The hype surrounding Rajkumar Santoshi's Lajja spoilt the magic of going to the movies for me.
Who'd want to watch a film, least of all review it, when its minutest detail was general knowledge?
Thanks to a 'sneak preview', I already knew the film was based on the many faces of Sita -- with four of Hindi cinema's top actresses -- Manisha Koirala, Mahima Chowdhury, Madhuri Dixit and Rekha essaying the leads.
I am aware that Santoshi's inspiration was the gang rape and killing of a Dalit woman, whose son dared to marry an upper caste girl.
What's left for me to tell?
Not very much.
So, what I've tried to do instead is answer a few of your questions.
Questions that might have cropped up if you've been victim to the blitzkreig of sneak previews, slide shows and interviews with the cast.
Are there really 17 stars in the film?
Yes. And more. After the first ten, I lost count. But watch out for the dramatic entries of Urmila Matondkar, Madhuri and Ajay Devgan amongst others.
How does Santoshi saab make the women dance to his tune?
With the exception of Rekha, all of them do dance to his tune. Urmila sizzles in a pelvic crunching club number while Sonali Bendre demonstrates her visage and graceful movements at a shaadi reception.
Madhuri is at her vivacious best in the Badi mushkil number with Manisha matching her step for step.
With so much dancing then, when does the women's rights thing crop up?
That's the interesting aspect. Despite the song and dance routines, the four leading women do make an impact. This, while sharing three hours of screen time. An achievement in itself.
Santoshi manages to evince the best from his leads.
Vaidehi (Manisha) -- the protagonist, plays the lost, na´ve woman on the run from a callous and selfish husband (Jackie Shroff). A sensitive performance.
Maithili (Mahima) with a single shaadi sequence impresses with her bright and spunky portrayal as the bride who decides her father's had enough of humiliation on her wedding day.
Ramdulari (Rekha) is at her dramatic best as the village midwife, who is courageous enough to stop a man from killing his baby girl. But she's rendered powerless by the village baddie, after her son falls in love with his daughter.
Madhuri slips into her role as Janaki, the heroine of the village nautanki group with consummate ease.
As 'Sita' on stage who asks 'Ram' (her lover) to go through the agni pariksha and as the unwed mother, Madhuri dazzles us with a class act.
With her dancing skills on display and the histrionics to highlight her versatility (especially in the scene where she confronts her mentor, the leery Purushuttam (Tinnu Anand)) no one can match Madhuri.
More than focus on women's rights, what the film tries to convey through the saga of events, is a picture of the atrocities committed against women. This, seen through the eyes of Vaidehi, who literally runs, stumbles and falls into situations around which the smaller stories are woven.
To Santoshi's credit, the narrative, although jerky in bits, is held together nicely.
What do the men do?
Another interesting question.
As the director highlights issues that are basically women-related, Lajja could well be called a 'chick flick'.
But it's the men who are the surprise package.
A weighty Jackie relishes his wife-beating, insensitive, unloving husband role.
And then there's Anil Kapoor, a small time thief, with heart enough to save a marriage.
Devgan in a swashbuckling role is a winner, because he seems completely in character with Balwa -- the avenger, the jungle fugitive who appears wherever evil comes a-lurking in the form of the villain -- Danny Denzongpa.
Why can't villains stop wearing kohl? I'm positive Danny would be even more menacing without it.
Gulshan Grover as Danny's younger brother repeats the performance he's already played in countless films. But their cameos do create an impression.
If I had my way, the film's tag line would read: The many faces of men!
Are all the men bad, then?
Well, the rich ones are devoid of a conscience or are totally spineless daddie's boys.
And the poor ones have the right values but no respect.
Let's not dwell on that aspect, Santoshi's story doesn't deal with them!
What about the much hyped about 'rape' scene?
It's one of those 'sensitively' handled ones, with Rekha handling it with panache. And a lot of vocal chord exercise.
Is Lajja the 'chick flick' of the year?
Haven't quite figured out yet. I was confused when I came out of the theatre.
The film has its light moments (thanks to Johnny Lever), dollops of drama and busloads of action. And a social message.
But the ability of the powerful cast drowns the message it's trying to convey.
That's the problem with making films with a social cause with mass appeal.
Does it have a happy ending?
The challenge of films like this one is to get it to a cohesive end where everything falls in place, so you feel complete when you walk out.
I am not sure Lajja scores here. But it does make a strong appeal at the end in the form of Vaidehi who finally speaks out against oppression.
Her 'shame' is conveyed through a powerful speech, which some people might consider preaching, but probably essential to make sure we get the message and take it to its finale.
Personally though women beating up the baddies won't solve too many of our problems.
But there's humour in the surprise ending, which you'll discover when you watch the film.
A few questions still hover in mind, which deal with the premise of the film.
Why did an influential, rich man -- Jackie Shroff -- agree to an arranged marriage to the middle class Manisha? Surely, there are rich people in India too?
Why did it take Mahima a trip to the marriage mandap to find out that her college sweetheart was actually a spineless fool?
But, let's not go there...
Santoshi deserves more than a generous dose of credit for trying to portray both sides of the story -- through powerful and well sketched characters and treading into a territory which not too many mainstream directors explore.
Is Lajja a worthy watch?
Haven't I told you enough already?
The music review
All you wanted to know about the film