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Why Manju Mai from Laapata Ladies is my role model?

Manju Mai from Laapata Ladies embodies wisdom and resilience, offering profound insights into the struggles and empowerment of women in a patriarchal society. Her character’s journey and pearls of wisdom resonate deeply, making her a feminist role model worth celebrating.

 29 May, 2024
By Shilpashree Jagannathan

As ‘All we imagine as light’ gathered all the love and attention due to its glory at Cannes 2024, actress Chhaya Kadam stood out for me. She has held a special place in my heart since the time I watched Laapata Ladies a few weeks ago. When it was released on Netflix, I rushed to watch it despite a packed schedule as my friends kept raving about it. It was worth every bit of praise the movie was garnering.

Laapataa Ladies, a Hindi-language film directed by Kiran Rao, weaves comedy and drama in a story of two brides who are mistakenly swapped. Set against the backdrop of rural India, the plot revolves around Jaya and Phool, two young women who get lost from the same train due to mistaken identity. Their separate journeys of self-discovery and empowerment unfold as they navigate through a series of misadventures and societal challenges.

Symbolism and Themes of Laapata Ladies

The unintended bride-swapping story had layers of symbols to it. It spoke about how women’s identity is so easily hidden, how we never put our needs first, how social and familial expectations from us eclipse us from achieving our potential, and above all, it spoke about some of the most obvious issues that plague our society today: domestic violence, dowry, and inequalities.

After the brides are swapped, Jaya, initially bound by familial expectations and a marriage rooted in dowry, finds herself in an unexpected opportunity to escape and pursue her dreams of higher education and independence. Meanwhile, Phool experiences a journey of self-realisation with the help of new acquaintances who guide her towards asserting her identity beyond being someone’s wife and daughter.

It is through Phool that we meet Manju Mai, the tea stall owner at the railway station where Phool finally ends up. Initially, she is reluctant and suspicious of Phool and refuses to help her. But she later yields, looking at the helplessness of Phool.

 Manju Mai’s pearls of wisdom:

  • ‘Gaaonwala ke baare mai ghar jaake sochna, (think about the villagers after you go back home): This is, for me, a big takeaway. As we women tend to weigh ourselves down with societal expectations, without realising how much it is impacting us.
  • ‘Ee desh mai ladki logon ke saath hazaaron saalon se fraud chal raha hai, nam hai bade ghar ki bahu’ (For years now, girls have been victims of fraud, and that is being the “daughter-in-law of a respectable house”): This statement talks about societal expectations and cultural norms that place immense pressure on daughters-in-law to conform to traditional roles and responsibilities. They are often expected to prioritise their in-laws’ needs over their own, which can lead to a loss of personal autonomy and identity. Many endure emotional and sometimes physical abuse, as well as financial dependency, which can create a sense of powerlessness.
  • ‘Budbak hona sharam ka baat nahi hai, budbak pe garv karna ee sharam ka baat hai,’ (It is not wrong to be a fool, but being arrogant about being a fool is wrong): Uff, she just stole my heart when she said that. I think this statement needs no explanation. When you know what it means, you just know.
  • ‘Upar se kahe, jo pyaar karta hai unko marne ka hak hota hai’(To top it, they say that the person who loves you has the right to hit you): This is an oft-repeated line we hear in a society that justifies men hitting women.
  • ‘Khud ka saath akele Khushi rehna bohut mushkil hota hai, who ek baar seekh liya, to koi tumko takleef nahi pohuncha sakta’ (It is very difficult to live on your own, but if you learn, nobody can hurt you): This is the most profound thought she shared during the run time of the movie. I have seen many of my friends and family go through separation. In most cases, the fear of being alone forces women to drag their feet to decide on their divorce. This line, in my opinion, touched a nerve not just with women but other genders as well across the country.

Throughout the movie, as the characters interact, they touch on themes of personal freedom, societal norms, and the resilience of women, making it a narrative rich with humour, emotion, and strong feminist undercurrents, all this done with the simplest of words and instances. Besides Chhaya Kadam, Kiran Rao’s ability to handle such complex narratives with ease is icing on the cake.

While Chhaya Kadam plays a supporting role, the lead characters Nitanshi Goel as Phool Kumari, Pratibha Ranta as Jaya Singh / Pushpa Rani, Sparsh Shrivastav as Deepak Kumar, and Ravi Kishan as Sub-Inspector Shyam Manohar all blend in naturally in an environment that is struggling to resolve the issue at hand.

In conclusion, Laapata Ladies is more than just a film; it is a mirror reflecting the struggles and strengths of women in a patriarchal society. Manju Mai’s wisdom, combined with the engaging narrative, makes this film a compelling watch and a source of inspiration for all. It reminds us of the importance of self-discovery, empowerment, and the need to challenge societal norms.


About the Author: Shilpashree Jagannathan, a freelance journalist and is passionate about feminist movements in both Canada and India. She works as a media consultant for various Canadian and international media houses, non-profit organizations and financial services companies.


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