This movie is just barely a classic. It’s not the best, it’s got quite a few massive flaws in fact, but it’s still really interesting and worthy of discussion. And the best part is how well it shows women rescuing themselves, very appropriate for today’s discussion.
Rajkumar Santoshi is a fascinating director/writer. He mixes together crazy kooky comedies with searing social films. Maybe you need that balance? In order not to go crazy? If you can see the flaws of society this clearly, maybe you have to also be able to laugh at them. You have to be able to make both Andaz Apna Apna and The Legend of Bhagat Singh.
This film isn’t the best mix of the two sensibilities. There are moments of light observational humor, like Anil Kapoor pointing out the father of the bride as the man with perpetually bowed shoulders, with moments of extreme darkness. And the ending is a strange forced happy ending which feels disrespectful to the rest of the film.
But it’s also unique in that it has not one, not two, but a total of FOUR strong female characters, each in different situations of oppression by male society, and each of whom rescue themselves rather than waiting for a man to come along and save them. Or at least, are rescued by other women, not men. As Rekha’s character points out late in the film, it is always women that stand by and take care of society while men go off and abandon their responsibilities. That is what we see in the characters and their stories here, women taking care of themselves.
(I love how huge the women are on the poster and how teeny tiny the men are)
But at the same time, men are not always the oppressors. To balance our four female leads, we have three male leads. Jackie Shroff is torn between good and evil, Anil Kapoor is unconventional but generally good, Ajay Devgan is truly good, truly “woke” to put it in irritating millenial speak. The rest of the film is peopled with a whole variety of men, power mad and aggressive Danny Denzongpa, soft and sweet Sharman Joshi, lustful Tinu Anand, and weak Aman Verma.
The overall message is not that men are innately bad. But rather, the system in which they live tends to make them bad, just as it tends to make women strong. Every female character in this movie has a hidden strength within her that allows her to overcome terrible torments. To help others at the risk of their own life, to see the need for justice, to make the brave choice. But not every man does, it is easy for them to look the other way, to enjoy the pleasures of their station without concern for how it affects other people.
That’s what feels unique to me about this film, by having our heroine Manisha Koirala travel through a whole variety of Indian society, we are able to see a whole variety of ways in which Indian society creates and recreates a damaging patriarchy. And we are also able to see a whole variety of ways in which a woman can stand up and make a difference within that patriarchy.
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We start in America. Manisha has been married off, out of India, to a wealthy NRI Jackie Shroff. It is not a good match. He expects her to understand and accept his sexual experimentation, taking her to clubs and openly flirting with and romancing his friend’s wife in front of her. And when she objects, he becomes abusive. And so Manisha decides to leave him. And Jackie doesn’t really care, telling her to go back to her family.
One thing I wish this film got into a little more is that what we are seeing is the result of a forced marriage that wasn’t fair to either of them. Jackie clearly never cared for Manisha and wanted a different kind of wife. They were set up for failure. Not that it is Manisha’s fault, but it is the fault of a whole system which marries of inexperienced young Indian girls to experienced older wealthy men, leading both of them to dissatisfaction.
But instead of that, instead of looking at how the end of this marriage might be a blessing for all concerned, the film takes a surprise twist. Manisha is pregnant, Jackie is in an accident which ends his ability to have more children, their lousy horrible should-have-his-license-revoked family doctor tells all of this to Jackie. And so Jackie is now determined to get Manisha back, at least until she has their child, and then keep the child and banish her again.
Fair enough, Santoshi wanted to get us to a place where a woman/wife is valued only for the child she can carry and not for herself. But the whole elaborate journey to get there, the car accident and the loose lipped doctor and all that, is a bit ridiculous. I would have preferred they kept it simple and just had Manisha be pregnant and Jackie find out by accident. Although I guess then we wouldn’t have been able to understand his insane obsession with getting Manisha back, instead of simply finding a different woman and having a child with her.
The set-up may be clunky, but Manisha’s journey through India progresses smoothly. She starts at her parents’ home, a completely reasonable decision. And then she gets a call from Terrible Doctor warning her that Jackie is coming to take her home, but really only wants the baby, and leaves her parents’ home, aware that her parents are so brainwashed that they will send her home with her husband no matter what she says. So far, this also all makes sense, not unheard of in any culture for an abused wife to turn to her family for support and be turned away for the sake of the marriage and what people will think.
Manisha wanders into a wedding in order to hide and get free food and all the other good wedding things, and there meets a thief, Anil Kapoor, who is also using the wedding to hide and recognizes her as a fellow gate crasher. Anil is the first of our “good” male characters. And, like the rest of them, he does not believe in society’s rules. He tricks and steals and sneaks into weddings. He sees through to the real value of things, that Manisha is scared and in trouble and he should help her. And that the wedding itself is all a charade, a pretense of a joyous occasion when in fact it is just another kind of thievery, this time by the boy’s family towards the girls.
