Rani Mukerji provides the star power, but up-and-coming actress Konkona Sen Sharma is the revelation in “Laaga chunari mein daag,” a glossy throwback to ’90s Bollywood that proves a treat, if you check most of your brains at the door. Tale of a dutiful elder sister who becomes a high-class Mumbai hooker to support the folks back home can be critiqued on any number of rational levels (and has been by Indian crix), but has enough energy, likeability, and pure Bollywood moments to pack the required emotional punch.
Pic opened relatively better overseas than at home over the Idd weekend starting Oct. 12, taking $500,000 in its first three days in the U.K. However, in the long run, it will probably lose out to the other big Idd release, “Bhool bhulaiyaa.”
On a sheer dramatic level, “Laaga” does rep a decline for helmer Pradeep Sarkar after his quality period meller “Parineeta.” But “Laaga” is pitched at a completely different level: This is the Yash Raj family entertainment machine at full tilt again, and on that basis, it delivers.
An upbeat opening number in Benares, by the banks of the Ganges, has sisters Vibha (Mukerji) and Chutki (Sen Sharma, recently in “Omkara” and “Life in a … Metro”) proudly declare, “This is how we are,” in a display of community/sisterly solidarity. First two reels then pile an assortment of miseries on the proud but cash-strapped Sahay family.
Dad (vet Anupam Kher) has a dodgy heart, mom (Jaya Bachchan) struggles to earn money via her sewing business, and Dad’s evil elder brother (Sushant Singh) is trying to get the family evicted from its splendid riverside manse.
Vibha heads off to Mumbai to earn some bread, but can’t hold down a job in the big city. In desperation, she sleeps with a wealthy exec; when he reneges on his job promise, she takes a girlfriend’s advice and decides to fight fire with fire.
In a sudden makeover (but hey, it’s Bollywood), Vibha becomes Natasha, a svelte “escort” to the rich and powerful. Soon the green is rolling in, and back home to Benares. But then Chutki, who’s just graduated and got a management trainee job in Mumbai, turns up at Vibha’s door.
Script starts juggling the tumblers in part two, as Chutki falls for a maverick adman, Vivaan (Kunal Kapoor), and herself becomes famous as a model. Drama pivots on how long Vibha can keep her job secret from her sister and family.
Though it’s built from formulaic blocks, the feminist-angled script does take several unexpected swerves and shortcuts. Also, there’s not an ounce of fat, especially in the second half: A more conventional ’90s meller would have taken another half-hour to work out all the moral conundrums.
Performances are vivid, at both leading and supporting levels. Mukerji struts both her girlish and womanly personas to strong effect, while offbeat looker Sen Sharma (daughter of director Aparna Sen) draws an increasingly layered character after the intermission, with Kapoor a fitting screen partner. Abhishek Bachchan, in an extended guest role as Vibha’s love interest, is just OK.
Sarkar’s packaging is as lush and detailed as in “Parineeta.” Widescreen lensing by Sushil Rajpal accentuates the rich textures and fabrics in the Benares sections to an almost tangible level, bringing a sharper, cleaner look to the Mumbai sequences (and a getaway episode in Bern, Switzerland). Songs are OK, choreography exhilarating (especially in the final shaadi number).
Hindi half of the title literally means “My Veil Is Stained.”