation is so amazingly inadequate that it derails the movie’s premise itself.
And to add insult to injury, the movie takes what could’ve been the meatiest section of the movie – how she goes from that first experience to a seasoned player of that particular game – and condenses it to a montage that mostly just involves Rani singing in the shower and getting a makeover so she could walk in high heels and show more cleavage.
Anupam Kher does what he can with an underwritten role. He does the little things quite well, like a scene towards the end where he sees Rani’s outburst and is reminded of his father. Jaya Bachchan is quite good in some of the heavy scenes, and does the best she can to rise above the one-note performance that the script demands of her. Konkona Sensharma is all sweetness and light, and handles an important scene with her sister with the sort of competence you expect of her. It is to her credit that the scene works despite some clunky dialogue. Kunal Kapoor and Abhishek Bachchan have nothing to do, and do it charmingly enough. The photography, art direction and music are all good. Nothing to rave about, but at least they don’t sink the film. I remember seeing a whole bunch of costume designers in the credits – if you ask them for interviews, I am sure they’ll give you megabytes of gyan about how their work reflects the movie’s soul and whatever else. If any of them share my opinion of the movie’s soul, they might not be so eager to provide a soundbyte.
I guess my sentiments about the project itself are the same as those about the plot: Pradeep Sarkar got three of the best-known Bengali actresses in Bollywood together in a movie. All of them talented, all of them capable of a lot. Enough potential to get sufficient financial muscle behind him, despite the fact that the industry is mostly testosterone-driven.
What he forgot to do was ask himself: what now?
Aside: I had a rant and rave session with my friend Priya recently. I was ranting about Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, and she was raving about Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa Vie (My life to live) . It is about a woman’s gradual descent into prostitution. (I’m not sure if descent is the word to use in this case, though.) I haven’t seen the movie yet, but there’s a lovely essay by Ebert on its visual strategy. You might want to read it.