Abhiroop Basu’s short film Laali is the story of a lonely laundryman played by Pankaj Tripathi. His shop overlooking a busy street in Kolkata is the quietest place because he lives there with his loneliness, nostalgia and truckloads of memories of lost love.
He has a searing pain in his neck, and can’t move it much, but his sweet and docile companion – the clay dancing doll – sits prettily on the shelf above his bed, and moves its neck at the slightest nudge, sometimes with affection and at times in affirmation.
The rickety radio-cum-tape recorder gives him company 24×7 by incessantly playing songs to soothe his lonely heart, and the bootlegger slips in a bottle every night to help him gulp his melancholy.
The late-night radio show anchored by RJ Laali reminds him that neither time stays the same always nor everyone is fortunate enough to get love in life. The other Laali stuck in his head, heart and on the ceiling above the bed, only adds to his insidious sadness. Still unlike these two characters, the man remains the unnamed protagonist of Laali.
The flurry of customers, who come to give him clothes for ironing, and collect it from him with nonchalance after a couple of days, are his only human contact. When he is not ironing clothes, he is lost in his thoughts gazing at the view outside his shop.
The red velvet gown that comes hidden in a pile of clothes one day adds a hue of happiness in his monochromatic existence and breaks the monotony of his quotidian life. He tries looking for the owner but fails. Thinking that it is unclaimed, he decides to keep it with him.
He treats the red dress as a guest and welcomes its presence with warmth hospitality. He showers his affection at the red gown, makes it sit like a princess on a chair, and even sleeps next to it wearing a sherwani that someone had given for ironing the other day.
The next morning, a lady in blue sari (Ekavali Khanna) comes to claim it; the rude conversation wakes up the man from his sweet dream, and he reluctantly hands over the red gown to her. She snatches it and leaves away in a black car. Her fleeting appearance gives the much-needed twist to this simple tale.
Soon after this drama, a wedding procession moves past his shop, and the man who is sitting inside dressed as a groom himself is way too shocked at the turn of events and keeps blankly staring at the joyous crowd.
The metaphor extends in the last scene that pans out with a long shot of the wedding procession. It shows the groom missing from the white horse, which, in a way, poignantly captures the loneliness of the migrant man, who lives in Kolkata all by himself and stays that way till the end. The voice of RJ Laali once again proclaims the irony of time and love, and this man’s experience with the red gown mirrors it to a T.
The highlight of Laali is the story of a man, and explores the shades of his loneliness in the context of a red gown; dialogues are bare minimum but crisp.
The sound design is another highlight. The sublime sounds stand out in the screenplay, and the film’s sound script plays out like perfume, present and yet invisible; one needs to absorb its beauty as it plays out quietly.
The lead actor carries the weight of the entire story on his shoulders, and does a wonderful job of playing a 40 something migrant man from Bihar settled in Kolkata; his measured performance reminded me of actor Manoj Bajpayee’s portrayal of loneliness in Devashish Makhija’s Bhonsle. These two actors are masters of melancholy. They say a lot more when they say nothing and it is the heaviness of silence that adds a lot of weight to their performances, and pulls you in their reel world.
The detailing in each scene is appreciable.
The play of light and dark via camerawork and tight shots in the cramped space add another element to director Abhiroop Basu’s storytelling.
It is a sweet and simple story, meticulously executed and well-told. It is playing at the ongoing Dharamshala International Film Festival till November 4.
Here’s the link: https://online.diff.co.in/film/laali/