Tikli and Laxmi Bomb


Another day at the office.

(2017) Drama (Self-Released) Vibhawari Deshpande, Chitrangada Chakraborty, Divya Unny, Upendra Limaye, Suchitra Pillai, Kritika Pande, Mia Maelzer, Ralchi Mansha, Bageshi Jeshirao, Manasi Bhawalkar, Mayur More, Kamil, Saharsh Kumar Shukla. Directed by Aditya Kripalani

 

Prostitution may be the world’s oldest profession but it certainly hasn’t gotten any respect. Sex workers are often characterized as drug addicts who have no other skills other than lying on their back. Most societies, including America, tend to keep prostitutes at an arm’s length in popular culture. Often they aren’t referred to and when portrayed in popular culture they are either victims or plucky hookers doing their utmost to get out of the business.

In India, like most other countries, being a sex worker is a dangerous occupation. Laxmi (Deshpande) has been one for awhile. She works for a pimp named Mhatre (Limaye) for whom she is mainly an administrator although she hangs out on the streets with the other girls. She rarely turns tricks herself however. One night, Mhatre brings a Bengali woman named Putul (Chakraborty) into the fold and instructs Laxmi to show her the ropes. Instantly Putul – whom Laxmi soon dubs Tikli – annoys the older woman. Tikli has a mouth that often gets her into trouble, and as free-spirited as she appears to be she has a hair-trigger temper as well.

Tikli soon notices that the women are treated horribly by Mhatre and his security man JT. When the somewhat incompetent security man doesn’t pick up the phone when she’s frantically calling for help, she extricates herself from a potentially horrible situation with a hidden knife and heads back to the street corner to kick the man who was supposed to be protecting her in the gonads.

Laxmi is horrified and is certain that this will bring the wrath of Mhatre down on her and it does; he arranges for the girls to be detained at the local police station where a group of corrupt cops take turns raping Tikli. Eventually she comes home, grim-faced and Laxmi begins to feel some sympathy for her, even though she doesn’t like her much. Mhatre has forced Tikli to live with Laxmi and Tikli snores and farts and smokes, all of which annoy Laxmi.

But Tikli has ideas that frighten Laxmi, like the revolutionary thought that if the girls are not getting protection anyway that there’s no use for the pimp or his muscle so they may as well work for themselves. That means paying a percentage of their earnings to the local crime lord who is the boss of Mhatre, but if they can get the girls to pool their earnings and work together, the plan might just work. Most of Mhatre’s stable goes with Tikli especially when Laxmi supports the plan although one intransigent veteran hooker named Manda (Pillai) refuses. More and more girls begin to defect to the gang of prostitutes who now call themselves the Tikli and Laxmi Bomb gang. They come up with an ingenious loyalty program to lure and keep repeat customers.

All of this gets the attention of their old boss who is none too pleased with the willful Tikli or the girls in the gang. Things begin to get more and more serious as Mhatre and his men launch escalating reprisals but Tikli and Laxmi are determined to beat the system but with the system so stacked against them can they prevail?

First-time director Kripalani is going for authenticity, filming on the mean streets of Mumbai and often in subdued lighting. That makes the picture dark and murky at times but it also feels like you’re right there on the streets with them. Kripalani also wrote the novel the movie is based on and while the story is fictional it has the ring of the real to it, making the story and characters believable in ways other narrative features can’t compare to.

I don’t know how much research was done into the lives of these ladies but it feels like there was a lot. The movie doesn’t gloss over anything, from the vulnerability to physical attacks that sex workers around the world are subject to, to the camaraderie – and occasional rivalry – the girls have. I don’t know if there is a drug problem among Indian prostitutes – many prostitutes in the States use alcohol and recreational drugs to help them deal with the psychological ramifications of their job – but it isn’t really depicted her. The ladies all smoke and love to go to clubs to dance; occasionally they even drink but there isn’t a lot of that going on in the movie.

Chakraborty is absolutely delightful as the spunky Tikli and Deshpande gives a multi-layered performance as Laxmi. It was the latter character who intrigued me more; she doesn’t dress as seductively as her fellow sex workers, rarely wears make-up and comes off almost tomboyish but she is serenely beautiful in her own way.

Despite the sexual subject there’s no overt nudity or at least nothing is shown beyond bare shoulders and legs. The sexuality isn’t what I’d call gratuitous here; it is handled as matter-of-factly as the women themselves would normally. In a lot of ways I thought of this film as a kind of Norma Rae for sex workers and you wouldn’t be far off the mark.

The movie is just a shade under three hours long so this isn’t a movie you get into lightly. It requires a commitment of time and patience and American audiences are notorious about lacking both. The movie isn’t generally available yet in the States for streaming purposes and continues to make the rounds on the Asian festival circuit but the producers haven’t ruled out appearances in American festivals or on streaming services here in the States. This is very different than what Americans tend to think of as Indian films; American audiences are only just discovering that Indian films are as diverse and as high-quality as the Sub-Continent itself and this particular film is one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any serious lover of all things cinematic.

