When Phool (Nitanshi Goel) almost trips while rushing to the train station to accompany husband Deepak (Sparsh Shrivastava) to her new home because of the veil covering her face, she’s told by her mother to pay attention to her feet. The woman tells her that’s the point of the veil––learning how to be a dutiful wife who stays quiet and always looks down. It’s about her modesty, his power. And it’s a tradition to which every newlywed on that train is beholden. So when a crowded compartment and Deepak’s need to use the restroom combine with the late hour and unavoidable fatigue, it shouldn’t be a surprise when he accidentally wakes the wrong woman in his hurry to catch the last bus.

Writer-director Kiran Rao plays it all perfectly with the fast-paced nature of traveling around India amidst a sea of people. (I’ve done it before; chaotic is an understatement.) The beginning of Lost Ladies is a game of musical chairs and confusion as everyone adopts an air of confidence despite having no clue what they’re doing. What’s Jaya (Pratibha Ranta) supposed to do upon realizing she was woken up by the wrong man? The train is already gone and she doesn’t know Deepak is a compassionate romantic who wouldn’t just leave her to fend for herself. So she follows him silently (like a “good wife” should) only for him to discover the error in front of his entire extended family.

Now comes the reason Rao sets her film in 2001. What would be an easy fix today is suddenly an impossibility––especially considering Deepak’s family are poor farmers. The only person with a means of instant communication is Jaya (a mobile phone was part of her dowry), but the last thing she wants to do is be reunited with her brutish gangster of a husband. The question, then, is whether her duplicity in using a fake name and hiding the cell is for safety or opportunity. Could she be part of a criminal syndicate duping families and stealing their jewelry via sham weddings? Or has she simply embraced a stroke of good luck to procure her freedom?

Add Phool stranded at a train station miles away, the kindly folk there who take her under their wing (Chhaya Kadam’s Manju Mai and Satendra Soni’s Chotu), and a crooked cop (Ravi Kishan’s Manohar) keeping tabs on this wild tale of swapped wives to better gauge who might offer him the most profit, and TIFF’s decision to label Sneha Desai’s script (from a story by Biplab Goswami) a “romp” proves appropriate. It’s also quite political (the whole thing is a comment on archaic patriarchal traditions) and extremely sweet––two traits that are only augmented by the infectious humor borne from such a believably absurd scenario.

The real feat, though, is Rao’s ability to balance it so effectively. She’s dealing with four unique trajectories pushing towards four very different endgames. Jaya seeks escape. Deepak desires forgiveness. Phool longs for love. And Manohar craves gold. These realities often take things to extremes, but Rao never forgets they’re all equally important to the work’s success. She’s cutting from one to the next in ways that provide new context, enhance emotional beats, and / or supply punch lines. And all the while each character is learning something too. They’re discovering what it is that truly matters to them (even those who might not seem capable of altruism).

Jaya must consider if earning her freedom at another’s expense is bearable. Deepak must weigh the fact he’s unwittingly found himself in a position to save a stranger as well as his wife. And the tough kindness Phool experiences from Manju Mai opens her eyes to more than the idealistic housewife persona she was born into. It’s one thing to want to be with the man she’s married; it’s another to lose herself in the process. In a culture that’s depicted onscreen as truly dissolving individuality through marriage, this snafu becomes a necessary eye-opener to remind us that personal desires matter too. This institution must be a compromise of both to prosper.

And while Ranta and Goel shine embodying this sense of evolutionary political awakening, Kishan does steal the show. His Manoher is the type of villain you love to hate. Pompous, cruelly witty, and greedy to a fault, but also very intelligent––a detail born from the script, not just a result of his deputy being an innocently naive dolt by comparison. It’s not long after assuming he uses his position for personal gain to understand that doing so demands he also be good at the job. He doesn’t pocket his bribes and ignore his cases; he solves them to better position his leverage. Finding out he might yet have a heart too is a bonus.

Built upon the learned religious- and social-based callousness of a partnership that should have its foundation poured with love alone, Lost Ladies uses its period-specific setting to reveal how those supposed imperatives can also be unlearned. It’s a progressive story without being preachy. A rom-com / mystery hybrid weaving its themes into the fabric of its plot to avoid talking down to an audience that understands its motives all too well. That it’s so much fun almost seems impossible considering how much Rao and company are juggling, but that’s the beauty of an airtight script, great acting, and impeccable craft (the editing and music are highlights). With the right distributor, this feel-good Indian comedy could have major U.S. box-office appeal.

Lost Ladies premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival and will be released in January 2024.

Grade: B

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