It only takes a few minutes for Kiran Rao’s “Lost Ladies” to reveal the true meaning of its title.

Jaya (Pratibha Ranta) and Phool (Nitanshi Goel) are two new brides who wind up in the same Indian cross-country rail car, faces hidden behind identical red marital veils on the night they become fatefully laapataa. Phool’s husband Deepak (Sparsh Shrivastava) accidentally wakes Jaya in the night and takes her home to his village, while Phool is ushered off the train by Jaya’s husband and abandoned at a railway station (though the misunderstandings sell it, pay attention to how both men treat the other’s bride).  

There are multiple Hindi words for “lost,” each with designated usage. There’s haarna, the infinitive for losing games and battles; the more abstract khona which applies to emotions and bearings (or being lost in Shah Rukh Khan’s eyes); and a third, explicit adjective: laapataa — vanished, unaccounted for, missing. It feels necessary to point out that Rao’s sophomore feature “Lost Ladies” has the Hindi title “Laapataa Ladies,” not just for alliterative effect but specificity. The film is produced by Aamir Khan Productions with a story by Bilab Goswami, screenplay by Sneha Desai, and additional dialogue by Divyanidhi Sharma.

Rao executes the comedy of errors with expert timing, tone, and pacing with a whimsical and unexpectedly stirring two hours of skullduggery and self-discovery that asserts full confidence from the start. While Jaya bides her time in Deepak’s village, impressing his family and friends, the younger Phool (Goel is literally 16) finds herself forced to get street-smart while living at the station, relying on the kindness of others, which mercifully does not fail. Setting the film in 2001 is an easy but gratifying decision that strips away modern tech and tracing (except for Chekhov’s nostalgic Nokia phone).

Goel and Ranta mesmerize as the misplaced brides. Phool is demure, shell-shocked by her circumstances, hopeful that she will be found — even in the face of constant reality checks from a magnificent Chhaya Kadam as the station’s tea shop owner. Jaya is observant and calculated, looking for ways to turn the unfortunate switch in her favor. As Deepak searches for his bride, the audience is treated to intermittent scenes of the brilliant Ravi Kishan as a seemingly corrupt police officer, his eyes manic and mouth full of tobacco as he succumbs to the intrigue of this case.

Unsurprisingly, “Lost Ladies” questions exactly who and what is lost in this story, what it means to be lost, and the ways in which one is found. In other words, it explores haarna, khona, and being laapataa — without being too on-the-nose about any of it. It empowers its women with quiet victories and lessons and presents a range of masculine characters in which it’s obvious which characteristics compose a respectable man. To mince meanings, Rao’s latest feature is the opposite of lost — a joyous, resounding win.

Grade: A-

“Lost Ladies” premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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