Laga Chunari Mein Daag or “My dress got stained” is not about Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton and that white stained dress which almost brought down the American presidency. No indeed it is not. So what is it then? Well I would characterize Pradeep Sarkar’s latest offering as nothing but the cinematic equivalent of taking that brown-with-age banana that has been sitting on the top of the fridge for ages, cutting it up, putting some fancy ice cream on top and serving it to your mother-in-law while saying with a glittering smile “Look ma, this is a special dish I made just for you.”
There used to be a popular,or should I say done-to-death formula in Bengali movies and also “jatras” (rural open-air theatre) through the 50s to the 90s which would, with minor variations, go something like this. Ailing retired honest father. Evil uncles out to get every last penny. A crumbling palatial house in the village. An always-crying mother doing some kind of repetitive menial work to make ends meet. And supporting the whole family like a weepy Hercules would be a god-like “elder brother” (best played by that high tension wire of emotions Sukhen Das [picture to left]) who, in the course of the movie, would sacrifice everything to get his younger brother educated or younger sister married (this sacrifice usually entailed making money by pushing brick-laden carts while running a 104 degree fever or some other similar act of heart and body-breaking endurance). Ultimately, due to misunderstandings causes by evil uncle/tartar wife of younger brother/some other agency, he would get denounced by all those whom he had helped by his blood and toil till one day he makes the ultimate sacrifice (usually donation of certain vital organ or death through untreated malady) at which the whole family ultimately realizes his value and amends are made at the deathbed, but not before gallons of tears have flown through the flood-drains.
In “Laga Chunari Mein Daag” we have a similar serially heart-attacking, wallowing in self-pity father played by Anupam Kher (where is Alok Nath when you need him?) while greedy brother’s family tries to dispossess him of his crumbling ancestral house. True to formula, there is the poor mother (Jaya Bachchan) who specializes in sewing petticoats and most of all, in being highly melodramatic. There is the younger bright sister played by Konkona Sen Sharma all “chulbuli and “bulbuli” and towering above them all, is the all-sacrificing Rani Mukherjee playing a female version of the Sukhen Das character. Telling her father “beta chahte the na aap to beta banoongi” (You wanted a son so I will become a son) she comes to the big bad city and no she does not have a sex change operation and become Bobby Darling. Very soon,(actually after just one week of struggle), she realizes that the only way a girl can survive in Mumbai is to sell her…emm…. purity, something poor Sukhen Das could never peddle no matter how much he tried, having to pawn instead a kidney, a liver and a testicle to just get by.
The rest of the story of “Laga Chunari Mein Daag” may be slightly different from the Sukhen Das formula as detailed above but it never ever comes close to a point where you would say “I did not see that coming”. Instead it choses to follow a predictably overwrought path of elevated emotion and beatific saintliness. Hoary (not whorey) cliches abound—- the innocence of the village girl (Banaras being a village is a slight stretch) who, even after becoming a city-dweller, still recites the Hanuman Chalisa with great zeal, the evil of the big city where people are heartless (and horny), the golden-hearted working woman whose body may have become a receptacle of the sins of the moneyed classes but whose mind is still ethereal .
Of course, in keeping with the tastes of the multiplexes, the cliches are wrapped in a Gen Next wrapper: the “Aaao babuji Banaras ki teekhi paan pesh karti hoon aap ke liye” proposal of the kothewali madam as she hands over the reluctant belle to the client with a garland wrapped round his hand being replaced by a more contemporary aesthetic of Harsh Chaya, a call center boss, saying to the innocent heroine: “I am a lonely man and why don’t you stay the night with me?”
Of course a normal director would have left it here. But Pradeep Sarkar, being a top-class proponent of the celluloid art makes things more symbolic: as the lusty Harsh Chayya makes the sexual proposition he is shown playing with a Newton’s cradle (picture above) where the balls oscillating in simple harmonic fashion is not without deeper significance in the context of the scene. Similarly pregnant in meaning is when Harsh Chayya and Rani Mukherjee’s act of coupling is intercut with scenes of Jaya Bachchan sewing hard. Mention must also be made of the sequence in which Harsh Chaya, topless and in full cry, is seen looming in front of the camera saying “You are so beautiful”. As his lips descend to kiss the lens, even the most heartless of us are forced to turn our eyes away from the screen, stung by the anguish of the poor dear caught in the headlights of Harsh Chaya’s exposed nipples.
However my favorite moment of “Laga Chunari Mein Daag” is when in a passage of searing melodrama, Konkona Sen Sharma tells her mother “Jee bharke ro” (Cry to your heart’s content).
It was then, that as a member of the audience I totally connected with the movie, coming this close to shouting out in Anupam Kherian anguish “Yes yes crying to my heart’s content is exactly what I have been doing ever since the goddamned movie started”