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‘Laapataa Ladies’ review: Lost and gloriously found

Kiran Rao's comedy about accidentally swapped brides is a delight from start to finish

Sparsh Shrivastava and Nitanshi Goel in 'Laapataa Ladies'
Sparsh Shrivastava and Nitanshi Goel in 'Laapataa Ladies'

There’s nothing like a good callback, the sound of a screenplay clicking into place. You can hear it several times over the course of Kiran Rao’s Laapataa Ladies. My favourite: when Deepak (Sparsh Shrivastava) is seeking the blessings of the family elders after bringing his new bride home, his aged grandfather shouts jaagte raho (stay alert) instead of jeete raho (blessings). There’s general laughter but the explanation only arrives an hour or so later: the phrase is stuck in his head after a lifetime of saying it as a watchman. And there's a capper—a late revelation sealed by a perfectly timed jaagte raho!

Deepak’s joy at his homecoming is cut short in dramatic fashion when his wife lifts her veil and turns out to be a woman named Pushpa (Pratibha Ranta) whom he’s never seen before. On the train home to the village, there was another newly married couple, both brides dressed identically in red saris and veils covering their faces. There’s a shuffling of places, a badly timed bathroom visit, and Deepak walks out with the wrong bride (she follows because her vision is comprised by the ghoonghat—the first of many comic jabs at the ‘modesty’ expected of young women). 

After talking it over with his panicked parents, Deepak heads to the police station to file a missing person report. The officer in charge, Shyam Manohar (Ravi Kishan, in a paan-chewing turn to rival Saeed Jaffrey in Chashme Buddoor), toys with them, mocking Deepak’s predicament and the unlikeliness of the swap. In another police station far away, Pushpa's thuggish husband files a report as well. Meanwhile, Phool (Nitanshi Goel), Deepak’s wife, is waiting at an unfamiliar railway station, with no money or idea how to contact him. 

As luck would have it, the nervous, fluttering bride is the one stranded, while the self-assured Pushpa barely seems fazed by the turn her life has taken. Both take steps towards emancipation. Phool finds work assisting gruff tea-seller Manju (Chhaya Kadam) on the platform. Pushpa’s plans are more elaborate—we see her eyeing the family safe and making mysterious trips to the market, watched from a distance by a fascinated, if confused, Manohar.

As the film progressed, I found myself more and more taken with the modest poetry and intricate weaving of Sneha Desai’s screenplay (from a story by Biplab Goswami, with additional dialogue by Divyanidhi Sharma). Very little is introduced that isn’t brought back with purpose. A female police officer menacingly cracks a betel nut as Manohar deadpans, “Sports quota”. Later, when he calls for her, he’s informed she’s gone to collect the daily egg and banana allotted to sports quota government servants. There are wonderful running gags. Phool can’t remember her husband’s village, but knows it’s the name of a flower; in a bid to jog her memory, her well-wishers keep rattling off floral species, leading Manju to remark, “Bhawra bana ke rakh diya hai sabko” (you’ve turned us all into bees). 

Laapata Ladies is jauntily paced—nudged along by Ram Sampath’s charming music—yet finds time to be curious about characters other than Deepak and the brides. When we’re introduced to Manohar, he’s seated across from a woman his age who’s singing for him. When she finishes, we realize it’s been to get her errant son off the hook. Over a few deft scenes, Pushpa manages to draw out Deepak’s absent elder brother’s shy wife and encourage her talent for sketching (like the subplot in Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani, only watchable). Even the acidic Manju has a happy-looking kitten in her room and a running battle with a customer who just wants a little more chutney. The outside world, circa 2001, comes into view from time to time: posters for Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai and Dhadkan, newspaper reports about ‘fake’ brides, cricket on the radio (Harbhajan bowling to Ponting).             

Rao, directing her second film after 2010’s Dhobi Ghat (she's been producer on multiple projects in the interim), draws wonderful performances from a relatively unknown cast. Shrivastava conveys Deepak’s sweet infatuation and the determination underlying his hand-wringing; you can see why Phool believes he’ll eventually find her. Goel, with her girlish tones, is perfect as the wide-eyed Phool, Ranta maybe a touch too assured for this setting, even if Pushpa is clearly made for wider horizons. Kishan's boistrous turn reminded me of Claude Rains’ Captain Renault in Casablanca, another blithe, randy, corrupt cop who’s as surprised as anyone when he finds himself taking a moral stance. 

Laapata Ladies sacrifices a bit of subtlety towards the end with a series of statements about female agency. As a marker of progress, the final image is more eloquent: the reunited couple walking hand in hand down the road, her ghoonghat no longer obscuring her face. Beyond that, I have no desire to pick holes in a film this cohesive and winsome. Not all those who wander are lost, but it’s still worth celebrating Rao making her way back to directing. 

Also read: ‘Dune: Part Two’ review: Villeneuve's grand designs




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