Review: Laaga Chunari Mein Daag / Bhool Bhulaiyaa

Posted on October 13, 2007


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The sob story of a reluctant prostitute is hopelessly old-fashioned, but that’s 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 Dey’s outstanding rendition. Today, though, you hear the phrase Laaga chunari mein daag, and your mind – thanks to years and years of television conditioning – instantly goes to a detergent commercial. You don’t think song; you think jingle. You think the next line should go, “To Surf Excel lagaao.â€?

It’s a whole new world out there – 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 But to label Pradeep Sarkar’s hopelessly outdated Laaga Chunari Mein Daag – the story of Vibha (Rani Mukerji), who turns to prostitution to take care of her family – as simply being out of touch with the times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 isn’t enough thunder-and-lightning melodrama. (It’s 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 you’re 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 year’s other Yash Raj movie starring Rani Mukerji. (Hey, if they’re going to recycle their heroines and their moviemaking strategies, why shouldn’t I recycle my reviews?) “But if there’s one thing that is at odds with glitzy packaging, it’s poverty. I don’t think there can be such a thing as suspension of disbelief when you’re trying to sell hard times, for poverty is all around us – there’s 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 – their defaulting has resulted in the power being cut off – 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 aren’t 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 we’re 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 who’d lost his eyesight. Or a husband who made promises and never came back, leaving the poor girl all alone to raise an infant – 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 I’ve not seen but which appears to resemble the Mumtaz-vehicle Aaina, which K Balachander remade from his Tamil Arangetram).

In Raj Kapoor’s last outing as director – a rather underrated one, in my opinion; perhaps the noise over Mandakini’s nipples eclipsed all other considerations about the film – 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 river’s. This metaphor is mirrored in the first song of Laaga Chunari Mein Daag – Shantanu Moitra’s perky Hum to aise hain bhaiya – 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, “Sab ki ragon mein lahu bahe hain/ apni ragon mein Ganga maiya,â€? that what courses through their veins isn’t blood so much as the holy water of the Ganges, and you know at once what lies in store for this “pureâ€? girl: a trek across impure terrain very similar to that of Mandakini’s in Ram Teri Ganga Maili. (Here, she ends up in big, bad Mumbai). But Pradeep Sarkar doesn’t have the conviction in his conceit that Raj Kapoor had, and so his “journey of a womanâ€? (as the film’s tagline goes) appears merely an exotic holiday from which a safe return is all but guaranteed.

But the problem isn’t just that Sarkar doesn’t trust his tale; he doesn’t trust his audience. You can hear the wheels go clackety-clack in his head: “Okay, so I’ve got this adult story about the elder sister that will probably attract those who liked my earlier Parineeta. But will today’s kids want to watch it?â€? And that’s why, I guess, we don’t 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 Vibha’s (equally half-hearted) love story. Vibha and Shubha look like they’re barely a few years apart, and yet, Vibha’s meet-cute (with Abhishek Bachchan, in a cameo) happens as she’s muttering the Hanuman Chaleesa, while Shubha’s occurs as Vivan is chomping messily on a mayo-dripping burger. Really!

It’s 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 Vibha’s unfortunate choice of career – 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, it’s hard to take anything seriously, least of all the big-cities-are-evil thesis that’s crucial to our empathising with Vibha’s dilemma.

Sarkar’s idea of showing us how different Mumbai is from Banaras is to have her roommate’s male friend buzz the doorbell and cheerfully announce, “Tumhari 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 Konkona’s 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 Vibha’s 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 it’s those killer private eyes in Banaras.)

To Sarkar’s credit, he does stage the occasional moment where you think you have it all figured out, and that’s not really the case. When Vibha sees Shubha on Vivan’s 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 sister’s livelihood depends upon going out with strange men) to expose Vibha’s hypocrisy. But, thankfully, no such thing happens. Shubha simply brings Vivan over; he whips up a delicious lunch, and Vibha is charmed.

But there’s more to the scene. With all the close-ups of Vibha as she looks at Shubha and her boyfriend, you can’t help picking up on an (invisible) undercurrent. Isn’t 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 here’s her little sister, meeting a handsome, charming Mr. Right straightaway.) But Sarkar doesn’t go there, because he needs his heroine to stay a saint. If Vibha’s profession – all those anonymous men, all that meaningless sex, all that money – has taken a toll on her person, this isn’t the film to offer evidence. That’s why Rani Mukerji, despite being in practically every frame, struggles to make an impression. It’s a role that’s all outline, with not a scratch of shading inside.

And it’s a role that’s, frankly, quite fake. There’s 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, that’s 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 “lingerieâ€? for “laundryâ€?), and she’s small-town in so many telling ways, and it makes sense that if she did wind up a hooker, she’d be peddling her wares at nondescript street corners. The fact that she doesn’t, that she morphs miraculously into a high-class call girl who services clients at ritzy hotels, is all you need to know about the filmmaker’s priorities. He wants to tackle a disturbing subject, and yet dress it up so that it’s least disturbing to his audience. With all the emphasis on eye candy, you wonder why they didn’t name the film Laaga Pashmina Shawl Mein Daag.

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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 – unless the film showed up on Doordarshan on a Sunday afternoon – 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. That’s 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, he’d 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 – it takes forever to take off, and once it does, it takes forever to end, and it can’t decide whether to make you chuckle or chew your nails – 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 there’s a ghost, is it haunting anyone now – Siddharth’s 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 ©2007 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi