Ladies Only


Reviewed by: Sunil Chauhan

Ladies Only
"If the aim was to ensure no fixed, easy portrait of Indian women emerges, Liz John is successful."

Ladies Only doesn’t attempt to debate the exclusively female carriages on Indian trains that give it its name. Director Rebana Liz John is more interested in getting to know the wildly varied women who occupy its seats. In a similar vein to vox-popping films like Pasolini’s Love Meetings or Ju Anqi’s There’s A Strong Wind In Beijing, she quizzes passengers on the lives that await them when they disembark, getting their thoughts on idle daughters-in-law, feckless husbands, children, parents, education, marriage and pregnancy. Bookending these open-ended interviews are pointed readings of poems that Liz John (off-screen, but an un-ignorable presence) gives passengers to read, pressing them to consider themes of constraint and freedom as they apply to Indian women. Some are inspired and provoked. Others become unsettled, or simply treat it as an intellectual exercise. They are also probed on their relationship to anger, asked when they last got angry, or why they aren’t angrier. Encapsulating the pragmatism shared between many here, one woman responds “What’s the point of getting angry? I just do it.”

As the film progresses, it becomes a parade of Indian womanhood. If the aim was to ensure no fixed, easy portrait of Indian women emerges, Liz John is successful. She meets commuters including one punkily styled woman who considers that Mumbai could not be counted as a fashionable city as people dress too practically, another disenchanted with the idea of marriage who professes a fascination with Gone Girl on account of its female anti-heroine, and a young Muslim girl who explains that wearing the hijab doesn’t mean she won’t pursue her academic goals. Along the way, the carriage is revealed as more than just a method of transport – sellers come to hawk jewellery, food and other wares.

If the format can play a little rigidly (it would be well suited to a gallery setting), the film does give you a glimpse into the lives these women lead before and after they board; what their minds are occupied by en route to their destination. Moreover, you get an insight into what they think. If Liz John is not always subtle in what she wants her subjects (and by extension, viewers) to consider - and by spending only a short time with each passenger, you are inevitably left wanting to know more about them - while it lasts, Ladies Only is a journey worth the ride.

Reviewed on: 14 Jul 2022
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Ladies Only packshot
In the women-only compartments of Mumbai’s complex local train network, passengers share their anger, aspirations and stories of womanhood.

Director: Rebana Liz John

Writer: Rebana Liz John

Year: 2021

Runtime: 79 minutes

Country: Germany, India


Doc/Fest 2022

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