LAAGA CHUNARI MEIN DAAG: JOURNEY OF A WOMANNR
A good old-fashioned, Douglas Sirk-style women's weepie, this glossy Bollywood confection about a small-town girl forced to go bad in the big city is a melodrama so universal you could substitute Joan Crawford for Rani Mukerji and New York City for Mumbai (which, curiously enough, the English subtitles still render as "Bombay"). More Westernized in its storytelling than most other Indian films to reach U.S. shores of late, Laaga Chunari Mein Daag: Journey of a Woman is accessible enough to play on Lifetime or WE after its theatrical run.
Major star Mukerji, last seen stateside in the NASCAR fairy tale Ta Ra Rum Pum (2007), plays Vibha Sahay, a hard-working young woman with bigger dreams than staying in Benares, the village where she lives with her parents and her smart younger sister, Shubhavari, nicknamed Chukti (Konkona Sen Sharma). But their dad, Shivshankar (Anupam Kher from Ang Lee's Lust, Caution), is not a well man, and he and his wife, Sabitri (Jaya Bachchan), are in financial straits and facing eviction. The desperate Vibha travels to Mumbai on the slim hope of a job with Sophia (Tarana Raaja), part of a Bollywood film crew who'd come to Benares to shoot. While Sophia's not happy to find the waif at her door, she does try to find work for the untrained Vibha, but jobs don't pan out at the studio, a hair salon or a department store, where her lack of fluent English brands her an uncouth provincial.
By this time Dad's had a heart attack, and the family back home needs money for medicine and doctors. Vibha, desperate, screws up her courage and agrees to do the nasty with the family-man boss (Harsh Chhaya) of Sophia's platonic friend Karan (the too-briefly seen Ninad Kamat, a comic character actor with good-natured charm to spare). The sleazy CEO reneges on the job he promised Vibha, giving her instead 10,000 rupees (about $250) "for two hours' work. That's not bad." Real sweetheart, this guy. Vibha refuses the money and, swearing never to let men take advantage of her again, decides to become the city's top call girl!
That director Pradeep Sarkar, on only his second
feature after A Married Woman (2005), pulls off this transformation without it seeming Charles Busch-kitschy is a testament to his talent—even, amazingly, with a "My Fair Escort" montage and a song about falling from grace. Remade as the blindingly beautiful "Natasha"—wait till you see her at a tony hotel in a slinky black gown with her hair in a tall French twist—Vibha becomes the belle of Bombay. She sends home scads of cash, and soon one jet-setting john is taking his "good luck charm" to a conference in Zurich—where, of course, she meets her Prince Charming, attorney Rohan Verna (Abhishek Bachchan). But their love can never be, since yadda yadda—which includes li'l sis' arrival in Mumbai, where she's gotten a trainee position at an ad agency. There she meets her Prince Charming, creative director Vivaan (Kunal Kapoor). Whirlwind romances, dark secrets, a family shame and a wedding—or maybe two!—all spool out in surprisingly engrossing fashion.
Sarkar is also one of the film's art directors, and his luscious eye for urban glitter and his smooth and sure camera make this a Harold Robbins epic with class. And the final sequence, in a gingerbread-lit wedding hall on the banks of the Ganges, is as corny and joyful as anything you'd see on Turner Classic Movies.