Friday, February 03, 2012

Laaga Chunari Mein Daag

[Spoilers!]

Full disclosure: I watched Laaga Chunari Mein Daag for two reasons: the cast as a whole—full of people I love/like, and I didn't even remember Hema Malini actually dances in it!—and the specific romantic pairing of Rani Mukherji and Abhishek Bachchan, my favorite jodi ever.
Ever.
While the characterizations don't all live up to the potential of these actors, overall the film makes relatively pleasing use of its star talent. The two weak points for characters are the child-like younger siblings, Shubhavari (Konkona Sen Sharma), whose wild swings in persona don't really cohere given her age and education and whose job seems far too grown-up for her, and Vivaan (Kunal Kapoor), a narcissist to whom no one should pay particular attention. As for Rani and Abhishek together again...despite loving them together in every iteration I've seen, I can never put my finger on what it is about them that works so well for me. It's not that they're always lively and clever (Bunty aur Babli), complex (Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna), or intense (Yuva)*; they've done unhappy couples as often as happy; they're not a perfect or even particularly pleasing physical match, nor do they dance notably well together. But they always delight me. Always. So while LCMD uses them in just a tiny dose, with basically an extended cameo by Abhishek, it's well done and satisfying, and I'm as happy to see them as ever.


I was originally going to say that it seems unfair to give a film the appositional subtitle Journey of A Woman but then handle one of the components of said journey with merely an extended cameo, especially one that seems significant to the woman herself, but then I realized that de-emphasizing her romantic life frees up resources to tell other parts of her story and, Helen above, isn't it amazing to see a mainstream Bollywood film that doesn't focus on a romantic story despite having young and beautiful protagonists? Everything that Rohan's love offers Vaibhavari, with one notable exception I'll get to in just a second, is also extended many times over by her family, most importantly her sister, who doubles as a best friend complement.

What is beautifully, if mind-bogglingly, not discussed is what marrying Rohan implies about Vaibhavari's not-so-secret life as high-price escort Natasha. Presumably Rohan's presence eliminates the financial necessity from which Natasha sprang; however,  Rohan only expresses his hope to become a permanent part of her life, and she accepts him, when he is not needed. It amazes me that there is no sense of Rohan saving Vaihbhavari in any way: she has earned her own money, her family is back on its footing (thanks entirely to her), and she doesn't even seem to be the  stereotypical "cold and dead inside" given to pop culture sex workers.

I won't argue that Vaibhavari is thrilled with her life or that she does not desire acceptance by the people she loves, but she takes a lot of joy in the happiness of others and in her own success, particularly proving to her #@&$*! father (Anupam Kher) that she has succeeded in all the functions that he's convinced only sons could perform (various versions of protecting and providing for the family) (and that he himself has failed to do). (Of course, since we all know where Y chromosomes come from, we also know that the family's only-daughter-having situation—Nahiiiiiin!—are also due to him, but never mind.)
 It seems to me that Vaibhavari's most clearly expressed sadness comes from her mother (Jaya Bachchan)'s hypocrisy of depending on Natasha's hard-earned money yet simultaneously being unwilling to include her in the family. Vaibhavari doesn't need Rohan (nor does Natasha), but she likes him, wants him. It's so refreshing! His comfort with her whole self means that she has a new chance at a more conventional life, but it also acknowledges who she is and who she has been. After all, Rohan would never have met her if she hadn't been Natasha, and he even states how much he respects Vaibhavari for turning into Natasha when she had to—and he falls in love with her without knowing why she became Natasha or even that there is a previous Vaibhavari part of her, so it's not like he's getting off on her sacrifice**. Natasha is responsible for every single happy ending in this movie: the family's secured finances, their improved home, their success in a lawsuit, the (admittedly very perfunctory) defeat of the villains, the father's restored health, and Shubhavari's education (and thus job and fiancĂ© she met at the job).

That said, and I know it was a lot, I'm not going to pretend this is a perfect movie. About halfway through, I realized that it was so overrun with WTFs that I should have been keeping track. But, at least for me, its list of positives is as significant as its list of negatives. For every idiotic aspect of this film, it does something well...beautifully, thoughtfully, interestingly.

