The life of Lakshmi (Monali Thakur), the brave young protagonist in Nagesh Kukunoor’s new film, is relentlessly grim. Her father sells her to a pimp (Kukunoor) and then to a petty goon who runs a brothel (Satish Kaushik). She finds a benevolent mother figure in the brothel (Shefali Shah), but that she is souring into a soulless misanthrope seems certain until a sting operation followed by a raid facilitate her release to a woman’s rehabilitation centre, where too she washes soiled utensils and weaves bamboo baskets. She decides to sue her rapists, and a maverick lawyer (Ram Kapur) decides to help.

Based on a true life, Kukunoor’s gaze on the story is unflinching. How do you infuse irony into a subject that is so black and white? Can the ugly be beautiful when the film camera translates it? Hardly do such experiments fructify into cinematic treats that also has a deep moral centre. Among recent films, I can think of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave as an example.

Kukunoor’s story is simple and unilinear. As Lakshmi crosses new, more debilitating boundaries of misery, the film pares down to the literality of a documentary. Kukunoor shows, tells, shows, tells, and shows and tells more. He fleshes out Lakshmi’s torturous initiation into flesh trade and the bitterness of the subjugated women with the most obvious details. As a result , the film loses cinematic steam along the way. The writing (by Kukunoor himself) does not leave anything to the viewer’s imagination; visuals don’t enhance or interpret characters and their situations.

Thakur, a playback singer known for the wonderfully dulcet Sawaar Loon from Lootera (2013), makes her debut in acting. It is an earnest performance; like the film, none of the characters including Thakur’s lead Lakshmi have inner workings or layers. Kaushik and Kukunoor project maleficence with one tone and Shah drums up some impressive histrionics to lend the brothel manager heart and grit.

A film with heart and piety, Lakshmi suffers because of its cloying literality. Watching it is like reading reams of journalistic writing on child trafficking or watching an NGO documentary lauding their own good work.

Lakshmi released in theatres on Friday.

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