Review: Ladies Only

Written and directed by Rebana Liz John, trains in Mumbai, are like trains from hell. As if they’re the last trains on earth, people jump in through closing doors, while those unable to get in hang onto the doors. Thankfully, one of the cars is for women only.

If we were talking about a train in the UK and you were trying to start random conversations with fellow travellers, it probably would not go even half as well as Ladies Only does. It’s genuinely surprisingly how open and frank these women are, talking about hopes and dreams, marriage and children. They’re stuck on what looks like a nightmare of a train, the opening sequence is a great representation of how unpleasant it must be to have to make that journey, and yet these women are thankfully and delightfully chatty. Rebana Liz John encounters a huge variety of women but they have collective concerns, chief among them being lost potential and that their city is simply surviving instead of living. Each woman’s anecdote has an edge of how living in a patriarchal society has shaped their experiences, whether it be stuck in a bad marriage or losing out on a passion or career because it wasn’t an accepted activity for young women.

One of the points their openness quickly raises is how much more comfortable they can be talking about such issues, in solely the presence of other women. Were it to be a mixed gender carriage then it’s likely they would not be so honest or quick to talk. Having that freedom gives them such a wonderful space to discuss their lives, it’s captivating to see women who’ve experienced such misogyny not be beaten down by it. Especially in the sense of wanting a better future for their own children and how it has already changed with each incoming generation. That’s not to say it’s all positive, there’s a definite feel of sadness which lingers in a lot of the women’s recollections.

There’s a simple but highly effective style taken on by Rebana Liz John, who also edited the film, starting with the use of black and white, which perfectly allows the focus to remain strongly on the women and not get distracted by other details. John’s style holds a fresh feel, with a sharpness and easy flow to the way that it moves, with candid yet smartly structured framing. It has a charming intimacy to the way it’s shot, it’s hard not to get up close and personal on a train but here it feels comfortable and natural. It’s constantly moving forward, weaving these different stories together and it’s incredibly satisfying how well they go together as one cohesive piece.

Ladies Only intertwines a variety of different women’s experiences to create a collective story. It’s impressively engaging to listen to these recollections ranging from regret and disappoint, to hopes for the future and refusal to quit. Rebana Liz John takes on a simple but smart style to let all your focus land on each woman, and to create an atmosphere of appreciation and honesty.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯ | 8/10

Showing at London Indian Film Festival on 29 & 30 June – Also screening as part of Sheffield DocFest 2022

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