Let's start with the most glaring problem.
Oh the irony.
In this fantasy world of gently glowing, folksy Banares and silky-smooth Mumbai, it's apparently a breeze to be come a high-price call girl who works the top hotels with no pimp and is never raped or beaten or forced into substance abuse and dependency. It's the most ridiculous portrayal of prostitution I've ever seen, down to the total lack of even a hint of sex after she turns pro. On the other hand, I think I only noticed two characters truly criticizing Natasha's work (her mother and the creepy cousin, who would be a creep about her no matter what she did). For a film about a prostitute, there's precious little moral outrage, and Natasha she seems to be as much a part of the fabric, economy, and society of the city as her advertiser sister. As far as I could tell, there is no condemnation of Vaibhavari (or anyone else, for that matter) having sex before marriage—the issues seems to be the money, though because those two things are immediately tied together, it's hard to tell the difference. Think about that: a young woman from a good family from India's holiest city has sex without being married...and nobody seems to mind. Wow.

The title and songs belabor the concept that by choosing (and we could have some interesting discussions about choice and free will in this film) to trade sex for opportunity (not at first a direct exchange for money, interestingly), Vaibhavari is permanently dirtied and lessened—stained. Fortunately, the film doesn't actually act that way outside of those specific texts. And isn't it interesting how there is so much imagery about water and fabric, as though cleaning and purifying and mending are constant hopes? Her mother sews non-stop, obsessively, and both sisters take solace along ghats. In the transformation from Vaibhavari to Natasha, water is also significant, almost as though it's washing way the former and "good" in order to take on the new and "stained."
Maybe the water is her spirit, something hard to restrain, something that contains both good and bad and just keeps moving.

Kunal Kapoor's character is very unappealing, certainly when we and Shubhavari first meet him. He is gross, self-centered, and rude. Kunal Kapoor, however, is dreeeeamy.

The sisters, these "modern Indian women" (and how much did that slide show of "candids" of Konkona make you want to puke?) are apparently only attractive to high-quality men when they are in Europe. Both sisters get their love on (one the meet-cute and get-to-know-you, the other the final stumble from flirt into luuuuurve) in western locations. I have no idea what to make of that, but it sticks in my craw. But these sisters also navigate the modern world, working its pragmatic concerns and finding success without tearing anyone else down or even having sibling rivalries or that tiresome "girls can't stand each other's triumphs so get mean and cruel" routine (which to be fair I feel I see faaaaar more often in US tv than I do in Indian films). Other "modern Indian women" include the aunties talking about how hot Hrithik Roshan is and flying planes, whom Vivaan is shocked to discover, which is eye-roll-y, but at least the film is stating clearly that it is awesome that women have something approaching sex drives and can fly planes.

Look. Maybe I'm just so biased because of the people in this movie or by its remarkable, non-judgmental stance, but a film that has a heroine, played by my favorite actor, who enters her new life under the protective eye of her favorite movie star just satisfies me at a basic, personal, trivial level.
It's dreamy and escapist and set in a magical la-la-land and full of unlikely beauty. It tries to do something a little different and while in progress makes a hopeful, lovely statement that less-than-ideal situations and decisions don't have to be forever and that there are some people out there who will love you for who you truly are. Isn't that nice?

* And no, I haven't seen Bas Itna Sa Khwaab Hai—have you?
** My friend Ellie and I like to talk about the "sacrifice porn" aspect of some Bollywood dramas. 

12 comments:

dustdevil liz said...

It's so rare to be 100% in agreement with everything that someone else likes and dislikes about a film!

I really appreciate your articulation of how her choice of profession isn't demonized by Rohan, or even her sister.

I definitely called shenanigans on plot device that the girl who can't type or speak English well enough to get an office job is able to transform into the westernized "Natasha".

It did bum me out that Jaya was again cast in one of these "uptight mom" roles. I wish someone would give her somemthing light, funny and Kirron Kher-esque.

dustdevil liz said...

So, I decided to rewatch the 2nd half, and doesn't Natasha's client in the big "reveal to Chutki" scene look like Bob Christo? http://img717.imageshack.us/img717/4295/sh28feb040015.jpg

Beth said...

