Educating the ladies, an update from Bollywood - Hindustan Times
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Educating the ladies, an update from Bollywood

May 01, 2024 10:07 PM IST

Not many film scripts have shown a village girl opting to walk away from her marriage in less than a week.

If your faith in education is waning and you want to restore it, watch Laapataa Ladies. It is an exciting, and at the same time, sobering experience. It is exciting because one of its two heroines exemplifies the full meaning of determination to study further. And it is sobering because you learn how dangerous a girl’s journey toward higher learning can be in our society. Though paradoxical, it is thoroughly entertaining, but one can’t miss its sociology. Returning home, you feel you’ve been on a crash visit to a strange and difficult land where girls live. I thought I knew the lay of this land well because I had spent a few years writing a book about girlhood. How wrong I was!

Laapataa Ladies (Jio Studios and Kindling Pictures) PREMIUM
Laapataa Ladies (Jio Studios and Kindling Pictures)

The story is located in Madhya Pradesh (MP). The rural setting is so quiet and sylvan that you don’t anticipate the emotional vortex you face in the second half. Two young women get lost — almost immediately after their wedding — and a comedy of errors ensues. The first bride goes through a predictable experience. We have seen such in other movies. But the second bride scripts her own adventure. She uses her predicament to attain her goal in life – after nearly losing it. She didn’t want to marry, but she had no choice. Like countless others, she had to surrender to family blackmail.

She was passionate about studying — but not in a general sense. Unlike millions of teenagers who can’t decide what they really want to do in life, she was clear. She saw her future in science — that of agriculture. How did she escape the lure of NEET and JEE, you wonder. She wanted to be an expert in organic farming. She is convinced that organic methods will dominate agriculture and its market within another 15 years. Like so many village girls, she is pushed into marriage. It is an awful match and it nearly finishes her off. She is saved because she gets lost. The police find it difficult to locate her because she makes herself untraceable. She uses technological strategies to hide herself and confuse others, including the police. It is a tale of skillfully applied grit. In the end, when she wins, she breaks her marriage, and off she goes to Dehradun to study organic farming. Moved, speechless, we see her last boarding a village bus.

Unlike the common stereotype of rural girls, she is fiercely self-confident. She is also clever and has guts enough to hoodwink. What shaped her personality, you wonder! It can’t be the school, of course, especially in MP where rural schools had taken a sharp downward turn well before the BJP’s regime began more than two decades ago, but the BJP chose not to bother about reverting this trend. Teachers lost whatever status and dignity they had. They were in no position — and had no clue how — to practise the publicised norms of child-centric education. Schooling under such circumstances could hardly encourage a girl to rebel, that too in the matter of a marriage forced upon her. It is the other heroine of Lapata Ladies who represents a mindless education system faced with aggressive cultural practices that promote docility and self-abnegation.

Thus, the film juxtaposes two contrary characters caught in an identical predicament. That a rebellious young woman can be the heroine of a popular film is a testimony to cinema as an art form. Its layered capacity permits rival truths to enter the viewer’s vision. In one, we encounter ideologically upheld traditional values; facing the other, we hold our breath when a hapless bold girl is about to lose her battle against the disruption of her educational dream. In a charged, dramatic scene, she hands over her mangalsutra to a police officer, thereby announcing the break up of her recent marriage. It is a historic scene. In it, we witness something unreal turning into an emotionally charged reality.

Bollywood specialises in constructing such moments, but even by Bollywood standards, this is a rare one. Not many film scripts have shown a village girl opting to walk away from her marriage in less than a week. Her brutish husband is confused. His wealth, status and aggression don’t help him. The audience enjoys the moment of his disgrace.

Renowned historian and the director of the Nehru Museum (now renamed), Ravinder Kumar, used to say that even if a village school seems poor, a little girl’s walk from home, in a uniform, socks, and shoes can be transformative. Of course, it is a romantic thought, but it has truth. Laapataa Ladies reveals a deeper truth — that education by itself is not enough. To realise its potential for social change, education requires an encouraging ethos in society and within the family. A hostile home and wider ethos can destroy what little schools might have achieved.

A major study found a few years ago that girls use education to postpone marriage. When parents and relatives push them, they beg to be allowed another year or two. Marriage will end my education, say the girls while the parents, strategically, retort that the in-laws might allow them to attend college. In Laapataa Ladies, we hear both arguments, and the story shows which one is right.

Krishna Kumar is a former director of NCERT. His new book Thank You, Gandhi, will be published in September. The views expressed are personal

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