There’s no escaping the topic of treatment of women around the world right now. From the ominous spread of sexual assault accusations and the accompanying fallout in Hollywood, to the way the American political system has been similarly affected by a sudden rise in visibility and weight given to the calls for justice from women who’ve been victims of male aggressors. However, though we may be the loudest, America is hardly the only part of the world in which women are harassed, persecuted, and treated poorly, and several films out of India over the last few years have made bold attempts to address the mind-boggling unbalance between one half of the population and the other.
The latest film to tackle the challenges faced by women in India is debutante director Aditya Kripalani’s Tikli and Laxmi Bomb. A passion project written, directed, edited by, and based on a novel from Kripalani, Tikli and Laxmi Bomb takes a somewhat familiar topic in Indian storytelling, the noble courtesan, and turns it on its ear in an attempt to highlight the plight of women in the world’s oldest profession. The results are bold and often bracing, a no holds barred look at not only the lifestyle of the common working girl, but also the constant threat of violence they face is a facet of this story that has rarely been shown in such stark focus.
Laxmi (Vibhawari Deshpande) is a prostitute, but not the glamorous kind we typically see in films, and certainly not the flashy type that has populated India’s films about these women for decades. She’s what we might refer to as a tomboy, wearing loose fitting men’s shirts and ankle length skirts with no makeup to soften her striking features. She does the dirty work of a street walker when needed, but her main duty is organizing and keeping in line a stable of women who work under a pimp named Mhatre. When Mhatre shows up with a brassy broad from Bengal named Putul (Chitrangada Chakraborty), Laxmi’s predictable existence is turned upside down as this girl, nicknamed Tikli, begins to challenge the whole system.
An unlikely pair, Tikli and Laxmi band together to organize their team of women to find a way to cut Mhatre out of the business entirely and take control of the fruits of their labors themselves. This understandably upsets their former boss and the film follows the increasingly violent repercussions of their actions in lingering detail.
Tikli and Laxmi Bomb is unique in its approach to the material, which definitely makes it worth checking out. The day to day lives of these women, particularly the title characters are followed in depth as if to say, “prostitutes, they’re just like us”, as they shop, sleep, fart, drink, smoke, tell stories about where they’ve been and what they hope to become. Their work is shown in just enough detail to demystify the ins and outs of the business – so the speak – but not quite enough to become salacious. It’s an interesting way of showcasing these characters, typically relegated to mistresses or tragedies in need of redemption, as people whose stories are just as important as the men they service.
As the auteur of the piece, I’m sure it was challenging for Kripalani to find a way to adapt his own work in an easily consumable way for a feature film, and indeed, it does feel like he was a bit precious with his material. At nearly three hours, the film can be a patience tester from time to time, and the real conflicts that propel the story don’t actually kick in until the hour mark, which means that it definitely requires a commitment. You can tell Kripalani loves these characters, they each get their time to shine and we learn a lot about them throughout the film, but it feels like he was loathe to let some things go. The film is fairly episodic in nature, with one event leading to another in fairly regular succession, which leads me to think that maybe it would be more digestible as a limited series, perhaps for streaming. Nonetheless, I’ve now seen the film a few times and it does pack an emotional punch, even if it takes a minute to find its feet.
With films like Lipstick Under My Bhurka, Angry Indian Goddesses, Parched, and Sexy Durga making news across India for their bold portrayals of women, the market is primed for a feature like Tikli & Laxmi Bomb. Taking characters who are typically relegated to victims and instead making them heroes is an interesting twist that will serve the film well as it looks for an audience. Kripalani and his lead cast put in solid work that definitely warrants a watch.