REASONS TO GO: A realistic look at the plight of sex workers. The score has a bluesy edge that is unexpected and welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the acting is a little rough around the edges. The movie might be a little bit too long for attention-challenged American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity as well as rape – the latter mainly implied rather than depicted graphically.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed on street corners in Mumbai largely used by sex workers and their clients.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lipstick Under My Burkha
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Blade of the Immortal

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Love Me


Diamonds are a mail order bride's best friend.

Diamonds are a mail order bride’s best friend.

(2014) Documentary (Powershot) Bobby, Eric, Michael, Robert, John, Ron, Travis, Inna, Svitlana, Vitalina, Elena, Bob. Directed by Jonathon Narducci

Florida Film Festival-2014

Mail order brides have been a business since the 19th century as lonely farmers, mostly in North America, brought over women from mostly Europe. Often there was limited correspondence between the prospective groom and the object of his purchase and generally the transaction (for make no mistake – this was a business deal) was consummated before the buyer had even seen his bride-to-be. The trade expanded in the 20th century to Asia and Africa as lonely American men tried to find alternative ways to discover happiness.

The business still exists today although it is much more refined and in some ways, more high tech. Websites have sprung up on which prospective brides can put their pictures up and correspond via e-mail with their prospective husbands at their leisure. Businesses like A Foreign Affair (which gets the lion’s share of screen time here) have created the ultimate singles bar which is always open.

We follow the journeys of five clients of AFA and one of an Australian service. called Elena’s Models (run by a former Russian mail order bride herself) to the Ukraine to find potential brides. All of the men go with high hopes, some with specific women in mind to meet and hopefully develop a relationship with. The women are all uniformly beautiful; the often seductive client photos all turn out to be legitimate, which was a worry I would have had were I to be in a situation like this – that someone you corresponded with had put up a picture of a model or an actress and was not representing herself honestly.

But of course there are all sorts of ways to represent oneself honesty. Some of the women portrayed here are genuinely eager to find love, but at least one or two were essentially in it to milk as much money as they possibly could out of their American “sugar daddies.” This isn’t a cheap process by the way; if you don’t have the wherewithal to plunk down tens of thousands of dollars, this isn’t a process you should probably undertake although, as one client shrugs, what’s happiness worth? AFA arranges group trips to the Ukraine to facilitate face-to-face meetings between clients and prospective brides. While these trips are optional, they are recommended. All five of our AFA clients are going on a winter trip chaperoned by the head of AFA himself, John Adams who married a Russian woman through a marriage broker service.

The men have varying experiences. Ron, a North Carolina divorcee with grown children, finds that this isn’t the right fit for him and winds up dating a local woman after returning from the Ukraine. The other four men have relationships of varying success with women they either met online through AFA or on the trip. One actually gets married (and delivers one of the steamiest kisses you’ll ever see in a documentary), while the others fizzle out more or less. The expectations of some of the men are unreasonable, while others are less disappointed.

The most heartbreaking story is that of Michael, the lone Australian client. He meets and falls in love with a Ukrainian woman who has a young daughter. Michael bonds with both of them. He even marries the girl of his dreams, then goes back to Australia while she returns to the Ukraine. She stops communicating with him and finally he is forced to go back to the Ukraine to confront her. We discover that she never really had any feelings for him but kept stringing him along to “keep her options open.” It’s plain to see that she is not a very nice woman.

That doesn’t mean that the others aren’t. There are 87 men in the Ukraine for every 100 women and even the most beautiful and desirable women there can have trouble finding a good man, especially when you consider that there is an epidemic of alcoholism among Ukrainian men.

There is a good deal of self-delusion that goes on. It is clear that in some cases there is something wrong but the men tend to ignore the very obvious signs. I think most men are pretty much boneheads about women but I think lonely men can desperately cling to the most tenuous of threads, hoping for a tapestry. It certainly serves as a cautionary tale for any single man looking for something permanent, particularly men 40 and older.

Narducci does an excellent job of impartiality; he lets the stories tell themselves and allows both sides of the coin to be expressed. If there is any glaring issue with the movie it’s that there are too many coins. I wonder if we needed six different subjects, although upon reflection I’m not sure which story I’d eliminate. All of the experiences here are distinct from each other. Still, that means the story drags in places and jumps abruptly from one view to another. Also, with an Elena, Inna and Svitlana coming at you, the names of the women are pretty similar and sometimes I found myself the attractive blondes with one another.

Matters of the heart can be tricky and the documentary captures a view of it from a familiar but completely different viewpoint. Most of us will never use a service like A Foreign Affair but for those who do it can literally be a godsend and it serves a unique but necessary purpose. The movie captures how prevalent loneliness is in our society and while that’s not exactly new information it is nonetheless one thing to know about it intellectually than to stare in the faces of these lonely men – and women – who still carry enough hope in them to try something new. You’ve gotta admire that.

REASONS TO GO: Never judges the industry or the individuals. Shows both sides of the story. Occasionally heartbreaking.

REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit in places. Maybe tries to follow too many stories at once?

FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Made its world premiere at the Florida Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Model

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Quiet Ones