Where have all the women gone? A film offers answers - Hindustan Times
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Where have all the women gone? A film offers answers

Mar 15, 2024 09:56 PM IST

In Laapataa Ladies, the brides are making their own journeys, gradually spreading their wings and discovering parts of themselves they have never known

The brides, veiled and dressed nearly identically in red, have been swapped. And what seems to be the starting premise of a wholesome comedy is actually a portrait of women in search of themselves. The first word of the title Laapataa Ladies translates both as lost and missing, the word chosen by Amartya Sen to talk about women and girls who were aborted before they could be born.

Laapataa Ladies (Jio Studios and Kindling Pictures)
Laapataa Ladies (Jio Studios and Kindling Pictures)

Set in 2001, the question of missing women remains relevant two decades later. From labour force participation to Parliament, from the police to the judiciary, from public spaces to policy, just where are the women?

If you want to see them in the film set in a fictional state in rural India, you will find them in their kitchens, nostalgic about dishes they once loved but don’t cook anymore because nobody else in the family likes it. Hiding their secrets and their inner longings—a portrait of a husband who works in the big city—under the mattress. Rebelling against social norms in the courtyard of their homes. Questioning traditional antagonisms of the saas and her bahu. Let’s try, suggests the older woman.

Kiran Rao’s jewel of a film is described mainly as a comedy. It is in many parts and that is precisely what makes its embedded feminist messaging so effective. There is no big moment that comes down in a flash of lightning, no ponderous piece of dialogue. It’s the little layers and tiny conversations, a glance here, a touch there that make the story written by Biplab Goswami simply light up.

The action, it might seem for much of the first half, is reserved for the men. It is the bridegrooms who make the shocking discovery of bringing the wrong woman home and who must file a report. It is the men who consult each other about the next steps as they drink in local bars. It is men who activate their networks to get some unexpected results. It is the male police who go about the serious job of launching an investigation, never losing an opportunity to make a quick buck. The one woman in the police station, we are told, got her job on a sports quota that entitles her to a special breakfast that includes a banana and an egg, yet she too is bound to follow the orders of her male boss.

Away from this male world of action, the brides are making their own journeys, gradually spreading their wings and discovering parts of themselves they have never known. One of them pitches in at the tea stall on the station platform in the hope that her husband will eventually turn up to find her. The tea stall owner, Manju Mai has seen it all and her cynicism is not out of place – she’s left a husband who used to beat her at will, until one day she decided to fight back. Now she’s unencumbered and free, apart from tending to a self-contained cat. When she gives the bride her first-ever earnings of 100 for making kalakand to sell at the stall, you know that it’s going to be very difficult to pack this bride back into her cocoon.

But if it’s the women who rescue, it’s also the women who entrap. Why wouldn’t you listen to a capable daughter’s plea to let her study instead of forcing her into marriage because that is what social norms dictate? Equally, men aren’t always the enemy and the film’s triumph is in recognising that allyship can extend beyond the sisterhood.

When all is sorted out and the right brides are back in their rightful places, heading off to their proper destinations, it is one of the bridegrooms who reminds them: “You never have to apologise for dreaming.”

It made me want to go right back into the movie hall and book a ticket for another show.

Namita Bhandare writes on gender. The views expressed are personal

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