A WHORY TALE
The sob story of a reluctant prostitute is hopelessly old-fashioned, but thatâs the least of its problems. Plus, a painful mix of chills and chuckles.
OCT 14, 2007 – IN THE INDIA OF THE SIXTIES, the song Laaga chunari mein daag would have reminded moviegoers of the film it was from, Dil Hi To Hai. It would have reminded them of Raj Kapoor clowning around in an all-too-obvious fake beard, pretending to be a classical singer on stage as he lip-synced in accordance with Manna Deyâs outstanding rendition. Today, though, you hear the phrase Laaga chunari mein daag, and your mind â thanks to years and years of television conditioning â instantly goes to a detergent commercial. You donât think song; you think jingle. You think the next line should go, âTo Surf Excel lagaao.â?
Itâs a whole new world out there â and if this sounds like a ridiculously obvious fact that no one should have to point out, especially in a review of a new film in the new millennium, I only wish our filmmakers in Mumbai realised this. But to label Pradeep Sarkarâs hopelessly outdated Laaga Chunari Mein Daag â the story of Vibha (Rani Mukerji), who turns to prostitution to take care of her family â as simply being out of touch with the times would be credit the film with the caveat that had it been made in, say, the sixties, people would have tearfully lapped it up.
And I doubt that Laaga Chunari Mein Daag would have worked in any era. For the lover of the old-style Hindi film, there just isnât enough thunder-and-lightning melodrama. (Itâs tempting to imagine what an unapologetically melodramatic filmmaker of today, a.k.a. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, would have made of this material.) As for the multiplex generation, how could anyone not hoot at this feature-length parade of impossibly glamorous stars in the prettiest of picture-postcard surroundings, desperately trying to sell a battered-woman subject based on a social reality?
Now, if youâre going to dish out the old suspension-of-disbelief rejoinder, that our cinema has never really sought to emulate kitchen-sink realism, allow me to reproduce what I wrote about Ta Ra Rum Pum, this yearâs other Yash Raj movie starring Rani Mukerji. (Hey, if theyâre going to recycle their heroines and their moviemaking strategies, why shouldnât I recycle my reviews?) âBut if thereâs one thing that is at odds with glitzy packaging, itâs poverty. I donât think there can be such a thing as suspension of disbelief when youâre trying to sell hard times, for poverty is all around us â thereâs nothing not to believe about it.â?
At one point, Vibha and her father (Anupam Kher) set out to pay a long-due electricity bill â their defaulting has resulted in the power being cut off â and nothing earlier clues you to this fact. The huge, ancient (and, okay, ramshackle) mansion they live in is so perpetually bathed in warm tones of yellows and ambers, the pangs you experience arenât of sympathy so much as envy. And though you see the mother (Jaya Bachchan, in the very definition of a thankless role) slaving away at her sewing machine, tailoring petticoats to bring in some income, the opening credits tell us that her daughters are draped in Sabyasachi Mukherjee creations.
And this is the poverty weâre supposed to buy as the reason for nice, middle-class Vibha turning into naughty, high-priced call-girl Natasha (in a series of fright wigs)? The old films at least had the decency to show us a younger sibling with a congenital limp, or a father whoâd lost his eyesight. Or a husband who made promises and never came back, leaving the poor girl all alone to raise an infant â as was the case in Ram Teri Ganga Maili, whose metaphorical trajectory Laaga Chunari Mein Daag reflects the most (even though the screenplay credit reveals that this is based on the Marathi film Doghi, which Iâve not seen but which appears to resemble the Mumtaz-vehicle Aaina, which K Balachander remade from his Tamil Arangetram).
In Raj Kapoorâs last outing as director â a rather underrated one, in my opinion; perhaps the noise over Mandakiniâs nipples eclipsed all other considerations about the film â the heroine was a virgin from the Himalayas (namely, the pristine birthplace of the Ganges) who ended up a whore in Kolkata (where the now-polluted Ganges empties into the sea), and her gradual lessening of purity (or virtue) was shown to parallel the riverâs. This metaphor is mirrored in the first song of Laaga Chunari Mein Daag â Shantanu Moitraâs perky Hum to aise hain bhaiya â where a beautifully shot montage shows sisters Vibha and Shubha (Konkona Sen Sharma) celebrating their vibrant hometown of Banaras, which, of course, is one of the most famous homes of the Ganges.
