Thirteen years after Dhobi Ghat, Kiran Rao returns to direction with Laapataa Ladies, a comedy of errors that received a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where it had its world premiere on 8 September. The film opens with two brides who get accidentally separated from their new husbands in a hilarious series of events involving a packed compartment on a sleeper train, near-identical red and gold bridal saris, and a ghoonghat (veil) obscuring each woman from view.
In a hurry to disembark at his station in the middle of the night, one of the grooms, Deepak, unintentionally grabs the wrong bride, leaving his wife, Phool, asleep on the train. The other bride, Jaya, allows herself to be led all the way to Deepak’s village, where his entire family is awaiting their arrival, before revealing her true identity. Meanwhile, Phool wakes to find herself abandoned and alone at a railway station in an unfamiliar part of the country. Young, naive and utterly helpless, she can neither recall the name of Deepak’s village nor figure out how to reach anyone in her family. Will Phool be able to get herself out of this mess on her own? And why does Jaya not seem eager to be reunited with her husband? Amid twists, the story unfolds, helped along by an unctuous policeman (played by Ravi Kishan, one of the few recognisable faces in the cast of brilliant unknowns), who is determined to get to the bottom of this mystery of lost wives, for reasons more avaricious than noble.
The script came to Rao’s attention when it was submitted by screenwriter Biplab Goswami at the 2018 Cinestaan India’s Storytellers Contest, where Aamir Khan (one of the film’s producers) was serving as a jury member. Khan and Rao acquired the script, bringing on writer Sneha Desai to adapt it into a screenplay more comedic and absurdist in tone than the original.
“It was a question of something that came at the right time, and the right material as well,” Rao said in an interview in Toronto, explaining what drew her to this script for her long-awaited sophomore feature. “I kind of felt like this had the potential to be really entertaining and have a lot of mass appeal but go deep, and tell a story that can be quite impactful and memorable.”
In its exploration of what can transpire when two women who have never been given the chance to be independent suddenly find themselves out on their own, Laapataa Ladies is a deeply feminist film. A premise such as this could easily give rise to platitudes of female empowerment—a cliche-ridden monologue from a certain doll movie comes to mind—but the film avoids those pitfalls by choosing to show, not tell.
“We knew we wanted to address a lot of issues that were important to us and seed some ideas that we feel need to be out there,” says Rao. “Honestly, there’s lots that (we cut) on the edit table—we lost any moment that we felt was didactic or expositional and not being conveyed through a character’s arc or through plot or situation. I was very conscious that that was what I wanted to do…. Any line that we felt was just a little too much, giving you a message on the nose, was removed.”
Of Phool and Jaya’s parallel but distinct journeys, “we really wanted them to be two sides of a coin in some way”, explains Rao. The film challenges traditional ideas of women’s roles in society while also pondering whether they can have agency and a sense of self even within a conventional social framework such as marriage. A beautiful thread of female friendship and intergenerational guidance runs through the film but again, it’s handled with a light touch that never feels overtly moralising. Some of the finest moments of the film—both comedic and emotional—arise out of interactions that Phool and Jaya have with various women on their adventures.
Despite all the hijinks, the stakes are high and Rao takes care to balance levity with pathos, crafting real moments of tenderness and growth for the two women as they attempt to find their way not just to their destination but to the best version of themselves. There’s a metaphor built into the film—it begins with two brides, heads bowed under a veil, whose world is reduced to the few square feet of ground beneath them. What follows is a journey during which we root for them to cast off shrouds both literal and existential and look clear-eyed at the world around them for the very first time.
Pahull Bains is a freelance culture writer and programmer at the Reelworld Film Festival in Toronto.