October 17, 2007

‘Look Ma, No Stains’: Laaga Chunari Mein Daag

DIRECTOR PRADEEP Sarkar seems to be suffering a hangover from his earlier movie Parineeta, which was based in pre-Independence times. What else can explain his deplorably regressive ideas and sensibilities in Laaga Chunari Mein Daag? For while the film vociferously proclaims its understanding of the “quintessential modern Indian woman”, its storyline falls back on simplistic labels and trite solutions. Worse, it reinforces stereotypes that one had hoped Hindi movies left behind in the Eighties. Plot summary here. The “fallen woman” is hardly a new theme in literature or film, and certainly not in Bollywood. I won’t get into a discussion on how prostitution is viewed within feminism here but LCMD is difficult even if one goes in knowing (and therefore prepared for) the premise that prostitution is degrading.

To begin with, the entire film is fraught with strong messages on women’s sexuality and morality. The importance of “purity” is evoked repeatedly. The primary issue with prostitution is not, according to Sarkar, health, safety, legality, exploitation or violence — but that it destroys a woman’s “purity”. It is symbolic that the film starts in Banaras, next to the Ganges and moves to Mumbai (that den of vice which devours innocent girls). There are many references to “ganga maiyya” as a source of purity. And if you thought words like “pavitrata” had finally been eased out of Bollywood vocabulary, think again. It is the fulcrum of this film.

There was ample opportunity within the storyline to show other effects or implications of commercial sex work. The fact that Sarkar chooses to make purity the crux of the matter harks back to an earlier time when nothing was considered as important for a woman as her chastity. Surely, we’ve moved on since then? Apparently not.

The story starts when after a host of problems befall the family, the elder daughter Badki (Ranu Mukherjee) decides to go to Mumbai to look for work. The main motivation is that her father regrets not having a son and she wants to prove that she can “be a son”. In Mumbai, she fails to find a job and in desperation, has sex with someone who has promised her a job in return. Of course, he reneges on his promise. Defeated and disillusioned, she morphs herself into a sophisticated call girl. The gender statement here is hard to miss. Girls should be girls and not try to be boys (wandering off to big, bad cities and all that) because they will end up as prostitutes. And the only way a girl can “be a son” is by selling sex. One might argue that such things do happen in reality but by introducing the gender element, Sarkar opens this discussion — and does not address it any satisfactory way through the movie.

Badki’s transformation from a ‘normal’ woman to a call girl is depicted through a highly glamourized song sequence. While the lyrics speak of pain, numbness and silence, the picturization is more like a fun makeover. One is not quite sure whether this is a step down or a step up for Badki. Is she to be pitied or admired? Is prostitution empowering or degrading? Sarkar himself seems rather confused. In the scene before this, a chic Suchitra Pillai tells her to “play their (men’s) game but by her rules, to use men instead of letting them use her”. Through the rest of the movie, however, Badki clearly does not represent power in any form and is a figure of pathos.

The actual nitty-gritty details of Badki’s profession are glossed over. While she looks tragic from time to time, there is little indication of the nature of her tragedy. Again, the focal point is that she has “lost her purity”. Sarkar fills the screen with glam clothes, fancy cars and a to-die-for apartment. But his heroine is still a Victim, and lest you forget that, he has her pensively staring out at the city from time to time. This is where logic completely fails. If she is so unhappy with what she is doing and she has enough money now, why doesn’t she change her circumstances? She is clever enough to learn English, work on her diction, develop a fashion sense, learn sophisticated make-up tricks and even conduct herself suitably at international conferences. She knows the Hanuman Chalisa by rote (good memory), is able to charm and befriend people (high EQ), and knows what trademarks and patents are. But she does not think of completing her education, taking a course, learning something or investing. Why not? Is it possible then that she chooses this lifestyle, as is the case with many sophisticated call girls? But we can’t have the heroine doing that, can we?

Because at its core, this movie is about ‘sin’ and redemption. And Sarkar has a very definite view on what form this redemption should take. In this world view, a woman cannot climb out or up by herself. She cannot assume control over her own life — even when she has enough money. Only the love of a good man can save her.