During this number, Vibha kneels on the last step of the ghat, dunks her hand in the river and sings, âSab ki ragon mein lahu bahe hain/ apni ragon mein Ganga maiya,â? that what courses through their veins isnât blood so much as the holy water of the Ganges, and you know at once what lies in store for this âpureâ? girl: a trek across impure terrain very similar to that of Mandakiniâs in Ram Teri Ganga Maili. (Here, she ends up in big, bad Mumbai). But Pradeep Sarkar doesnât have the conviction in his conceit that Raj Kapoor had, and so his âjourney of a womanâ? (as the filmâs tagline goes) appears merely an exotic holiday from which a safe return is all but guaranteed.
But the problem isnât just that Sarkar doesnât trust his tale; he doesnât trust his audience. You can hear the wheels go clackety-clack in his head: âOkay, so Iâve got this adult story about the elder sister that will probably attract those who liked my earlier Parineeta. But will todayâs kids want to watch it?â? And thatâs why, I guess, we donât see much of what Vibha actually goes through in her new life. Instead, after a point, we keep cutting away to the half-hearted romance between Shubha and Vivan (Kunal Kapoor), which is presented as a complete contrast to Vibhaâs (equally half-hearted) love story. Vibha and Shubha look like theyâre barely a few years apart, and yet, Vibhaâs meet-cute (with Abhishek Bachchan, in a cameo) happens as sheâs muttering the Hanuman Chaleesa, while Shubhaâs occurs as Vivan is chomping messily on a mayo-dripping burger. Really!
Itâs as if Sarkar found the hook of the story interesting, but then began to lose interest as he went about writing it. The early portions of Laaga Chunari Mein Daag do show signs of at least some level of engagement with the material. Sarkar takes the trouble to walk us through the whole cycle of incidents that results in Vibhaâs unfortunate choice of career â but while you note this detailing in the screenplay, it never becomes part of the story on screen in a way that sticks. Laaga Chunari Mein Daag is so broadly caricatured, itâs hard to take anything seriously, least of all the big-cities-are-evil thesis thatâs crucial to our empathising with Vibhaâs dilemma.
Sarkarâs idea of showing us how different Mumbai is from Banaras is to have her roommateâs male friend buzz the doorbell and cheerfully announce, âTumhari izzat lootne aaya hoon.â? (And what does this city-slicker have in his hands while disclosing this mock-intent of rape? Why, bottles of beer, of course! Alcohol! Hey Ram!) Vibha, on the other hand, remembers to buy for this roommate a pair of earrings the latter had casually admired while visiting Banaras, and even the roommate is surprised at this display of thoughtfulness. (Apparently, no one in Mumbai is into impromptu gestures of friendship, which makes you wonder how all those Archies and Hallmark stores are making any money.)
And once Vibha turns into Natasha, even these tiny niceties disappear, and the rest of Laaga Chunari Mein Daag becomes an interminable slog to an inevitable end, livened up solely by Konkonaâs half-incredulous glee in finding herself, finally, in a film where she actually gets to sing and dance. But then, she does have the advantage of having the screen all to herself, considering that no one around her is remotely as interesting. Poor Sushant Singh, for instance, is stuck with the dreadfully written character of Vibhaâs wastrel cousin from back home who blackmails her. (How does this yokel find out so much about Vibha, including how much she charges per night? Maybe itâs those killer private eyes in Banaras.)
