Director: Aditya Kripalani

Cast: Vibhawari Deshpande, Chitrangada Chakraborty, Suchitra Pillai, Divya Unny, Upendra Limaye, Kritika Pande, Mia Maelzer

One would imagine Aditya Kripalani’s Tikli and Laxmi Bomb has a lot going for it. The director is a trained screenwriter and a novelist, which means he has an eye for detail and a mind for research. It is based on the intriguing premise of his own book – one that revolves around a group of spunky Mumbai sex workers who decide to eliminate the middle “man” (and hence, patriarchy) by forming their own co-operative. The theme is rousing and timely; ‘sisterhood’ is the keyword of the hour. The conflict – of having to resist the worst of desperate masculinity – is already deep-rooted into the core of their profession; it doesn’t need to be ‘created’ or dramatized. It is shot at real locations across the city in different shades of night.

And besides the all-female primary cast, it identifies as one of the rare Indian productions in which the heads of most technical departments – cinematography, editing, art direction, assistant direction and costume design – are women. As a result, the cinematic gaze is distinctly ‘normal’ and un-male – at no point does it feel like the makers are exploiting the physicality of the subject rather than the psychology of it.

Yet, despite an irresistible blueprint, the execution lacks brevity. As with most proud indies, virtue-signaling is ingrained into its form. Something is not quite right with the filmmaking. With a running time of almost 150 minutes, the struggle is amplified; Kripalani is unable to fully come to terms with storytelling as a visual medium. When a director is uncomfortable with a crowded palette, it shows – the characters visibly play to type, the different moods and ethnicities and personalities feel like tick-marks on a script, and there is an obvious effort to over-play symbols and emotions. In its bleaker moments, you might be forgiven for expecting the sex workers to don matching jerseys and croon, “Chak De! India”.

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The littler things feel stagey – like the way all of the girls enter the frame together when their leaders call for a meeting at a shady quarter bar. And the way a mandatory Mumbai monologue comparing the city to its tortured protagonists appears out of nowhere, as if to remind us of the author’s intellectual control. Or the way at least one of them is always puffing on a cigarette, as more of a statement than an organic habit – the age-old movie tradition of smoking being equated with defiance, “looseness” and liberalism plagues a universe that doesn’t even need to pose for effect.

Most of all, the shaky handheld ‘documentary’ look might work in context of the characters and their lifestyle – after all, they thrive in pockets of neon-lit darkness. But it is at odds with the language of the story: that is, the beats of an orthodox narrative. The motif of a young, inexperienced sex worker (a fine Chitrangada Chakraborty, as Putul a.k.a Tikli) inspiring a gang of jaded colleagues (led by an equally fine Vibhawari Deshpande, as the veteran Laxmi) to a revolution is, by design, a rhythmic “plot” susceptible to an underdog formula and compressed musical montages (of success, failure – usually to upbeat or sad songs).

But the camerawork and treatment is more suited to the lucid stream-of-consciousness style of, say, an American Honey or a Tangerine. That is, movies that aren’t so committed to being movies as they are to being free-flowing snapshots of a niche milieu.

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It feels like a mismatch of energies here, especially when the soundtrack decides to define the passing of time and trends. The transitions are awkward, the dialogues too ‘written’. Even if the intention is to disorient us with the blurry ugliness of this nocturnal culture, there is a strange unevenness to some of the more aggressive action in the film – like Tikli repeatedly managing to out-maneuver potential rapists/killers with a knife, or a climactic slum-chase sequence set to the pretentious obscenity of a hip-hop track. Hence, the mere presence of mainstream tropes like villainous men (cops, clients, politicians, pimps), technology (security apps, viral footage), cheeky entrepreneurship (loyalty program schemes, two-on-one offers) – while being effective ideas on paper – don’t really fit into the unrehearsed imagery of Laxmi and Tikli’s transformative journey. Their chemistry, despite some stilted lines (“this is a man’s world; don’t try changing the system”), doesn’t deserve to be restrained by the pressures of close-ended narratives.

At one point, the writers cleverly try to address this problem through Tikli. She romanticizes their situation by comparing it to Rang De Basanti, after which Laxmi wryly reminds her of the ending. By referencing an iconic template of young revolution, the maker is essentially admitting to the ‘design’ of his story here. He is essentially suggesting that life, in his film, is reflecting the movies – and that it is possible even in the direst of environments. But what becomes clear early on, and what someone like Madhur Bhandarkar has failed to recognize while ‘exposing’ the vagaries of various ecosystems, is that lifelessness is beyond the movies.

Certain ecosystems are simply ongoing tragedies whose explosions, too, are drowned out by the buzz of traffic on the streets. After all, firecrackers such as Tiklis and Laxmi bombs are just that – artificial eruptions and fleeting, but ultimately meaningless, sparks of light.

[Tikli and Laxmi Bomb is now streaming on Netflix]

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