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Lakshmi

Rating: 2.5

March 21, 2014

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

Director: Nagesh Kukunoor

In Lakshmi, writer-director Nagesh Kukunoor takes the unfortunate true story of an underage girl sold off to the flesh trade, and delivers a deliberately disturbing film that’s often hard to watch. It’s a tricky slope, films about exploitation and abuse. For as we’ve learnt from watching Madhur Bhandarkar’s movies, there’s a thin line between depicting harsh realities on screen, and in that process exploiting the very tragedy and the victim.

We first meet Lakshmi (Monali Thakur), a 13-year-old traded by her alcoholic father for Rs 30,000, huddled in the back of a truck as it barrels through an Andhra forest. Her journey to hell begins when she’s tricked and raped by brothel owner Ram Reddy (Satish Kaushik, decidedly creepy) in a scene so chilling, it’ll rattle your insides. From there, she’s deposited at an overcrowded “girls hostel” in the city, where a kind-hearted but firm madam, Jyoti (an excellent Shefali Shah), explains to her that resistance is futile.

Repeated attempts to fly the coop end badly for Lakshmi, who is caught each time by her sadistic pimp Chinna (Kukunoor, appropriately savage), and brutally punished. You’ll turn away repulsed when, after an unsuccessful getaway, Lakshmi, barely conscious and writhing in pain, must nevertheless service one man after another over the course of a single night.

Exposing the dirty trail of sex trafficking, which often starts with a victim’s own family and can include unscrupulous women, influential bigwigs, and apathetic police, the film takes a realistic approach, but pulls you relentlessly into a vortex of sordidness. I cringed when Jyoti, disregarding Lakshmi’s complaints of physical discomfort, hands her a jar of lubricant, insisting it’ll make the job easier. In another graphic scene, Chinna tortures Jyoti by tying her up and putting a lit cigarette to her private parts for aiding a social worker in conducting a sting at the brothel. It’s explicit, stomach-churning moments like these that prompt you to question whether the film isn’t in fact exploiting the very inhumanity it condemns.

It’s impossible not to summon up sympathy for the protagonist, but as a writer Kukunoor never gives us a real sense of Lakshmi outside of her situation. The film frequently flashbacks to memories of her playing with her sisters in the village, but we get no insight into her hopes and dreams, or even where she was headed before her tragic abduction. As a result, baby-faced Monali Thakur, while convincing as the teenaged Lakshmi, can’t rise above the one-dimensional characterization.

Flora Saini makes a strong impression as Swarna, Lakshmi’s sympathetic roommate; your typical hooker-with-a-heart of gold. In one scene when Swarna decides to return to the brothel after being rescued and delivered to a women’s shelter, she raises an important question about the options available for sex workers seeking to rehabilitate themselves. But the film rests on a triumvirate of solid performances by Satish Kaushik, Shefali Shah, and Kukunoor that smoothen out many of its flaws.

Although unsettling and horrific, the film is weighed down by its ‘standard-issue’ treatment. Lakshmi addresses a serious issue and forces us to confront a bitter reality, even offering hope in the end through the protagonist’s courageous fight for justice. But let’s not confuse the issue with the film, which is well-intentioned yet typical.

I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five. Watch it for the performances.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

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