Dir. Rajkumar Santoshi
It sucks to be a woman.
That alone is not the message of Lajja ("shame"), a sweeping investigation of various forms of subjugation of women across class and caste, but it might be the predominant thought in the viewer's mind through most of the movie's generous 200 minutes. Lajja is a strong film at moments, but it is not always easy viewing.
The story opens with Vaidehi (Manisha Koirala), a fish-out-of-water in New York City, married to the wealthy, important, and arrogant Raghu (Jackie Shroff). Raghu's business is unspecified, but his preference for a playboy lifestyle is quite apparent. When Vaidehi complains about Raghu's open dalliances with other women, he exhorts her to "grow up" and join the twenty-first century, and even knocks her about a bit just to make clear who controls the parameters of the relationship. After one such row he sends her back to India, to her father's house; her father, for his part, is shamed by her return and coldly insists that her place is with her husband. When Raghu learns that Vaidehi is pregnant, he schemes to have her return to New York so that he can collect his heir, after which he will dispense with her. On the eve of her return Vaidehi learns of his plans, and flees into the night on her own. This is where her adventures through the shades of feminine misery really begin.
As Vaidehi travels through the countryside, she meets several women, each suffering from her own experience of subjugation at the hands of men. First up is Maithili (Mahima Choudhary), who is about to be married to a man she loves, provided her father can satisfy the greed of the groom's father, who wants only to extract as much dowry money as he can to compensate for the great favor of relieving a man of his daughter. Next on the list is Janki (Madhuri Dixit), a theatrical performer. Janki is pregnant by her lover Manish (Samir Soni), the leading man of her theater company, whom she has plans to marry. The jealous director of the company - who keeps his own wife in strict purdah, scolding her for so much as looking out the window - wants Janki for his mistress, and plants questions in Manish's mind as to who might really be the father of Janki's baby, with tragic results. The final chapter of Vaidehi's journey takes her to a rural village where the spunky, feminist midwife-healer Ramdulaari (Rekha) has ruffles the feathers of powerful local men and must pay the consequences. Meanwhile Vaidehi's husband Raghu, who has been in hot pursuit across the country, posts increasingly large rewards for her return, causing the villagers to take a real interest in her whereabouts.
Each of the women Vaidehi encounters somehow finds her voice, perhaps with the help of Vaidehi's presence but not really due to her interference. Each stands up against her situation and against the men that manipulate her, though it turns out better for some of them than for others.
The "shame" of the film's title is not the women's shame, but shame on India. Vaidehi's speech at the film's climax makes this explicit, as she chastises her nation for worshiping its mothers only so long as they keep silent and do what they are told. The message of shame to the nation is also woven tightly into the symbolism invoked throughout the film. All four of the women's names, for example, are appellations of the goddess Sita, and the men who control and subjugate them sport monikers of Sita's consort, Ram. Thus the film is constructed as a criticism of one of the religious legends that contribute to the very foundation of Indian culture. Indeed, the climax of Janki's story is a feminist re-scripting of the story of Sita's trial by fire, in which Janki, as Sita, asks her lover, as Ram, why only she must be tested and not he as well.
There are good men in the story, salt-of-the-earth type guys, notably a charmingly endearing thief who has decided to go straight (Anil Kapoor) and a brooding, violent, forest-dwelling Robin Hood sort (Ajay Devgan) who is instrumental in the film's climactic confrontation. Unfortunately this latter presents one of the film's most irritating weaknesses. Much of the last 40 minutes is devoted to violent confrontations between angry males; Lajja is a better film when it is about women. The uber-male strutting and sparring distracts from the film's focus, undermining it with a suggestion that despite all the inspiring courage of its women, in the end they still need a man with a machete to protect them.
Up until that point, Lajja is good film, or at least one with some strong moments. At times it waxes heavy-handed and preachy, but the story survives this because its characters are so entertainingly drawn and presented. Madhuri and Rekha are particularly delicious to watch, inhabiting characters who are loud, brash, tough, animated, and compassionate. Madhuri's entrance presents her in a stage performance of "Pyar kiya to darna kya" from Mughal-e-azam, and her reincarnation of Madhubala is a real treat. Lajja also exposed an earthy, extroverted side of Rekha that I had never seen before, and that I liked much more than her customary ethereal will-o'-the-wisp soft-focus persona.
Lajja's music, by Anu Malik, is decent but forgettable. The film includes reasonably entertaining item numbers by Urmila Matondkar and Sonali Bendre, but the unquestionable highlight is Madhuri's kinetic dance number, "Badi mushkil."