Cast: Manisha, Madhuri Dixit, Mahima, Rekha, Jackie Shroff, Anil Kapoor, Ajay Devgun
Director: Raj Kumar Santoshi
Music Director: Anu Malik
Nutshell: a noble attempt to tackle some serious women’s issues falls short of the mark
Santoshi’s film opens with the Manhattan skyline as we are transported to NRIs living the high life in New York. However, our heroine Vaidehi (Manisha) is ill at ease with her husband’s Raghu’s (Jackie Shroff) “western” outlook. Taunted beaten and mistreated, Vaidehi is despatched back to India by her brutish hubby only for him to suffer an accident which takes away his ability to father a child! Lo and behold, the family doc reveals that Vaidehi is already pregnant and hence, hubby and his pater embark on a scheme to get Vaidehi back from India so that a Vansh can carry their name forward. Melting with her hubby’s sweet words, Vaidehi decides to go back also having been told by her family that ” a girl’s home is with her pati, not with her parents”. As she is about to board a plane back to New York, she is alerted by the family doc to the hubby’s nefarious intentions and this prompts her to run away. Why would she indeed call her doc from Mumbai airport is anyone’s guess but I guess, you need to give the plot a jump start somewhere. Thus starts her journey in which she crosses the paths of many which forms the hub of the film.
Vaidehi’s first encounter is with thief Raju (Anil Kapoor) who has stolen 50,000 rupees to make it across to Dubai to make a better life for himself. You do feel a sense of sadness at the plight of this man who is eager to make a start for himself. They stumble across each other at Maithili’s (Mahima) wedding, which due to the curse of the dreaded dowry, begins to fall apart. Raju comes to the rescue but it is not enough and warrants an outburst by the bride to be, a statement against the whole dowry system and the treatment of girls.
Vaidehi then travels further and comes across Janaki (Madhuri), a small theatre actress, also pregnant and due to marry her weakling of a boyfriend. The seed of doubt having been put into his head by the evil Purshottam (Tinnu Anand) who has designs on Janaki, the weak boyfriend asks Janaki to abort her baby, in essence to rid him of doubt as to the baby’s parentage and to put Janaki to the test of having to prove that she is committed to him. Janaki rebels against this and verbalises the injustices that have been carried out against women in the guise of her dialogues in a play where she plays Sita. She asks why Sita is being made to cross the burning fire when she had done nothing wrong. Why is it that a character of the woman is always put to the test. Of course, there is uproar and the public lashes out in its hypocritical manner against Janaki.
Vaidehi then travels further and falls into the hands of naxalite (Ajay Devgun) who saves her from s train massacre. She then comes across Ram Dulari (Rekha), a dalit midwife whose only folly in life is that her son falls in love with the higher caste girl. Once again, it is not the man that suffers but the woman who takes the fall, in this case, in a most brutal way.
Lajja seeks to vocalise the injustices against women and for that, one must admire the director’s courage. However, the opening segment of Vaidehi’s descent into running from her husband is simply awful and one would have imagined that the director could have spun a better yarn for the runaway wife and why her tormenting husband wants to pursue her. Could it simply be that his male ego was bruised. Would it not have been better for her to have left on her own accord instead of the crassness of wanting to use her as an incubator, although that in itself has something to say about our man in the subcontinent. The climax is without punch and falls flat. Women running on stage with chappals on stage in pursuit of the villain is comic rather than frightening Vaidehi’s wails of “haan mujhe lajja aati hai” is a scream which falls well short of the rousing cry from within that it should have been. The fact that Vaidehi’s final salvation seems to lie with her husband is in itself something that undermines the plot. The fact that the repentant husband changes in a matter of moments is equally incredulous.
Santoshi also tackles a subject which will not easily be digested by the masses. No one wants to mess with religion whether or not it seems fair or not today. Your four main characters all have the names of Sita. Even though he may have a point in the segment with Madhuri, it is not one that would be accepted by the masses. But hats off to him for trying or even trying to bring to the fore, the absolutely horrendous crimes that are inflicted on women and which by and large go unreported. He tackles issues from the dowry system, unwed pregnancy, the caste system, female infanticide and in essence the double standards that are prevalent in society. To be able to do so much in a commercial set up is in itself a triumph for Santoshi. Unfortuantely, to reach out to the greatest audience possible, he feels the need to add tireless comedy and often this hard hitting statement is drowned in a web of incredulity.
The protagonist is played by Manisha Koirala who is adequate without being outstanding. This does not measure up to the heights of Khamoshi or Bombay, even Dil se, surprisingly. Mahima is good in a short role although her dialogues could have been more powerful. Yet, she packs a fairly hefty punch. The film sparkles when Madhuri is on screen, right from the moment when she is introduced in “jab pyaar kiya to darna kya”. This is easily one of her best performances and she lights up the screen with her presence, putting Manisha well in the shade. To do work like this must be immensely satisfying for her for after all these years, she is now doing roles of substance. She is simply superb, natural and effortless. The final chapter of sorts brings Rekha to the fore in yet another powerful and understated performance. Her scene when she discovers of the love affair between her son and Danny’s daughter is haunting. Out of the men, Jackie in a weak role, fails to impress and one simply does not see the need for Ajay Devgun at all except perhaps to balance the argument of all men are vile. Anil Kapoor, although primarily in a light hearted role, is actually very good as the good hearted Raju.
Anu Malik’s music is ordinary although embellished somewhat by three different and feisty dances by Urmila, Sonali Bendre and the magical Madhuri. The cinematography is excellent. On the whole, an uneven effort although one with good intentions. Unfortunately, it does miss the mark and because one expected so much more from it, it comes as a big disappointment. Yet I would recommend it as a film that certainly has its heart in the right place.