Best of all, Anil understands that his own judgments should not be placed on others, that would be yet another kind of rule. And so when the bride, Mahima Chowdhury, looks like she will lose out on what is for her a “happy ending”, marriage to her college boyfriend, Anil supports her wishes by giving the suitcase of money he had stolen to her father in order to increase the dowry and meet the demands of the boy’s family.
In a different kind of movie, that would be the end of this little story. Anil proves himself to be “good” to women, by helping them to remain within patriarchal structures in a slightly better position. In Tere Naam, for instance, I had a harder time with the “good” thing Salman did, beating Bhoomika’s brother-in-law until he agreed to take Bhoomika’s sister back and stop abusing her, than with the “bad” thing he did (kidnapping Bhoomika). Bhoomika was allowed to make her own decision, to break free of the social rules that bound her. While all Salman did for her sister was tie her ever more firmly within those rules. It is not “good” to save her and her family from the shame of a divorce and send her back to a half life as an abused wife. I understand why the characters did not question it, but I wish the film itself in that case had questioned the decision a little more.
In this case, Mahima’s decision is questioned. By the film, and ultimately by herself. She wanted to marry this lousy guy, so Anil bowed to her wishes and did what he could to make it happen. But later we see the result of his actions, and how wrong they were. One demand would merely lead to another, and Mahima herself and her desires would never have value. Not unless she took a stand, now, and changed the course of her own life. Which she did, standing in the middle of the wedding ceremony and declaring that she did not want to marry this son of a dog after all, she did not want to see her father humiliated, she did not want her family impoverished.
And of course, her family is not grateful for this. Still so tied within the patterns of patriarchy that her standing up for her father’s honor is seen as humiliating his honor instead, because she should never speak up at all, even for his sake. Mahima saves herself from a terrible marriage, saves her family from enormous expense, and the wedding is still seen as a “disaster” because she did not act in the way a woman should. And this is in an upperclass educated household, where all obvious signs of modernity and openmindedness are meaningless under the weight of the age old disrespect for women as autonomous beings.
In the end we see that Mahima got her happy ending. She and Anil (who was the only one to even make a move to support her after her wedding) are married in America, he is working as a taxi driver. She had to give up her country, her station in life, everything, but she was able to find her freedom. And not all men are bad, and not all weddings are bad, but you may need to break out of all the strictures of society to find the good ones.
There is a running theme through this film of Sita. All the heroines’ are named for her under one of her many names. And all of their stories in some way re-enact Sita’s struggles. But, in a larger sense, all of women’s stories re-enact Sita’s troubles. Being forced to prove your own virtue, doubted by all. Being exiled from your home on a whim. Having the paternity of the children you carry doubted. Having your children valued over yourself.
With Mahima, we start at the end. The final trial by fire in which Sita came into her full power and rejected the status and weakness of Ram’s world, choosing instead to return to the earth. Well, according to some versions. Which is what Mahima does her, throws off her veil symbolizing all her social roles and instead comes into her full power and saves herself. But the film does not shrink away from the cost of such an action, the turning away of her family and the rest of society form what she has done. Although it also makes a point to show the prize, the happy ending and happy life with Anil after this one painful moment.
And then Manisha is on the road again. This time, traveling to Anil’s village where he has arranged for her to find shelter with a theater troupe. And there she meets Madhuri, the sexy confident in control lead actress of the troupe. Or seemingly in control. She laughs at the clumsy attempts of Tinu Anand (the owner of the troupe) to seduce her and happily declares her love for her boyfriend, and their future plans to marry. She gives some of her spirit to Manisha, encouraging her to embrace her femininity, and also to not be afraid of her own strength.
But Madhuri has forgotten that, ultimately, all women in this society are still in danger. By the patriarchal structures and the risks of their own biology. Madhuri is pregnant outside of marriage, which makes her vulnerable. Her body is not seen as her own in a multitude of ways. First by her boyfriend Aman Verma who, convinced by Tinu, wants her to have an abortion so their first child can be born without “shame”. Madhuri can’t do it, doesn’t want to, does not see shame. And this leads to the most direct reference to the Ramayana, the performance of the Ramleela in which Madhuri, playing Sita, refuses to step into the divine fire and instead argues that Ram should step with her, they are both equally in need to proving their virtue.
The film shows over and over again that women have the inner strength, knowledge, courage to save themselves. But it does not skirt around the difficulties of that. Mahima loses her family and her status by speaking up for herself. Madhuri loses even more, all that fearlessness that made her feel in control was in fact a vulnerability. It left her open to losing everything, including her pregnancy, when the crowd storms the stage and beats her until she miscarries. Of course, she ultimately gets her happy ending too, we learn at the end that she has come to America with Manisha and is now a performer there, still strong and independent. But notice there was no happy ending possible for her (or really any of these women) within India, and no happy ending with a man.
And then we get our final darkest story. Manisha has managed to escape Madhuri’s village and is on a train when it is attacked. She is now being threatened with direct violence from men, not social or structural violence, but a man ready to kill and/or rape her just because she is there and available. And she is saved by a man who is entirely outside of society. Ajay Devgan, possibly the sexiest he has ever been, striding along the top of the train before dropping down just in time to save her. She is now in the wilds of India’s rural areas. Dacoits roam the land, attacking women, and the only one who can save her is another dacoit, Ajay.
(This isn’t that scene, but it is a pretty good scene)
Well, not just Ajay. That would be unfaithful to the spirit of the film. No, Ajay takes her to the true hero of the village, the old midwife Rekha. She lives with her mother-in-law, abandoned by her husband who went off to find enlightenment, too blind to see the enlightenment that was already in front of him, the village and people who needed him. And so Rekha helps women through childbirth and saves the female infants when she can. I saw a review which pointed to her speeches in favor of saving the girl child as propaganda, a blatant attempt to get a tax free status. But I don’t see it that way. This is, ultimately, the basic sin against women in India. To make it so that they do not exist, to kill them moments after their birth, or not allow them to be born at all, to abort the fetus merely because of its gender. You can’t understand everything that comes after, the father who seemingly loved his daughter but could not imagine expressing that love in any way besides sending her off to live with another family, the pregnancy that was ended because it was inconvenient, women’s bodies have been disposed of and thrown away over and over again. And now we are seeing the ultimate example of that, a newborn baby literally being thrown away as useless.
(Everyone is in this video! Nagarjuna AND John Abraham? Amazing!)
I do think the parts after that get a bit lost. The goal is to explore what happens when patriarchy runs rampant, a powerful landowner controlling an entire village. But the execution is messy. Rekha’s son Sharman Johsi (EVERYONE IS IN THIS MOVIE!!!) returns home, having fallen in love with the landlord’s daughter while at school. She is in love with him but of course only seen as a possession by her father, not capable of making her own decisions. Everything goes wrong, Rekha is kidnapped, gang raped, and killed, Manisha and the young couple go on the run with Ajay’s help, Jackie has arrived and is looking for her too, and so on and so on.
I like Rekha’s gangrape. Well, I don’t “like” it, but I like it as showing how rape and all of this violence against women is ultimately about power. Rekha, elderly and respected in the village Rekha, is the biggest threat to Danny’s evil landowner. And so she is defeated through the age old weapon used against any strong woman, rape. It’s not about sex, it’s not about lust, it’s not about anything like that, it is purely about power.
And I like the image of Danny finally being defeated, when he is brought on stage and the women of the audience come forward to beat him to death with their shoes, an ignominious defeat and a defeat that reminds us of women as the original justice givers, the mother taking off her show to lightly beat her son when he does wrong. I even, sort of almost, am okay with Manisha’s ending of returning to Jackie (I’ll get into that more in a second). I just don’t like how all these moments feel kind of confused and thrown together, like Santoshi realized he was running out of time and couldn’t pick which finale he wanted for the film.
The ending he should have stuck with was Sita, the thread that connected it all along. Manisha is the ultimate Sita character, thrown out by her husband, pregnant, forced to wander in the wilderness. But Santoshi twists the ending. He asks “what if Ram admitted he was wrong? What if Ram changed his mind and searched for her and brought her back home?” It’s the ending that Madhuri was pointing towards in her diatribe, man and woman as equals, stepping into the fire together.
While Manisha has been traveling and finding her inner strength and coming to a great understanding of women’s place in the world, Jackie has been on his own journey, searching for her. He has seen glimpses of the same trials Manisha observed as a close witness. And in the end, when Danny’s full villainy is revealed, he has a change of heart and realizes that he should be a better man, not head down the path towards Danny, but be something else. And so he and Manisha are reunited, meeting in the middle.
That’s what the film should have shown. But there were several miss steps on the way. First, Jackie was just too eeeeeeeeeeevil at the beginning! He was abusive and dismissive as a husband, and his original plan was to have Manisha killed after the baby was born. There’s just no coming back from that.
Especially not with the slapdash way Jackie’s personal journey was shown. There was essentially no movement between him being a horrible person, and him being apologetic and wracked with guilt. And that’s a REALLY REALLY IMPORTANT personal journey to show. We don’t need more perfect Ajay Devgan and Anil Kapoor types, we need to see how you go from being a lousy Jackie to a good Jackie. There are way more lousy Jackie’s with a possibility of growth in the world than there are perfect brave sexy Ajay Devgan’s, or even perfectly horrible evil Danny Denzongpa’s. We need to see that journey!
But then, Jackie’s journey is what we get in most “feminist” films from Dangal to Pink. That’s what makes Lajja so unique, even now 17 years later, to see a film about women in India that features a lot of women in India! Strong powerful individual actresses playing strong powerful individual characters each with their own journeys that they are on for themselves.
(Let’s just remember again, Manisha and Madhuri dancing together, for each other, no men around)