Brothels are NOT pleasure dens. As we watch in horrified disbelief, Nagesh Kukunoor’s 14-year old protagonist being bruised, bartered, violated and battered by men of all shapes and sizes, what emerges is a deep-rooted societal bias where the girl child is often treated as a liability.
The picture that emerges in this deeply disturbing film is that of absolutely insensitive brutality towards the weak and the poor.
This ain’t no sanitized brothel seen in our beautifully laid-our courtesan’s courtyard in highly romanticized portrayals of the Fallen Woman in films like Pakeezah Amar Prem. Even Sudhir Mishra‘s Chameli seems like a visit to the beauty parlour as compared with the bestial brutality of Kukunoor’s brothel.
You can almost smell the stench of stale sweat and semen in this stifling world of sexual deprivation. Standing ovation to the film’s cinematographer Chirantan Das and editor Sanjib Dutta for making Kukunoor’s murky world look so real.
This is no place for an innocent 14-year old girl. But then have we as the collective conscience keepers of the nation been able to foster a society where children, girls and women can feel safe? Lakhmi’s exploitation begins early….too early. Sold off by her own father to a female corporator Lakshmi soon finds herself in the clutches of a vicious sleazy pimp, played with stupefying gusto by the director Nagesh Kukunoor.
The tightly-wound narrative’s ingrained energy-level owes a lot of its momentum to the dynamics of the exploiter and the exploited as shared bond between Monali Thakur’s Lakshmi and Kukunoor’s Chinna propels the plot to a point of no return. The archetypal victim and the exploiter, Monali and Nagesh bring to the story a kind of compelling doom that dares you to flinch away in disgust and disbelief.
Lakshmi affords us no relief of escape or escapism. The brutality in the brothel is relentless. As the 14-year heroine ( a true hero in every sense) is ravaged repeatedly, sometime by 6-7 men within hours, the female sexual organ becomes just a hole.
“Mujhe toh bas ek chhed chahiye,” a blase customer at the brothel tells the Madame Jyoti (Shefali Shah, brilliantly ambivalent in her thankless role). Don’t wince. This is not the occasion to get squeamish. Kukunoor takes us through the badnaam gallis of Hyderabad in search of reasons for why we treat economically weaker section of the female sex as play things.
Till mid-point there is no respite from the relentless assault on the protagonist’s body and soul…Suddenly the narrative does a volte-face and we are face-to-face with an unexpected saga of vindication. Suddenly its payback time for Lakshmi’s tormentors as a kindly social worker and an out-of-work lawyer (Ram Kapoor, playing what we’ve seen Sunny Deol play in Damini) come together to get justice for the ravaged girl.
And you wonder if such good Samaritans really exist anywhere outside the movies. If they did, would the horrific saga of Lakshmi’s brutal exploitation ever happen? Still, the passage into compassion is excusable, even welcome. You want the better side of life to show up in Lakshmi’s life. When it does, the girl embraces the spot of sunshine with heartbreaking gratitude.
There is this shared moment at the end between Laskhmi and her lawyer where she struggles to hide her tears with makeup as the media waits outside for her triumph over her tormentors. It’s a moment in the narrative that confronts the complexities of exploited gender with unexpected tenderness.
Yes, there is hope for the wretched and the exploited. Lakshmi is a powerfully-told inspirational tale that doesn’t brush the brutal reality of sexual exploitation under the rug. It pulls out uncomfortable home-truths. There are portions of the narrative in the brothel involving Kukunoor and Shefali Shah as the pimp and the Madame that get unbearably violent and gruesome. Both come up with superlative fearless performances. Satish Kaushik as a nauseating pedophile makes your skin crawl. He is THAT convincing.
But the film belongs to singer-turned actress Monali Thakur. As the child forced into premature womanhood Monali’s portrait of ravaged innocence will haunt you forever. The folk songs in the background about treating the girl child with tender care mock Monali’s numbing pain and grief as she repeatedly tried to wash off the sticky blood of lust from her wounded private parts. It’s the most soul-baring performance I’ve seen since Seema Biswas in Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen.
Lakshmi is not a film for the weak-hearted and the squeamish. Isn’t same true of life too?