Winner of Best Feature at the Berlin Independent Film Festival and Best Film on Gender Equality at the UK Asian Film Festival, writer/director Aditya Kripalani's Tikli and Laxmi Bomb has been making major waves on the indie film festival circuit with its timely, thought-provoking message and absolutely terrific ensemble cast.
In the film, two sex workers who go by the names of Tikli (Chitrangada Chakraborty) and Laxmi Bomb (Vibhawari Deshpande) decide to kick men out of their intensely patriarchal system and develop a cooperative that runs the system for women and by women. How do they do things differently? And just how far can they go in an overarching system, culturally and politically, that is overwhelming patriarchal and a potential obstacle along the way.
The title, for those who don't know, refers to two particularly popular types of firecrackers in India - Tikli is one noted for having a short fuse, while a Laxmi Bomb has a slower burn but a louder bang. Such is the case with these two women ... Deshpande's Laxmi is a 40-year-old sex worker who isn't a fan of the patriarchal world in which she lives, yet she accepts it as the way her life is destined to be. She carries a rather intense loyalty to Mhatre (Upendra Limaye), her long-time pimp and kinda sorta caretaker. She's tasked by Mhatre to show the new girl, Putul, the ropes. Putul earns her nickname, Tikli, after stabbing one of her aggressive customers.
Despite the imperfection of her life, Laxmi is rather frustrated that Tikli doesn't just align with a system where police harassment occurs despite Mhatre's bribes and where A.T. (Mayur More), their supposed bodyguard, ignores their calls and ultimately risks their lives. The younger Tikli, on the other hand, isn't one to quickly accept the abuses of others and works to get Laxmi to join with her in building a gang of women who will look out for one another. While Laxmi resists, the abuses of Mhatre build and before long the two women are building a network of women empowering themselves in the best ways that the know how despite continuing to work in an illegal profession in a society where they will likely never be more than second class citizens.
Tikli and Laxmi Bomb is a casually paced, immensely involving and thoughtful film that was shot on the streets of Mumbai with almost 100% natural lighting. While the writer/director is male, the vast majority of the film's crew is comprised of female film professionals in an intentional effort to keep the film from moving along through a male's viewpoint.
For the most part, this approach seems to succeed.
Tikli and Laxmi Bomb benefits greatly from its terrific ensemble cast, most notably the finely nuanced and complementary performances by its co-leads, Chakraborty and Deshpande, whose ability to balance their energies with one another is simply stellar and keeps the film feeling well-paced despite a 2 1/2 hour running time. Among the supporting players, Kritika Pande and Divya Unny are particularly strong as of the early members of the gang, while Suchitra Pillai is also incredibly strong here.
Tikli and Laxmi Bomb has been adapted for the screen from a book by writer/director Kripalani, whose patient direction of the film gives you the sense that he completely understood which parts of the book would translate best to the big screen. It also seems to be true that Kripalani has welcomed the insights of his largely female cast and crew and, as a result, the film becomes a rather remarkable story of the women who unite against a culture that seems build to persecute them...and the men who, intentionally and not, reinforce that culture by any means necessary.
To his credit, Kripalani avoids exploiting the stories of these women by largely keeping the violence against them off the big screen, though certainly not its consequences. It's a bold choice and yet remarkably effective as we're drawn more and more into their lives and their stories.
For more information on Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, visit the film's Facebook page linked to in the credits. If you get a chance to check it out, you'll want to support this visionary, bold and incredibly resonant motion picture.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic