Laaga Chunari Main Daag Review: A Happy Movie About a Sad Topic

Pretty sure the title isn’t a spoiler, the trailer and poster alone, not to mention the title, made it pretty clear what the film is about.

What an odd movie! If you try to describe it to someone it would seem impossible. The content and the tone are at total odds. And yet, it almost works. It doesn’t really, but it comes so close to working. At least the songs are really wonderful. And so are the performances, when they can find their way to sense trapped in this plot.

It’s Konkona and Jaya who stand out the most to me in the cast, not our heroine Rani, but that is probably because they have less tonal problems than her. Konkona is strong and happy, Jaya is beaten down and miserable, Rani goes weirdly between those two extremes. But on the other hand, isn’t it nice to have that triangle at the center of a film be made up of three women?

Ultimately, this film is the same as any of the great generational triangle films of the past, Deewar and Trishul and even Johnny Mere Naam. There is the older generation whose sins and failures have cursed the younger, and then there are the two members of the younger generation who have to choose how to deal with their curse, stay “good” or turn “bad”. Only the difference is, instead of two sons it is two daughters struggling to take care of the family. And also, instead of being filmed with all the drama and weight of a classic generational triangle, it is filmed like a silly rom-com. It’s very odd.

The director/writer Pradeep Sarkar didn’t have to film it this way. He made Parineeta before this, and Mardaani after. He could have gone more classical tragic and he could have gone more gritty and dark too. But for some reason, he and YRF decided to make this movie with all the classic colors and songs and silliness of a 2000s rom-com. Not just the look of it, the performances too! Rani, instead of playing her character like a true leading role with all the complications involved, plays it like a sweet simple Yash Raj heroine. There is surprisingly little subtlety and humanity in her performance, it’s all big gestures and emotions. Obviously Rani is capable of more than that, but the way her character is written and this film directed, only the superficial smiles and sobs are required for the role.

Everyone’s performance suffers a little from that superficial requirement. Jaya’s misery is so extreme that after a certain point I got the giggles whenever she appeared on screen. Anupam’s character, who should be cast as a villain or at least tragically flawed, somehow comes off as more comic relief. And Abhishek’s role is just ridiculously unbelievably boringly heroic.

But then on the other hand, this cast is crazy charismatic! Doesn’t matter if the characters are flat, I will watch Abhishek and Rani flirt together for hours, Jaya make faces, and Anupam chuckle. Add on the great costumes, sets, and songs, and this is an entertaining film no matter what the lacks of the script.

And then, there is that story. That very very unusual story. Maybe that is why it is surrounded by such simple characters, pretty scenery, and great chemistry? To kind of soften and hide the message of the film? Because boy is this an interesting message! To make this film, with this ending, is saying something really really radical.

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You ready for a tragic story? The daughter of a hard working depressed woman and a frivolous selfish man is pressured to make money for the family despite having no education or experience. She goes to the city and, inevitably, is drawn into prostitution as it is the only way to send money home to her family. And then to add on to the misery, she falls in love with a decent man but has to disappear from him in order to protect him. Her only joy is her younger sister who is getting all the opportunities she missed. But then she meets the family of the nice man her sister is going to marry and her lost love is the groom’s brother! There is no hope, there is no happiness here. Her sin will destroy her sister’s life after all, her hidden fantasy of love will die to once her lover learns the truth. Her family wil be shamed and thrown from their house, everything she sacrificed for will go away. Judgement! Judgement on her for her sin! She must be punished!

Evil woman! Punish her! She is consciously preparing for prostitution, no pimp is forcing her, not even a Madam.

Or….maybe not? Rani meets Abhishek while at a conference as the “date” of another rich man and they fall in love. She walks away to protect him and then watches her younger sister Konkona find good decent love with a good decent boy Kunal Kapoor. Konkona had the money to finish school and get a good job, and she met this boy as an equal and they fell in love as equals, everything Rani should have had and lost. And then at the wedding, as the family is already stressed with hiding the source of their wealth and all the mysteries, Abhishek shows up as the Kunal’s brother and recognizes Rani. And proposes to her. She is left with the impossible choice of telling him “no” without giving a reason and damaging her sister’s relations with her in-laws, or telling him “yes” and risking the discovery of her past like a time bomb in their life, or worst of all, telling him the truth and letting him decide what he wants. And in this moment of high tragedy, a miracle! Abhishek reveals that he knew all along! He understood perfectly why she was at that conference and he still loves her and wants to be with her. Rani can be married honorably without lies, Konkona can be married honorably as well, and thanks to their new powerful in-laws, no one in society will dare say a word against them.

This is a ridiculous ending. Which matches a movie that has had moments of ridiculousness all along. Rani’s whole fall and rise sequence is a mixture of logical small steps (can’t find a job in the city, family is desperate for money, given an offer of a good job if she sleeps with the boss), and illogical leaps (somehow a random friend of a friend knows what to do to set her up as a call girl, and somehow she becomes a super successful and wealthy call girl over the course of one montage). The ending was kind of going in a logical small step direction as well, at least until Abhishek became part of it.

How is this their first meeting after she disappeared and he knew she was a prostitute? So cheerful and joking at a wedding?

For example, Konkona lives with Rani for months thinking she is in “event management”. She and Rani talk about sex workers after seeing them on the street and Rani gives her a sensitive talking to about not making fun of those women are making assumptions about their lives. Rani freaks out when Konkona starts dating Kunal and talks to her about how men use women. By the time Konkona learns that Rani is a sex worker, she already has all the pieces to fill in the desperation, that lead her to it, the price she has paid, and on and on. And so it makes total sense to me that Konkona would love her sister all the more once she understands her sacrifice. That “happy ending” is earned. And when Jaya finally breaks down and admits her years of struggle to take care of the family, and the guilt she has carried over knowing what Rani did only to be comforted by her husband who, finally, accepts his responsibility for leaving her alone with her worries and not concerning himself with his daughters’ future, that also feels earned. We have seen Jaya for years silently miserable, and Anupam sells the moment of overhearing the truth and understanding his guilt. That is also earned. But by the time Abhishek is cheerfully accepting Rani as his wife without any questions, that’s when it loses me.

I can come up with an explanation. Abhishek first met Rani on a plane where she was adorably scared and reciting prayers. And only later does he see her at her “job”. Okay, he is a decent man who has made a connection with this woman, he will look past her job and spend a little time with her because her life seems so empty. After spending time with her, he finds himself falling in love. She disappears and he struggles with himself for months, finally coming to a clarity that he does not care about her life, he knows the real person and loves her. And when he miraculously finds her again, he proposes with a clear mind. But the way the movie plays it, it is just SO SUDDEN! And then is followed by Anupam and Abhishek and Kunal cheerfully throwing out the greedy relatives like this is some kind of Rajshri family picture.

Ridiculous though it is, I totally buy Abhishek falling for Rani’s adorable excitement about discovering Switzerland even if he knows she is a prostitute. But the ending is still RIDICULOUS!

Ultimately I really like the overall idea of the film. We see Rani’s whole journey and how prostitution really was her best option. And that wasn’t fair, her parents should have been able to support and protect her, society should have given her a better chance at life. And certainly her clients should not have seen her as just a disposable body instead of a desperate person. There is even the really interesting character of the neighbor friend, a nice enough guy from the city who isn’t in love with Rani, or even knows her that well, but is worried about what is happening to her. He is the audience stand in, we are worried as well. And yet, like him, we can’t really judge her decisions. She needs money for her family and there are no other jobs for her. Why not accept the only option left and make the best of it?

But the film doesn’t leave it at “oh dear our tragic prostitute heroine”. She is still a person and a sweet young woman. She loves her little sister and falls in love with Abhishek because he is nice. She laughs and fights with her parents and enjoys dancing at weddings like anyone else. The happy ending is the biggest part of that, this movie refuses to treat Rani like a tragic heroine. She is a heroine like any other and she deserves her happy ending.

That’s the point of the lovely Hema Malini cameo. Hema appears as an old-fashioned Tawaif, one of the ones who were revered and respected by their patrons. She meets Rani back when Rani is still young and innocent in the village and mentions the beautiful innocence of her eyes and that she hopes life never takes that away. And then she meets her again years later, post life as a prostitute. And she tells her she is happy to see the innocence is still in her eyes. It doesn’t matter what Rani does with her body, there is an internal soul inside of her that is still unharmed.

This also ties in with a bigger nod to the audience that this would be a story of prostitution in the Tawaif tradition. Tragic poetic innocent young girl who is damaged by the psychological effects of sex work even if she lives in luxury. Very different from the modern version of that dark rooms and rape and stuff. Both honest parts of the story, but the Tawaif version is one we don’t see much any more. How hard sex work is even in the best of circumstances, how ultimately dehumanizing.

5 thoughts on “Laaga Chunari Main Daag Review: A Happy Movie About a Sad Topic

  1. Yes…this movie was sooo weird!! It’s a tragic story but we don’t see or feel the tragedy…I could never sympathize with Rani…like even after they were comfortable and out of immediate money need…she never tried doing something else? I get that prostitution is a trap – like Tabu in Chandni Bar kept getting sucked back in the vortex despite trying to leave…but we just don’t see that here…Why does Rani need to prostitute herself for remodeling the giant house with chandeliers and marble flooring?!? It makes no sense!

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    • Yes, thank you! I was thinking about it and they could have made it far more reasonable by just making the sets the less YRF-y. Like, if she was living in an apartment more like the one she shared with a roommate in the beginning, then we could believe she was making just enough for expenses and had no option but to continue. Or if the money sent home was for, like, a maid to help with the heavy labor and fixing the power generator. As it is, you couldn’t help thinking “what if you just lived in a smaller apartment and invested the extra money in the stock market? Couldn’t you retire by now?”

      I think I can see what they were going for, they wanted to make the film happier and give her a happy ending, if we had two hours of her father in and out of the hospital and her mother selling jewelry to make ends meet it would be really draining. And they definitely wanted the message of her family not just surviving but getting luxuries thanks to her misery. But there has to be a middle way! What about a luxury like a satellite television instead of marble floors?

      It doesn’t even really fit with the character, the Abhishek romance and time with her sister were designed to show that she is still a simple sweet untouched village girl in her “real” life unlike the facade she puts on in public. But in that case, why the heck does she have this fabulous modern flat and clothes and stuff that really fit better with her prostitute person than the village girl person?

      On Thu, Aug 22, 2019 at 9:18 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

      >

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      • Aina (1977) with Mumtaz had the exact same story but did a far better job of showing the complexities…her family becomes comfortable thanks to her but she has to keep working because their needs are reasonable (education bills etc.)…even her love track with Rajesh Khanna makes so much more sense…their happy ending is justified…he understands and respects what she is doing for her family…he doesn’t marry just coz “she is prostitute who knows her prayers #sanskari escort”

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  2. Your description makes me think of Pretty Woman, a film a lot of people love but one that left me baffled over the treatment of the prostitution angle.

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    • This film is interesting because it avoids a lot of the Pretty Woman pitfalls. We get actual consideration of her background and how she became a prostitute and why, and the romance is more of a footnote than a plot point (she isn’t “saved” by a man, she saves herself through her work and then by earning the respect of her family). But at the same time, it is still a surprisingly light movie about a dark topic.

      Anyway, the real Pretty Woman remake is Chori Chori Chupke Chupke which twists the Pretty Woman plot so much it becomes almost unrecognizable.

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