To Sarkarâs credit, he does stage the occasional moment where you think you have it all figured out, and thatâs not really the case. When Vibha sees Shubha on Vivanâs motorbike, you gear up for the inevitable confrontation. You think Vibha will ask Shubha to not go around with strange men, and that Shubha will use this warning later (after she finds out that her elder sisterâs livelihood depends upon going out with strange men) to expose Vibhaâs hypocrisy. But, thankfully, no such thing happens. Shubha simply brings Vivan over; he whips up a delicious lunch, and Vibha is charmed.
But thereâs more to the scene. With all the close-ups of Vibha as she looks at Shubha and her boyfriend, you canât help picking up on an (invisible) undercurrent. Isnât there even the slightest bit of jealousy, of resentment? (After all, when Vibha came to Mumbai, all the men she met were pigs, and now hereâs her little sister, meeting a handsome, charming Mr. Right straightaway.) But Sarkar doesnât go there, because he needs his heroine to stay a saint. If Vibhaâs profession â all those anonymous men, all that meaningless sex, all that money â has taken a toll on her person, this isnât the film to offer evidence. Thatâs why Rani Mukerji, despite being in practically every frame, struggles to make an impression. Itâs a role thatâs all outline, with not a scratch of shading inside.
And itâs a role thatâs, frankly, quite fake. Thereâs a scene just after Shubha lands up in Mumbai, when she sights a group of prostitutes at a corner. She giggles and points them out to Vibha, who is by her side, and who, naturally, rebukes her. Vibha says that these women should not be judged, because you never know what caused them to end up in this profession. And while this instinctive response seems, at first, to arise from empathy for these others in her situation, thatâs only half the picture.
Because if you think about it, Vibha should have been one of them too. She barely knows any English (she mistakes âlingerieâ? for âlaundryâ?), and sheâs small-town in so many telling ways, and it makes sense that if she did wind up a hooker, sheâd be peddling her wares at nondescript street corners. The fact that she doesnât, that she morphs miraculously into a high-class call girl who services clients at ritzy hotels, is all you need to know about the filmmakerâs priorities. He wants to tackle a disturbing subject, and yet dress it up so that itâs least disturbing to his audience. With all the emphasis on eye candy, you wonder why they didnât name the film Laaga Pashmina Shawl Mein Daag.
WHEN MANICHITRATHAZHU WAS RELEASED in the early nineties, there was so much buzz about it and it became such a blockbuster, I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. But subtitles being an unknown phenomenon those days â unless the film showed up on Doordarshan on a Sunday afternoon â I never got around to the Malayalam film, and I never got around to Aaptamitra either, the Kannada version that got made over a decade later. Thatâs a long time to be simmering with curiosity about a movie, so when the same story found its way to Tamil, with Chandramukhi, I ran to the cinema hall. And my reaction was: Is that all?
And now, after watching the Hindi remake, Bhool Bhulaiyaa, my reaction is: Is that really all? I thought that with Priyadarshan behind the scenes, heâd strive to bring back all the things from the Malayalam original that had reportedly been jettisoned in the other versions. But some nice tunes from Pritam apart, Bhool Bhulaiyaa is such a mess of plotting and mood â it takes forever to take off, and once it does, it takes forever to end, and it canât decide whether to make you chuckle or chew your nails â I was left wondering: Is this a bad remake of a good original? Or is the original one of those films that worked at the time, but is dated now, and hence this is about all you could hope for from a remake?
These questions, at least, are far more interesting than the ones that Aditya (Akshay Kumar, doing what he reliably does in his Priyadarshan films) seeks the answers to. Is the palace inherited by Siddharth (Shiney Ahuja, looking completely lost) really haunted by the ghost of a long-ago raj nartaki whose love affair ended tragically (and who may have sat through a few too many screenings of Mehbooba, where Hema Malini played a long-ago raj nartaki whose love affair ended tragically)? And if thereâs a ghost, is it haunting anyone now â Siddharthâs wife Avni (Vidya Balan), perhaps? And, finally, can Priyadarshan ever make a movie without Akshay Kumar, Asrani, Paresh Rawal, Rasika Joshi, Rajpal Yadav and Manoj Joshi?
Copyright Â©2007 The New Sunday Express