Credit: Aamir Khan Productions
by Dhruv Goyal Featured Film Horizon Line

Lost Ladies — Kiran Rao

March 1, 2024

The “social issue” film in contemporary Bollywood has as many forms of expression as it has sub-categories of issues. Take, for instance, the “women-centric” film. At one end of the spectrum, you have last year’s boisterously loud Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani that, unashamedly, traded all its supply of nuance for the (justified) price of melodrama. This allowed it to inventively repurpose old Bollywood songs for the Internet age to demonstrate — by showing, singing, and yelling — that, with time, Bollywood’s portrayal of gender roles has drastically changed. Conversely, the other end of the spectrum features a film like Leena Yadav’s Parched, most readily digestible for a festival audience (it premiered at TIFF in 2015). It avoids all the excess of something like RRKPK: it wants to show and, occasionally, very softly, tell the audience to root for its three women protagonists to escape the hellhole that is rural India’s patriarchy.

Kiran Rao’s Lost Ladies, which also premiered at TIFF (in 2023), belongs to neither of these extremes. Instead, it takes the “middle” cinema path that shares a love-hate relationship with Bollywood’s extravagance. On the one hand, it embraces some of its dramatic contrivances and over-expressivity. But, on the other hand, it wants to avoid playing its crowd-pleasing beats at an artificially high emotional pitch. This mellowing down of melodrama has worked before: director Anubhav Sinha turned over-expressivity into fierce didacticism in Thappad (2020), his takedown of sexist microaggressions that dominate all kinds of relationships in India; Nagesh Kuknoor’s Dor (2006) flattened the extreme contrasts between a progressive Pakistani and a conservative Indian woman to have them bond over their shared struggles of womanhood. But this type of cinema has increasingly succumbed to feeling a bit like mellow drama: unable to elicit the affective response that good melodrama thrives on despite relying on the genre’s dramatic contrivances.

Lost Ladies, to be sure, is not a mellow drama. It is, however, a mellowed-down drama that, save for one unexpected moment of emotional catharsis, only makes you snicker or shake your head in approval rather than make you laugh or cry out loud. Which is disappointing, because the central conceit is so fantastically outlandish that it’s tailor-made for both broad satire and rousing melodrama: set in rural India in 2001, the story centers on two young brides, Phool (Nitanshi Goel) and Jaya (Pratibha Ranta), who get swapped on a train as Phool’s husband, Deepak (Sparsh Srivastava), mistakenly takes the latter with him to his house when they reach his village’s local station. In his defense, both brides are wearing similar, red-colored sarees, have their faces covered with similarly colored red veils, and are given free advice from their mothers, fathers, aunties, and uncles to “not look forward but down after marriage.” But, it goes without saying, he should still be able to recognize his bride! And Jaya has to realize that that’s not her husband! The film doesn’t immediately give a reason for Jaya’s silence, but it incisively posits Deepak’s inability to differentiate between his wife and another bride as representative of Indian societies’ casual disregard for a woman’s individuality.

Rao and screenwriter Sneha Desai structure the film’s parallel narratives around this theme. Phool (which translates to “flower”) is the naïve one, blissfully unaware of everything outside of her trained role as a subservient, dutiful wife; Jaya (which translates to “carrying an aura of strength and victory”) is the cunning one, almost too aware of every move she makes around Deepak’s family. The former, stranded on a train station with a group of hardworking, self-sufficient characters, must, then, learn the art of individuality made invisible to her by her parents; the latter must teach Deepak’s sister-in-law, mother, and grandmother, all of whom seem to have accepted their subservience, the value of valuing yourself.

The film preaches this to us successfully, linking its root cause to India’s dowry system that commodifies the woman by providing a valuation for her, like a salesperson offers a valuation for the material goods they plan to sell. But this observation never strikes us as emotionally devastating or uncomfortably funny in the way the prickliest of satires manage to do. The reasons for this are twofold. First, its decision to use the wife-swapping conceit not just to make a female empowerment statement but also to show the side effects third parties like vote-obsessed politicians and money-hungry police officers have on these issues pushes the film away from deeply exploring either of the parallel stories’ inter-personal dynamics. Which is fine: Rao has positioned Lost Ladies as her crowd-pleasing commercial film. (Her first film, Dhobi Ghat, released 13 years ago, set her up as an out-and-out arthouse film director). But the “politicians and policemen are opportunistic and greedy” schtick has run dry now: it used to be incisive when Kiran Rao first produced Peepli Live in 2011, a black comedy about farmer suicides and the media circus they incite.

Then, the question arises: does the film really need to have a sharp edge? Can’t it be simply lighthearted? This is where the second, more egregious problem lies: Rao’s direction in most comedic scenes seems to undercut the written material. She borrows one of the weakest elements of commercial comedies — the stupidly insistent and generic comedy background score — and applies it to nearly all the film’s sequences, ones that might have benefitted greatly from the degree of restraint one expects from the director. The dramatic scenes, too, feel devoid of the emotional punch that sudden transitions from comedy to serious drama should have. This isn’t because of an overuse of the background score — it’s potentially because of its underuse. There’s a sequence, for instance, in which all four women in Deepak’s household sit and bond together, jokingly talking about the sacrifices they have made for their families. When one of them pauses to say that “she doesn’t remember what she used to like” because she’s spent her whole life remembering her husband and son’s favorite things, it should devastate (and it did in Sinha’s Thappad). But the casualness with which Lost Ladies moves beyond it, without employing any aesthetic technique to punctuate its seriousness, is indicative not so much of the way these women have internalized their pain (they voice it very clearly here), but of the film’s preference to underplay its emotional beats.

The only time this combination of mellow and melodrama works comes toward the film’s end, when a seemingly pantomime villain suddenly — through the magic of Bollywood contrivance! — wins our hearts. Rao exercises great restraint here, letting the actor and writing do most of the heavy lifting in order to provide the film’s cleverest inversion of power structures: a thorough inspection of the way the dowry system and domestic violence, otherwise used to incriminate and monitor the woman’s individuality, can become her source of freedom. It’s unexpectedly cathartic in the best way possible, and it reflects the most convincing reason to watch an otherwise pleasant but forgettable film.

DIRECTOR: Kiran Rao;  CAST: Nitanshi Goel, Pratibha Ranta, Sparsh Shrivastava, Ravi Kishan;  DISTRIBUTOR: Jio Studios;  IN THEATERS: March 1;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 2 min.