On 7th July 1999, Siya Dulari, a lower caste woman was burnt alive (after a supposed gang-rape) in Bhawanipur, a small village in Uttar Pradesh (Kanpur Dehaat). As per the statement issued by the police, she was abducted and held captive for a week before the heart-wrenching treatment rendered to her by the accused people of upper caste. The guilt of Siya Dulari was that her teenager son had eloped with a teenager girl belonging to an upper caste in their neighbourhood. Her husband, fearing for such a backlash from the side of the upper castes, had already run away to save his life, leaving her alone. Till date, it is not known whether the perpetrators of this ghastly murder got the punishment they deserved or not. But this end of that poor woman remained in news for a long time and then was forgotten like all stale news.
This incident which was nothing but an illustration of the caste divide in (Northern) India where the lower caste ones are time and again reminded to stay in their place through such acts (in which the females of the downtrodden communities are the main sufferers), instigated filmmaker Raj Kumar Santoshi to make a movie covering this crime and highlight the plight of not only the lower caste women but the womenfolk in general in the Indian society as a whole. The result came in the form of Hindi movie – Lajja (2001).
Lajja (shame) is a cluster of female-oriented tales in which Vaidehi (Manisha Koirala) is the connecting link. She runs away from a troubled marriage involving a cruel and abusive NRI husband (Jackie Shroff). Finding that she has no place in her parental home also, she being pregnant, runs for her life and the life of her unborn child as the clutches of her husband are following her and in this journey, comes across troubled women like her, viz. Maithili (Mahima Chaudhary), Jaanaki (Madhuri Dixit) and Raam Dulari (Rekha), each one of them facing different issues with the common thread being the suffering due to being a female. In this men’s world where they are the predators preying on those women who are conscious of their right and dignity and pronounce it too, these women come across some golden-hearted men too, viz. a thief (Anil Kapoor) and a bandit (Ajay Devgan). The final episode of the movie is the tale of Raam Dulari (modeled on the tragedy of the real life Siya Dulari).
Raj Kumar Santoshi has considered the mythological Sita as the quintessential and eternal example of a suffering woman in a patriarchal social set-up. That’s why he has named the suffering women of his story as Vaidehi, Maithili, Jaanaki and Raam Dulari (all being synonyms of Sita). Only Maithili succeeds in emerging as triumphant (after a lot of drama) as she discards her dowry-based wedding. Vaidehi also gets a happy end to her woes when her abusive and chauvinistic husband has a change of heart and both of them return to the beginning point of this story (to live happily ever after). Jaanaki and Raam Dulari are not that lucky.
Personally, I found the episode involving Jaanaki being the strongest and the most impactful in which she twists the Raamayan scene being performed on the stage (herself playing Sita) and instead of giving Agni Pariksha, asks Ram to give Agni Pariksha to prove his ‘purity’. However for the climax of the movie and (also the denouement of Raj Kumar Santoshi’s narrative), the extremely tragic episode of Raam Dulari (which only had laid the foundation for making of this movie) only fits the bill.
Technically, the movie is quite good. Art direction, cinematography, choreography and action; all are up to the mark. It’s excessively long but definitely it’s not the fault of the editor. Music of Anu Malik and Illaiyaraaja (composed one song and prepared the background score) is good with the lyrics being meaningful and apt for the story. Acting wise speaking, none of the actors (including very young Sharman Joshi as Raam Dulari’s son and debutante Aarti Chhabria as his upper caste girlfriend) has disappointed. All (including those playing the baddies) have played their parts well. Ajay Devgan appears to be miscast as a deadly bandit because he looks too slender to be that. However he has made up for that by his good acting.
The trouble of Lajja lies with its script and direction. Had Raj Kumar Santoshi made an independent movie solely on the real life tragedy of Siya Dulari, it would have been better (for him as well as the audience). But by packing too many women-centric social issues in his script, he has made it cumbersome. The movie has become too long to be endured by the spectators and thus its entertainment value and inspirational (or social awakening) value, both have got diluted. That’s why the movie impresses in patches only. Jackie Shroff’s wearing designer suits throughout the narrative (while chasing his runaway wife) is ridiculous. The baddies (and many events involving them) are totally filmy. And Ajay Devgan as the Desi Robin Hood is also totally unreal and out of place in the movie.
And the most filmy thing is the denouement in which Vaidehi delivers a long (and melodramatic) speech on women-suffering and women-lib (after gatecrashing the felicitation ceremony of Raam Dulari’s perpetrator) and then the result comes in the form of mob justice. A crowd of women thrashes the baddies by footwear and then they are eliminated. That may be enough for our socially awake filmmaker but is that enough to uproot the centuries old male-bias against the second sex in a majority of human-societies ? The movie was released in 2001 but even after two decades, have we seen any improvement in the situation ? No ! We have been seeing deterioration instead since then. Crimes against women have been and are on the rise only. Utterly simplified filmy solutions to grave social problems are an insult not only to the themes chosen for such movies but also to the intellect of the audience.
Summing up, Raj Kumar Santoshi has presented second rate tales of the second sex in Lajja which itself is a shame (Lajja). He could not make a box office grosser despite using all the tried and tested formulas. Nor could he do justice to the noble theme of the movie. Nevertheless, this movie is not a trash and should be watched to sensitize ourselves to the heart-piercing sufferings of our womenfolk.
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