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Lakshmi, film review: terrifying, inspiring account of a 14-year-old girl sold into prostitution

Published Mar 22, 2014, 4:39 am IST
Updated Apr 8, 2019, 12:31 pm IST
Lakshmi; this story is not the story of Andhra Pradesh, it is a story of all of India

Cast: Monali Thakur, Shefali Shah, Ram Kapoor, Satish Kaushik, Nagesh Kukunoor, Flora Saini

Direction: Nagesh Kukunoor

Rating: ***1/2

* During their training, race horses are kept isolated in stalls that are barely big enough for them to turn around in. The horses are sometimes kept in such enclosures for more than 20 hours, to make them more obedient in their next training session. It often works, but many horses also start exhibiting neurotic behavior. Some sway from side to side, some walk in circles and chew on railings.

* In Kerala, according to reports, about 90 per cent of the majestic elephants we see decorated beautifully in religious functions and parades are at least partially blind, if not fully. Most have been blinded deliberately by their own mahouts, using poison or variations of their sharp ankush. Every year there are reports of more and more elephants killing their mahouts.

* More than 1 million children, girls and boys, have been forced into prostitution in India. Writer-director Nagesh Kukunoor’s Lakshmi tells the story of how these children are trained by their pimps and madams and customers to be always ready, always obedient, always lubricated.

Lakshmi’s script and screenplay, by Kukunoor, is based on research and the real-life story of a 14-year-old girl sold into prostitution because of poverty and greed. It is both a terrifying and inspiring story and Kukunoor tells it with almost a schizophrenic cinematic narrative that is grim, claustrophobic and gory one moment, and the next breezy, airy and luminous. This duality doesn’t always work, but has been employed to offer relief from the scarring story that Kukunoor tells unsparing and in graphic detail, forcing us to not just look at but also acknowledge the horror of how a child, wrenched from her house and family and shoved into a small room, is forced to sleep with men who may be five times her age, and size. All she is given by way of training and tools is a jar of white cream. And the only break she’s allowed is a visit to the bucket of water in the verandah, to wash herself for the next customer.

Lakshmi (released in both Hindi and Telugu) is set in Andhra Pradesh and tells the story of two Reddy brothers who procure train girls for their brothel that they run under the aegis of a girls’ hostel, Dharam Vilas. The younger brother, Chinna (Nagesh Kukunoor), deals directly with sellers, buyers and the girls and carries, always, a long wooden stick with sharp, long nails jutting out at one end. It’s not a threat. He uses it often. Anna (Satish Kaushik), the elder brother, is a little softer. It seems.

The film drags us through narrow lanes, using these closing-in walls to convey the maze these children get pulled into as they get handed from one man to another, shifted from one tempo to another, till they finally land in a room with a bed they can never call their own.

Lakshmi (Monali Thakur) lands up in Dharam Vilas after she has been raped by a man she had begun to trust, like. This scene, like many other in the film, is not easy to watch. It left me cold and frozen with fear and shock.

Dharam Vilas is inhabited by all sorts of women -- some who have made peace with their fate and become stars of their trade; some who have checked out mentally, leaving only their bodies to carry out the chores; some, like Jyothi (Shifaali Shah), have a purpose and a plan; and some, like Lakshmi, refuse to accept this as their fate and, no matter what the consequences, want out. The film doesn’t judge any of these women. It is deeply sympathetic to their plight, to the real lack of options. And to the fact that they face opposition from a system that is not just gutless but actively complicit in the trade of little boys and girls.

Inside the brothel, this “den of pleasure”, it makes us stand at the foot of Lakshmi’s bed and watch. Kukunoor is gruesome, and doesn’t allow us to look away, to pretend for a second that the women are in control. Or that this is about pleasure.

The film’s climax plays out in court where it examines the role of our judges, lawyers, NGOs, politicians, doctors and police officials, all the while highlighting the fact that these girls are victims of unrelenting brutality.

Lakhsmi is a powerful film and is packed with powerful performances from Satish Kaushik, Kukunoor himself and Shifaali Shah. Kaushik has never been so repulsive, menacing, and Kukunoor has never been such a delight to watch and behold.

Monali Thakur is small, sweet and effective. She doesn’t act just with her face here, but uses her body, her silhouette, to convey the impact on her tender body.

Apart from Kukunoor, everybody’s accents here are awry and half-hearted. This bothered me at first, but once I adjusted to it, I began to like it, found meaning in it -- this story is not the story of Andhra Pradesh, it is a story of all of India.