Elizabeths unite! I was expecting to loathe this movie because for years the best I'd ever heard about it was "mixed." But I really think there's a lot going on in it, and if we take it as a mainstream masala fairy tale (with an admittedly weird setting - guess I prefer my fairy tales Paheli-like?) it works pretty well.

But like you say, some SERIOUS shenanigans. And yes re: Jaya. WHy is she always so sour and scowly? I saw her on stage at that big Bachchan family show a few years ago and she was the same, so I'm tempted to think she's just like that now. I can easily imagine how years of being married to Amitabh would do that to a person.

THAT HAS TO BE BOB. It looks EXACTLY like him!

Mette said...

I have mixed feelings about this film; I think it's decent entertainment for one night, but somehow I never re-watched it, because it didn't impress me further.
But the actors were top-notch, really, it's just that the overall feeling was... kind of disappointing.

eliza bennet said...

Abhi/Rani is my all time favorite jodi too! (I couldn't find a legit dvd of Bas Itna sa Khwaab Hai, otherwise I would have seen it - I have after all watched all of Drona, still the worst Indian film I have seen)

I was not able to get into this film despite loving Rani since it took itself seriously. It would have worked for me better if they inserted some sort of a fairy tale aspect there but they didn't and it turned me off from the film. To be honest if it was not starring Rani, Konkona and Jaya - and say, Priyanka, Deepika and Kiron
I would actually dislike it.

(Laura) said...

I watched this last weekend, and credit it with being the movie that made me decide that I genuinely like Bachchan Jr. I was on the fence before, but a lot of his supposed "best films" are still on my "to watch" list.

Beth said...

Eliza - Yay! I must find Bas Itna Sa Khwaab Hai. I'm generally not a completist without any other compelling motivations (like, the movies are actually good) but there are relatively so few Rani/Abhishek films that I might as well see them all. And Drona...yeah, that's not good. It is nowhere near the worst Indian film I've seen - maybe not even top 20 of bad films - but I couldn't possibly defend it much, either.

Re: the stars of this film: I'm not sure I would've even watched it at all had it starred different women.

Laura - Oh yay! I'm a big fan, but I have not seen much of his stuff in the last 3 years, even Raavan which looks so interesting. I've got some catching up to do.

maxqnz said...

A thought-provoking read, thank you! I am thinking that maybe I should give LCMD another go, now. going into it with a much clearer set of expectations. Also, since you ask, I have seen Bas Itna Sa Khwaab Hai, and even liked it, considering it once of Abhi's better roles. :)

Beth said...

Excellent! Presenting and engaging with ideas to enjoy thinking about is my raison d'etre here, so I'm very glad to have provided a little something here. I can respect how people would see this film and walk away just thinking YECH and SO STUPID, but that's not where I wound up. Glad to hear about Bas Itna Sa Khwaab Hai - I'm going to track it down!

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Aparna said...

I know this movie has a load of loopholes, and for me it stems mainly from the same thing that you said (or maybe i read between the lines): it never brings to the front how murky the life of a pros can be. Internally they show her sad that she has now taken a step towards a direction which prevents her from going 'home'(and that broke my heart, but more on that later), but otherwise it just seems like everyone was still respecting her. And the ending is a fairy tale...totally glossing over the implications.
But then, given that it had good actors (and maybe i am biased, because i love Rani, and Rani-Abhi together), what reasonated with me is the underlying theme of the elder of the family realizing the sheer despair of the financial situation and taking on responsibility (as I am an elder sister myself). Not unnatural, or unheard of, but definitely not something explored too much with a female as that elder, in Bollywood movies. Especially that part about 'choice'.
My gripe still is: if she could transform herself to this smart, sexy, english-speaking self to be an escort, why couldn't she have done that, at least partly, to hold on to her previous beauty parlor or movie-set-worker jobs?

Beth said...

Aparna, that's a really good point! You'd think being a superb personal assistant wouldn't be any harder than being a super high-class prostitute who has managed to escape all perils of the job. I love your point about the older sister taking charge and taking care of everyone. I'm not sure I've seen that very much either!