A tale of two brides in Laapataa Ladies

Getting lost helps women find their individual selves in a universal tale of women making their space in the patriarchal world

Still from Laapataa Ladies (2023), directed by Kiran Rao

The year is 2001, the place: somewhere in the city of Nirmal Pradesh in India. It is an auspicious day. A newly married couple takes leave from the bride’s house. The journey to the groom's village is an extended voyage that requires a boat, a bus, a train, and another bus ride.

Right off the bat, viewers cannot help but draw relevance to Nepal. We have the same class and caste system. Women are bound by the patriarchal society that treats them as less than equal and takes away their life choices. The practice of dowry is still prevalent in these parts of the world. 

The only difference: we don’t have the extensive railroads like India.

Back to the story: on the train compartment, our couple encounter two more newly married pairs, the brides similarly attired with a veil covering their faces. When the train reaches his station, the groom gestures for his wife to get off.  Only after reaching the village— when his mother unveils his bride to the waiting family– does the groom realise that the woman he has brought along from the train is not his wife.

Laapataa Ladies starts with this rather bizarre premise that can only happen in movies. But the presence of three brides– all donning bridal red, all veiled, all of them in the same train compartment– gives enough plausibility for the audience to be engaged.

A satirical approach to the patriarchy and the deeply-rooted customs that have oppressed women, the film is a wittily crafted piece of art. Adapted from Biplop Goswami’s story Two Brides, director Kiran Rao has made Laapataa Ladies a story about how getting lost helps two women to find their individual selves.

The character of Jaya (Pratibha Ranta)– who ends up getting off the train with the groom Deepak (Sparsh Shrivastav),  and Phool Kumari (Nitanshi Goel)-- Deepak’s wife who gets left behind–are two ends of a spectrum.

Phool is the idealistic daughter– bright-eyed, naive and proud of the homemaking skills she has been taught. Jaya, on the other hand, is what the patriarchy would label ‘rebellious’ because she would rather go to college than be married. While Phool is the kind of person to live within restrictions that forbid women from uttering their husbands’ name out loud, Jaya is defiant of such limitations.

Laapataa Ladies review

Without celebrating any definition of what women have to be – either by conservative or progressive standards, the film centres around how the two women each navigate and make their own place in the patriarchal world.

Apart from the simplistic storytelling, the film’s highlight is its portrayal of female relationships. In a world where many films are still about heroes and heroism, seeing women, women-led stories and the depth of their relationships is a rarity. And unlike how women are stereotypically portrayed in films to drag each other down, the film does just the opposite. Rao’s Laapataa Ladies is thus a breath of fresh air.

The relationship Jaya and Phool develop individually with supporting female characters makes the viewer’s heart full, like the friendship that gradually flourishes between Jaya and Poonam, the eldest daughter-in-law of the house Jaya is not supposed to be in.

Poonam has a knack for sketching but does not think much of it. It is Jaya who encourages her to draw and realise her potential. And while Poonam might never take up sketching professionally –that part is never dealt with within the film– that her skill was validated and appreciated is a meaningful detail.

Meanwhile, everyday casual conversations that take place between the women in the film also have a deeper meaning. And though it is set in rural India, the issues the women face seem universal, especially to women across South Asia and the global south.

A scene that stands out is a conversation between Manju Mai – who runs a food stall at the train station where Phool is stranded – and Phool. Phool is cooking for Manju Mai and when Manju asks if she would be okay cooking in a kitchen foreign to her, Phool replies, “As women, we are only taught to embrace a kitchen foreign to us”.

Laapaata Ladies might come across as preachy at times, but aside from that, this two-hour-long film is a reflective, thought-provoking piece about women finding their place in the world.

Laapaata Ladies is streaming on Netflix.