It's been ages since a film tugged so hard at your heartstrings. Ages since a film exuded the aroma of the middleclass in such glorious and vivacious colours.
Don't hold director Pradeep Sarkar's long experience as an ad-maker against him. 'Laaga Chunari Mein Daag' is a very stylishly told tale of a fallen women's rise from matters of the flesh to the spirit.
Whether it's Varanasi's hectic daytime flamboyance or Mumbai's steamy nightlife, cinematographer Sushir Rajpal lays out a sumptuous feast for the eyes.
Though it tells the tale of a terrible moral downfall, the mood is kept vibrant and real to the end.
As we watch the two sisters Badki (Rani) and Chukti (Konkona) dancing on the ghats of the Ganga in Varanasi, a strange alchemy occurs between the audience and the film. One is immediately drawn into the world of Pradeep Sarkar's decadent but dignified characters as they go from abject bankruptcy to unscheduled redemption.
The scenes are written with an eye for inner detail. You'll love the initial scenes where a film crew from Mumbai descends on the family and provides the much-needed financial respite. You'll also love the kitchen cackle between mother Jaya Bachchan and her two bubbly daughters.
And one watches Badki's transformation from an innocent small-town girl to a high-class prostitute with a mixture of dismay and admiration.
There are some really interesting male characters - the cheesy but suave executive (Harsh Chaya) who first tells Rani the easy way for a pretty Class 10 drop-out to make money, or the ad agency owner (Kunal Kapoor) who can't eat without soiling his clothes. Or Anupam Kher, subdued and embittered, as the family head who has given up his responsibilities.
Director Sarkar has cast every character with actors who look and feel right for the part.
'Laaga Chunari...' has pace and grace. And it has Rani Mukherjee who has evolved into one of the most substantial actresses of today. Her interpretation of the character's heartbreaking change from innocence to reluctant compromise is fleshed out in glorious colours.
The rest of the cast is also exceptional, specially Konkona who finally stands up and fights for the rights of her sister who has been compromising herself to look after the family. In a film that belongs to Rani, Konkona creates ample space for herself.
This film has one of Jaya Bachchan's finest performances too. The wrinkled brow, the perpetual tensions of running a home with nil finances, the horror and guilt of letting her daughter cross the path of morality - it's a role any 50-plus actress would die for.
And Hema Malini in one single dance number leaves you stunned with her beauty.
The narrative converges on these three women and weaves the other equally well-etched characters' around them.
Not a cliched tale of the fallen woman, 'Laaga Chunari...' ranks among the best films in recent years on the question of sexual morality.
Watch how Sarkar cuts the sequence where Rani calls her mother back home just before her first sexual compromise, or the delicate way the title song floats from the waters of the Ganga to the smoky rooms of the rich and the power-hungry.
'Laaga Chunari Mein Daag' is easily one of the most vivid portrayals of feminine angst and redemption in recent times.