And this month’s Juhi Chawla Award for Playing Against Type goes to… Satish Kaushik, the cuddly Calendar from Mr. India who plays Reddygaru in Lakshmi. We first see him as he alights from a car in the outskirts of Hyderabad. He’s clad in a white shirt, a white dhoti, and from his shoulder hangs a neatly pressed angavastram, which, of course, no human of the male persuasion south of the Vindhyas will be seen without, even while taking a shower. Reddygaru runs a cathouse, and he likes young girls. From a row of prospects brought in by Chinna (Nagesh Kukunoor, attired like a death-metal guitarist, with one fingernail painted a bright red), Reddygaru picks the 14-year-old Lakshmi (Monali Thakur), takes her home, makes her feel comfortable, and, when she least expects it, he rapes her. The scene is terrifying – it goes where rape scenes rarely go. We’re used to the male gaze, with the gradual stripping of the victim – the sari coming off, the blouse torn, the bra strap seen. But here, we see what Lakshmi sees when Reddygaru takes his clothes off. Kaushik is huge. He towers over the tiny Lakshmi like a monster from myth. He throws her on the bed, and literally engulfs her. He’s her “first,” and he obliterates her earlier existence.
The most affecting parts of Nagesh Kukunoor’s new film, based on a true story, are these vignettes of horror. Sometimes, these horrors are overt – as when Chinna wields a club, one end of which is pocked with nails. (It’s like a toothbrush designed by the Marquis de Sade.) Or when Lakshmi tries to escape from the whorehouse she’s sent to, only to be captured and brought back to the sight of everyone else wearing livid welts, being punished for her dreams of freedom.
But other times, these are silent horrors – as when Amma (Vibha Chibber) sees Lakshmi being taking away by Reddygaru and begins to boil water and sets out a bottle of Dettol. She knows she has to clean Lakshmi up when that door opens, and we wonder how long she has been doing this, and what brought her to this. Not a trace of emotion crosses her face when she tends to the broken Lakshmi, lying before her, legs splayed. She could be wiping dust from bookshelves.
How much of this is exploitative and how much is necessary to tell us what really goes on with little girls who are sold for tens of thousands and resign themselves to selling their bodies? Take the average Hollywood sex scene. It’s beautifully lit. There’s not a drop of sweat on the bodies. The saxophone masks the grunts, the sounds of flesh slapping against flesh. This is the idea of a sex scene, the carnal answer to elevator music. We know what’s supposed to be going on, but we don’t really get into it. Now take a Lars von Trier sex scene. It’s so graphic that we are forced to respond, both to what’s happening on screen as well as our own reactions, both physical and psychological. The latter is what Kukunoor is going for, with the jars of vaginal cream, the old men, the young men, the man who wears a wig, the repeated washing of Lakshmi’s barely mature sex organs, the pieces of padding slipped into her blouse, the bottle of booze that makes it all go away till the next customer violates her and leaves her cold sober. By immersing us into Lakshmi’s new life, Kukunoor gives us a guided tour of this particular hell. “Narak mein jaaoge,” Lakshmi spits at Jyoti (a moving Shefali Shah), the madam. Her reply: “We’re already there.”
After a point, Lakshmi gets used to it, and in her roommate Swarna (Flora Saini) we see what Lakshmi might be like in ten years. Swarna is so convinced she belongs here that when Lakshmi tries to run away – again – and is brought back, she asks her why she wants to escape. She seems genuinely surprised that someone would want to leave this life.
As long as we stay in the whorehouse, Lakshmi is a powerful social document. Is it cinematic? Sure. But it’s also eye-opening in the way non-fiction pieces are, detailing the hows and whats and whys of people we know little about, these victims of human trafficking. When Lakshmi makes a fuss about going into a room with a client, Jyoti whispers to her that the more she resists the more turned on he’s going to be, so why give him that pleasure? It’s like a parent playing mind games with a child who’s scared of stepping into the pool. Jyoti isn’t just the mother figure here, she’s actually a mother. In a matter-of-fact scene, set elsewhere, she sits with her daughter, a future engineer, and says, “Teri padhaai khatam, mera kaam khatam.” There are no tears. There’s only the ice cream in her hand.
After a solidly unsentimental first half – marred only by needless flashes to Lakshmi’s earlier life, in green-tinted frames – the film morphs into a stodgy courtroom drama. It’s as if Kukunoor lost interest after a while. It becomes very predictable. Lakshmi is rescued, and with the aid of a right-minded lawyer (Ram Kapoor) she decides to expose the villains who brought her to this racket. We’ve seen these theatrics before – the efforts to embarrass the plaintiff, intimidate her, bribe her, the last-minute witness, the shocking revelations. It may have been what actually happened, but it’s trite cinema. Monali Thakur gives a brave performance, but gradually she becomes less of an individual and more of one of those kinds of template-heroines whose stories we’re asked to bring handkerchieves for at the movies. The real-life Lakshmi deserved better.
* angavastram = an expanse of cloth draped over the shoulder
* “Narak mein jaaoge” = you will go to hell
* “Teri padhaai khatam, mera kaam khatam” = I’ll stop working when you finish your studies
Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.