Sunday, November 4, 2007

Lajo, as poor cinematic choice

As many would be aware, Mani Ratnam was all set to adapt Ismat Chughtai's short story, Gharwali, into a film called Lajo. He, along with producer Bobby Bedi, had even signed on superstar Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor for the central roles. But on account of various reasons, the film couldn't take off and as it stands today, this much-eagerly mouted project has been shelved.
From the very beginning, I was pessimistic about the film. My skepticism wasn't only because this subject does not hold well commercially, but also because this theme is not up Ratnam's alley.

My feelings about this only grew stronger after reading Ismat Chughtai’s Lifting The Veil, which is a collection of her various short stories, including her much controversial, The Quilt(Lihaaf)

Now, fortunately, I also found Gharwali (The Housemaker) aka Lajo.
While the story itself is quite powerful, looking at the institution of marriage with pitiless irony, the theme really is about female physical desire and how societal conditioning causes its ‘sexual erasure’. Chugtai’s statement with Gharwali and many other stories seems to signify that real passion, natural charm and rustic beauty is vested in full-bodied countrywomen/girls, while middle-class women, wearing the veil of shame and respectability, lead sexually repressed lives.Which is why, when Lajo is a ‘freewheeling mare’, expressing her physical love freely, she’s the cynosure of all eyes. Every man wants to possess her. Her charms work even on the usually guarded Mirza, who marries her and ‘tames’ her to be a good wife. Lajo’s coquetry that seemed charming before marriage is now objectionable. Ultimately, this arrangement falls apart and exposes the inherent hypocrisy and double standards of society.

For it’s time (1940-50) and place (Lucknow), these were extremely radical ideas and this is particularly significant given that Ismat was among the first few writers to acknowledge female sexuality and portray it in a convincing and courageous manner. Following her, several other female writers were able to free themselves of the existing taboos in literature and give give wings to their feelings.

Though I was ill-impressed with several of Ismat’s stories (some of them are too pedestrian in both writing and thoughts), this one is a particularly good one but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how Ratnam could have adapted this. Firstly, this is a totally female-oriented subject and no doubt would have been a great part for Kareena. But again, I’m not sure how different this would have been since the actress has done something very similar in Chameli.
However, I am shocked how Aamir even agreed to this film, since his character is clearly secondary to Lajo’s in every sense of the word.Not only is Mirza’s character devoid of any charm or strength of character, he is clearly the object of satire and mostly used to illuminate aspects of Lajo’s life.

Also, these are characters from a certain social milieu and capturing that would have been an arduous task for Ratnam, given that he struggled to convincingly portray even a Gujrati couple in Guru. And here, we're talking about 1940 Lucknow in a Muslim setting!
So while, Gharwali (Lajo) stands out for being a radical piece of literature, a successful cinematic interpretation out of this would have been nothing short of a miracle.