February 14, 2020
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A grand melodramatic commentary where even the hiccups pass in a jiffy

Starring: Manisha Koirala, Rekha, Madhuri Dixit, Ajay Devgan, Anil Kapoor, Mahima Chaudhary, Jackie Shroff
Director: Raj Kumar Santoshi
Rating: ***

Raj Kumar Santoshi has this amazing knack of presenting ghati emotions in a convincing, dramatic, and even modish manner. He did it in Ghayal and Ghatak. And he has done it again in Lajja. Unlike Damini, Santoshi's earlier attempt at indigenous feminism, Lajja doesn't pull its punches, despite the confusion and cover-up of issues towards the close. The narrative looks more like an old IPTA play or a contemporary nukkad natak—a single woman (Manisha Koirala) is made to go through various experiences in which she encounters men and women of all shades. These range from a petty thief (Anil Kapoor) to a middle-class dowry victim (Mahima Chaudhary) to a rural midwife/social worker (Rekha) to a bandit (Ajay Devgan). They also include a womaniser nri husband (Jackie Shroff), a bindaas nautanki girl (Madhuri Dixit), a cruel rural chieftain (Danny Denzongpa) and a lecherous theatre owner (Tinnu Anand). The women characters are all oppressed in one way or the other; the men are either slimy, well-positioned MCPS or social outcasts who stand up against oppression.

Santoshi, in fact, provides a cinematic article on the position of women in Indian society. He sticks to some basic stereotypes while trying to introduce the much more liberated Indian rural woman as an unrealised prototype. Any reference to the modern woman is deftly avoided—most of the female characters are named after Sita (Vaidehi, Janaki, Maithili). Manisha also is the contemporary adarsh bahu fleeing from the murderous machinations of her fashionable husband. This movie reveals, though unwittingly, some of the lost strands of Indian cultural history—the very abstractness of Santoshi's Bollywood essay gives old-fashioned characters a seemingly contemporary charge. The rebel/bandit hero, so common to UP folk and Bombay cinema, is basically a dated image. Santoshi, however, places him at the end of the tale as the only prototype still capable of protecting women and fighting against injustice. Madhuri's character has been passed over in Hindi films and society—she is the kasba girl who drinks and lives-in with her lover. Rekha too is the quintessential but now almost lost, strong woman of UP. These characters are shown challenging prevalent mores, almost pitting 'their' modernity against the rest of them. The dialogues are written to facilitate the revival of Hindi belt drama—women characters for the first time cross Bollywood barriers to take a direct, vitriolic stand against Sita's depiction in Ramayana as well as the treatment of a bahu and her father during a wedding. The beauty lies also in the script and the treatment—it is apparent that in the hands of a lesser writer/director the movie might have turned into a B-grade social. But Santoshi weaves the loudness, the cliches and the stars at his disposal into a grand melodramatic commentary where even the hiccups pass in a jiffy.

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