Rajeev Masand

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Thappad

Rating: 4

February 28, 2020

Cast: Taapsee Pannu, Pavail Gulati, Dia Mirza, Maya Sarao, Tanvi Azmi, Ratna Pathak Shah, Kumud Mishra, Geetika Vidya Ohlyan

Director: Anubhav Sinha

Thappad, as the film’s title so unambiguously suggests, is about a slap. A slap that an otherwise amiable, good-natured man lands on his wife’s face in a moment of misdirected anger. In his defense, it is the first time he has raised his hand on her. In his defense, he has just found out that the professional goal he had nurtured, toiled hard for, and achieved, has been unfairly snatched away from him. In his defense, it happened in the heat of the moment. For his wife, no defense can justify the slap. It changes everything. It practically dismantles her life.

In setting up this premise, director Anubhav Sinha, who has co-written the film with Mrunmayee Lagoo Waikul, asks us repeatedly to consider whether Amrita (Taapsee Pannu) should, like everyone around her suggests, let it go and move on. It shouldn’t have happened, but “ab ho gaya na?” her husband Vikram (Pavail Gulati) laments. Her mother-in-law (Tanvi Azmi), with whom she has a loving relationship, says: “Thoda bardaasht karna seekhna chahiye auraton ko.” Her own mother (Ratna Pathak Shah) is distraught that she is considering divorce. Her brother describes it as “one small episode”, and thinks “it’s silly” that she’s taking it so far. Her neighbor, a widow (Dia Mirza), delivers that ultimate guilt trap: “Rishte banane mein utni effort nahin lagti jitna nibhane mein lagti hai.” Even her lawyer (Maya Sarao) advises her to go back and make it work.

The film, and the slap at the centre of it, is not about domestic violence. It’s about entitlement. It’s about decades of conditioning. It’s about flawed social structures and outdated gender expectations. In Robert Altman-esque fashion, the film opens with a charming sequence in which an orange ice lolly is used as a motif to introduce several characters, before we learn how each fits into the protagonist’s orbit. Patriarchy and entitlement run deep; Amrita is hardly the only victim.

There is the poor domestic help who suffers beatings from her husband routinely. There is the older woman, resentful that her loving husband never encouraged her to pursue her love for singing after marriage. There is the soon-to-be-married young couple, seemingly equal in their relationship until a tense interaction reveals otherwise. There is also the accomplished professional whose husband repeatedly credits her success to his family’s powerful connections. When Vikram slaps Amrita, every one of these relationships unravels.

Shrewdly the very premise of the film and Amrita’s escalating reaction to the slap is plotted in such a way that you’re frequently compelled to ask: “Isn’t she taking it too far?” or “Surely she doesn’t need to make such a big deal of it?” The answer to those questions may be found in Vikram’s unmistakably selfish handling of the situation.

But the thing is – and this is key – there are no easy answers here. The husband is no villain. Vikram is selfish, entitled, conditioned to put himself and his own pride before his wife, but he’s not a bad guy. He’s just every other Indian man. Knowing that, you’re confronted with the same question again: “Isn’t she overdoing it?” Don’t be embarrassed if you’re leaning dangerously close to answering yes; it’s exactly the position Sinha wants you to take. In fact, in a scripting masterstroke he raises the stakes at the halfway mark, putting the couple in such a situation that now you’re thinking: “Okay, this is too much. She must let it go.”

But Thappad isn’t a film about a wife teaching her husband not to take her for granted. It’s about a woman rediscovering her sense of self, contemplating what is fair and what isn’t. It’s about no longer disregarding the deep-rooted sexism and selfishness, and the casual insensitivity that women contend with everyday. If any of this sounds like activism or social-message disguised to look like a movie, it’s honestly not. You’re very much invested in Amrita’s story. She is the fulcrum of Vikram’s uppercrust home in Delhi; she’s a supportive wife and a caring daughter-in-law. In one bristling moment she points out that the sacrifice of every woman who chooses to be a homemaker can be understood from the simple fact that no little girl when asked what she wants to grow up to be says ‘housewife’.

In a film so well-made, minor quibbles stand out. The second hour feels stretched. The estrangement of Vikram and his mother from his uber rich father and brother is confusing. But these are minor quibbles. Sinha pulls off a complex story and extracts remarkable performances from his ensemble.

Of the main cast, Maya Sarao brings a sharp edge to the role of Amrita’s conflicted lawyer, and Geetika Vidya Ohlyan is terrific as her garrulous house help. Dia Mirza is nicely understated as her neighbor, and both Ratna Pathak Shah and Tanvi Azmi are expectedly in fine form. Kumud Mishra stands out as Amrita’s supportive father, hitting all the right notes, and aided by some of the film’s most loaded lines. Pavail Gulati, in the difficult role of the husband, effectively plays him as clueless to his own shortcomings.

Which brings us to the film’s axis, Taapsee Pannu. In a refreshing change of image, her Amrita is not the fierce, woman-on-the-warpath that she frequently tends to play. She’s a woman torn, she has both strength and fragility; it’s a beautifully realized performance. The script gives her some great moments to shine, and she seizes them. I was a mess by the time Amrita has that honest, wounding conversation with her mother-in-law towards the end of the film.

I’m going with four out of five for Thappad. It’s a hard subject to pull off, but Anubhav Sinha achieves it with first-rate storytelling. The best films inspire dialogue, they set you thinking; they can even lead to change. This one made me uncomfortable; it made me question myself and I think it will make you too. It’s essential viewing.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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