In the fictitious central Indian state Nirmal Pradesh, two brides get swapped during a train ride. Perhaps only social orthodoxy can be blamed for the women being treated like misplaced luggage.

Both women are wearing identical, uniform-like red saris. Both have their faces concealed by long veils. Deepak (Sparsh Srivastava) takes home Pradeep’s wife Pushpa (Pratibha Ranta), while his actual spouse Phool (Nitanshi Goel) is stranded on a railway station.

Police inspector Manohar (Ravi Kishan) is nonplussed but calm. The coolest cat in this rural menagerie, Manohar begins investigating the swap with the acumen of an Indian Marge Gunderson. While Pushpa adjusts to Deepak’s vast family, Phool takes shelter with tea seller Manju (Chhaya Kadam).

Laapataa Ladies creates a mood of enchantment that befits its fairy tale premise. Kiran Rao’s beguiling comedy about accidental empowerment is based on Biplab Goswami’s novella-like story and has been written by Sneha Desai.

Rao directs the genial mayhem with an assured hand and an eye on the small details of rural life. The unhurried flavour to the twist-laden plot allows the dilemma to play out in entertaining ways.

The 126-minute movie lends a light touch to weighty themes, from the erasure of individual identity that results from face-covering to the surprises that lurk behind veils. Pushpa has a more complicated time than Phool, which could well have been its own movie.

The doll-like Phool, beautifully played by Nitanshi Goel, is in excellent company. Apart from Manju, Phool hangs out with the urchin Chottu, played by the talented Satender Soni from Ab to Sab Bhagwan Bharose.

An array of other known as well as unknown faces provide the laughs and tears in a sensitively handled comedy of manners. These include Daood Hussain as Deepak’s friend and Geeta Agrawal Sharma as Deepak’s mother.

Chhaya Kadam, portraying a working-class saviour of runaways once again after Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat, is stupendous as Manju, who has no need for men and no time for Phool’s deference to tradition. Ravi Kishan nails the film’s raised-eyebrow tone. His investigation into Pushpa’s antecedents contribute some of the funniest scenes.

The balance between feel-good drama and progressive messaging endures even after some earnest speechifying and unconvincing plot turns. Despite being in a realistic register, Laapataa Ladies allows itself flights of fancy that should actually prove self-defeating, but don’t.

Laapataa Ladies celebrates women who find themselves only after losing their way. Kiran Rao, making her comeback after her directorial debut Dhobi Ghat (2010), regains her footing too.

Laapataa Ladies (2024).

Also read:

Kiran Rao on ‘Laapataa Ladies’: ‘Comedy disarms and charms you, as opposed to talking down to you’