In a cringe-worthy scene at the end, Badki confesses to her suitor Rohan (Abhishek Bachchan) and begs him to let his brother marry her sister who is “purer than the waters of the Ganga”. He (heroically) not only accepts her, but also respects her (gasp!), because while her body is impure, her soul is not. His reasoning for this is that she recited the Hanuman Chalisa during the flight on which they first met. Just imagine — if she had used swear words instead when the plane hit air pockets, her chances would have been dashed.

So the unhappy girl who set out to be a boy and made a pretty mess of it comes back to happiness via another prescribed gender role — that of a wife. Her bright and independent sister (Konkona Sen Sharma) falls in love and follows her man to Paris. What happens to her career (for which her family put her through an expensive MBA course) is not addressed. It’s obviously not important.

In the end, all LCMD amounts to is a bunch of stereotypical and sometimes offensive messages in a glitzy, emotional package. While reviewers may have panned it, I saw most people leaving the hall with happy nods. And I wondered when we will have “feel good” movies that involve a woman attaining self-realization through something other than glorious matrimony.

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20 comments to ‘Look Ma, No Stains’: Laaga Chunari Mein Daag

  • […] Ultra Violent on a recent Bollywood film that relies on stereotypes of women and notions of sexual purity. Share This […]

  • […] an alternative scathing review, read Anindita Sengupta’s piece at UltraViolet; Theoretically I agree with a lot of what she says, but then, she doesn’t take the […]

  • apu

    Anindita, great piece, though I have an alternative view. In my mind, the movie is confused on where to stand – is prostitution a sin, or is it a justifiable choice. To me, this confusion is representative of changing mores today – we are in transition but not there yet. So its still difficult to accept (for most people) that there is no such thing as purity. However the heroine does say at the end that , I made the choice to earn the money that came my way. To me, this was still a step ahead. All your other points about the superficiality are very valid ofcourse, though I don’t believe that Bollywood can work that way.

  • Indhu Subramaniam

    @ anu -I know exactly what you say when said-

    ‘And I wondered when we will have “feel good” movies that involve a woman attaining self-realization through something other than glorious matrimony’

    have to tell you though that I was pleasantly surprised while coming out of the theatre after ‘ChakDe India’ there was this young girl of around eight exclaiming to her mother- sakkathagitthu(in kannada) and immediately translating to English-awesome! that movie really broke away from those horrid formulas of women sublimating themselves for love, romance and marriage and talked about so many unspoken things- girls, sports, realising one’s dreams, a girls calling, a girls passion etc.. and the film was a success. so why don’t film makers look for real things and stop seeing women as passive one dimensional persons.

  • Damn, I’m glad I read this before going to see the film. I cringed on reading your description of the cringe-worthy ending. I thought I had had it up to here with this “purity” stuff, but it keeps getting dished out in various forms in various places.

  • I’m glad too that I read this. And I was about to go to the movie with a particularly staunch feminist lady! Thank god you spared us the trouble. We will watch Bhool Bhulaiya instead. 😀

  • […] reviews a bollywood movie. There was ample opportunity within the storyline to show other effects or implications of […]

  • amathad

    I had trouble watching Parineeta. Am certainly not going to watch this…

  • And I wondered when we will have “feel good” movies that involve a woman attaining self-realization through something other than glorious matrimony

    I know it sucks, but don’t sell us that short. :).

    1) Streer Patra [link] (Rabindranath/Purnendu)

    2) Charulata [link] (Rabindranath/Satyajit)

    3) Parama [link] (Aparna)

    4) Ghare Baire [link] (Rabindranath/Satyajit)

    5) Mando meyer upkhyan [link](Prafulla/Buddhadeb)

  • I too am glad to hear your view points and I wonder when this attitude of Indian Cinema will change. Where they will try to reason out the impact their movies can actually make perhaps on the strata of society that may still be believing in the concepts of ‘purity’ and places where extreme gender divide persists inspite of whatever economic growth our country might have had inspite of whatever places women in India may have reached…. As for the debate about prostitution its a debate that has no ending…it is interesting to note that places like Netherlands do have prostitution legalized. Perhaps a comparative analysis about situation of women there before and after prostitution being legalized can be some sort of an indicator, though may be not in its entirety considering the Indian situation.

