So that is where all of the women are: the 1970s. Well, we are used to being left behind.
Lahu ke Do Rang is about two brothers finding each other and avenging their father. To my surprise, while men are protagonists, the movie is full of women: young, old, rich, poor, married, widowed, single, orphaned. They have names and motivations, they help and hinder, rage and love.
And inadvertently, even as it seems to focus on the men, it shows the consequences of being a woman left behind: poverty, uncertainty, hope, sadness, ingenuity. In turn, the women enliven what is otherwise a pretty standard plot: brothers, unknown to each other, one working for the “good” guys, the other the “bad,” uniting in the end to defeat the villain.
The movie opens with Samsher Singh (Vinod Khanna) in Hong Kong, on the run from the British. He takes refuge in apartment, the home of Indian-Chinese Suzy (Helen). She hides him from the British and they soon fall in love. Shamsher’s appearance is a sign: Suzy’s mother had always dreamed of returning to India; since her mother’s death, now this is Suzy’s dream. We don’t learn much else about Suzy’s mother, but what a sad detail. Why was she in China? Why couldn’t she return to India?
Samsher spends six months with Suzy, engaging in a typical Bollywood romance, including a romantic duet. But just as Suzy prepares to tell Samsher she is pregnant, he explains he can finally return to India. She tells him to go, to send for her and the child when it is safe.
Only when Samsher returns home do we learn he is already married to Ladjo (Indrani Mukherjee), and has a son. Ladjo is overjoyed to see Samsher, and he confesses to her about his affair. Lajo is upset, but then says she accepts the other woman as her sister, since Suzy helped save Samsher’s life.
One would expect Ladjo to be angry, to refuse to acknowledge Suzy. Instead, we see the complex bonds between women, understanding the strange circumstances of war and rebellion. That her beloved husband lives is the most important thing to Ladjo, and she will accept those circumstances.
However, not long after this reunion, Samsher is betrayed by a comrade and murdered. Lajo and her son Raj are heartbroken. Worse still, Suzy never learns of his death. She continues hoping he will return to her, sending letters and styling herself as a bride. Lajo, of course, dresses as a widow for the rest of her life. We see two women whose entire lives are defined by their relationships to men. And especially tragically, Suzy cannot move on. She dutifully raises her son, but she never stops hoping Samsher will return.
The movie flashes forward to then-present day. Raj (also played by Vinod Khanna) is a police inspector. Suzy’s son, Suraj (Danny Denzongpa), is now a kung fu expert and diver. Raj wants to bring his father’s murdered to justice. Suraj is hired by the murderer to find missing gold buried at the bottom of a lake.
In the meantime, Suraj meets a street-wise orphan, Shabbo (Baby Shalu). This seems like a typical boy’s role. Perhaps Shabbo is a girl because later she helps Suraj court a woman, Roma (Shabana Azmi). Shabbo is funny, clever, and has fantastic fashion sense. Shabbo and Suraj even share a musical montage, friends and partners-in-crime.
Raj and Suraj meet Roma, the stepdaughter of Samsher’s murderer. Roma inherited a tea plantation from her father, and runs it, even taking the time to kiss a laborer’s baby. She also exports drugs for her stepfather and cares for her drug-addicted mother. Suraj tries to court Roma, but becomes too tongue-tied. Roma at first rebuffs Raj’s advances, but starts to fall for him after he saves her from assault. That’s a trope I’m happy to leave in the past.
Roma is cool, competent, determined, running legitimate and illegitimate businesses. Can’t we just have that without sexual violence? Can’t we just have nice things?
Eventually, the hunt for his father’s murderer takes him to Hong Kong. Before he leaves, his mother tells him about Suzy and her soon, and asks him to find them. Raj finds Suzy. She is elated when she thinks Samsher has returned; shattered when she learns the truth. But Raj finally fulfills her dream, and takes her to India. Ladjo welcomes Suzy into her home.
Finally the plots converge, and the brothers confront one another. Suraj is angry with Raj, and rejects his offers of family. He describes the difficult life he, and his mother, have led because of Samsher’s abandonment. Suzy and Ladjo are both widows, but Ladjo and Raj still had a security that Suzy and Suraj did not. What seems like two similar circumstances are actually vastly different, and all because of their relationships to a man.
And in the end, the brothers find common ground and avenge their father. The movie closes with Roma and Raj’s wedding, a closing shot of Raj, Suzy, Roma, Ladjo, Suraj, and Shabbo. They have created a family, initially through simple blood and marriage, but also through friendship and affection.
This message of “family” is especially resonant given how often women are portrayed as competing against each other. Instead, Ladjo and Suzy find common ground. Roma and Shabbo, despite their checkered pasts, are welcomed to the family.
Not that this movie is perfect, and I think I might love it for that. A female henchman (henchwoman?) winds up murdered to send a message, and Roma’s mother is purposefully addicted to drugs and is later kept isolated in a cabin instead of getting help. But I’m glad these characters exist. Movies have no problem showing a wide arrange of male characters, but stick to just one or two female tropes. Lahu ke Do Rang shows that women can just be people.