  • I was planning to watch this one. But my 90 year old grandmother read about this movie in a Tamil magazine and asked me what “Chunari” meant. I told her that it meant “Veil”, and then she asked me – “Why are they making movies about dogs on veils?”. Tamil cant distinguish between Dog and Daag so she read the title as “Laaga Chunari mein Dog”.
    So I decided to dump that movie and watch a Tamil flick instead. But your review is tempting me to watch this one. I think Ill buy a 50 Rs pirated DVD and watch it.

  • What worries me more that the movie itself being bad is that even the critics who trash it don’t question the premise much. Just that it’s slow and boring and whatnot. This sort of review is more so in the blogosphere.

    In contrast Chandni Bar was uncomfortable but a must watch. I don’t know why we should condone it just because it is a Bollywood movie. We impose these low standards on ourselves. Bollywood is mainstream and hence much more influential so it’s critical that there be some questioning process in film making.

    It’s even more irritating that the film maker thinks that he is making a profound statement on womanhood when essentially he has done the opposite.

  • Not to mention the escapist and potentially dangerous notion that a small town girl with tolerably good looks can just show up in Bombay and reinvent herself as a sophisticated call girl with “glam clothes, fancy cars and a to-die-for apartment”. I know very little about the sex trade in Bombay, but I think it’s safe to assume that that’s incredibly unlikely, if only because the majority of prostitutes don’t work in conditions anywhere near as rosy. As pipe dreams go, this one is up there with the old chestnut about the small town boy who arrives penniless in Bollywood and ends up becoming a big star.

  • you are an idiot!
    its just a stupid movie.
    if you start tracing feminism and what not in stupid bollywood movies then you are only going to get disappointed.
    i think its you who has some issues rather than the movie.
    it was supposed to be a stupid movie after all!
    so be it!

  • Niket

    I read somewhere that this movie was based on Marathi film “Doghi.” Haven’t watched LCMD, but Doghi was a good movie.

  • So you mean you expected something else from this movie? Come on now….everyone reads reviews, looks at promos before checking out the movie itself and just because we have ONE movie with “pavitrata” type dialogues does’nt mean anything! We have lots of different cinema coming out these days…….this is just one type….not the ONLY type

  • @apu
    Thanks for your comments and the link. Yes, I can see where you’re coming from but I disagree in the sense that I believe in having higher expectation. There are movies in modern times that have dashed stereotypes and I thought LCMD was terribly retrogressive.

    I loved Chak De India for that…for all it’s patriotic melodrama, to me it was a film about women at the end of the day.

    Do watch it still…and let me know what you think :). Thanks for dropping by.

    Haven’t seen that one so can’t comment. But doubt it will have purity as a central theme :).

    I was okay with Parineeta because I went into knowing the text itself was based in an earlier time.

    Ah…nice ones. But no Bollywood?

    Thank you…there is very little discussion or awareness about the multiple views on prostitution in general society. The debate is restricted to academic circles…more’s the pity.

    By all means, do that. I’m a firm believer in the philosophy that one must watch pop culture — even when doesn’t agree with it.

    Exactly! You said it.

    Yes, good point. And a dangerous pipe dream to sell, don’t you think?

    huh? whatever.

    I’ve heard the treatment in Doghi was better.

    Of course, it means something. Even ONE movie can be offensive when that one movie is made by a ‘respected’ filmmaker, stars some of the biggest names, and claims to be about Indian womanhood. It’s hardly positioned as a B-grade potboiler. And what do my expectations have to do with it anyway? If something in our pop culture is retrogressive, it is. The merit of a thing / work of art etc is regardless of what one ‘expects’ from it.

  • Sara

    I went to see this movie without hearing about it before. At one point I thought it would explore a very interesting theme, which is the complicity of families in prostitution – the “sacrifice” of a daughter to save the family from financial ruin. But, yet again, the movie just fell into the usual stereotypes…

  • […] deconstructs Laaga Chunari Mein Daag. To begin with, the entire film is fraught with strong messages on women’s sexuality and […]

  • Shirish

    Ultimate review!!
    Very very valid points..

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