The camera stops in front of some affluent Delhi bungalows where two cars are parked adjacent to each other in a driveway. On the left is an ambitious executive who is rushing to office, with his wife helping him with his files and flask of coffee. The more luxurious car on the right, has just been driven out by a young independent woman, when the executive derisively remarks: “Karti kya hai?“. “Mehnat“, comes the reply. That one scene speaks so much about mindsets and more.
Anubhav Sushila Sinha’s Thappad seeks to make you think, from the moment the opening credits start. You suddenly notice that almost all the crew have used their mothers’ names as their middle name. Written by Sinha and Mrunmayee Lagoo, the film triumphs in making its audience very uncomfortable. The writing is so nuanced that it weaves the tale together gently without going overboard. The message sinks in deep and stays with you for days together.
Amrita (Taapsee Pannu) is a homemaker. Vikram (Pavail Gulati), her husband is a very ambitious young executive who is eyeing a coveted position in London. Something happens which ends up with Amrita being slapped by Vikram. But this is not a film about domestic violence. It is not even about the slap. In fact, I would have been most happy if the film had not been called Thappad. It is a film which makes you question everything that is considered normal — before and after the slap scene.
The film starts with showing the routine in a Delhi household. A young man who can’t do a thing without his wife. She sets off his alarm, brings him bed tea and wakes him gently, holds a rolled-up paratha for him as he rushes to his car, fetches his wallet and files as he fidgets with his car keys. And you cringe. She is the perfect homemaker, testing her mother-in-law’s blood sugar daily, making ginger-lemongrass flavoured tea, dusting the house, organizing the day’s meal with the maid. She is seemingly satisfied with her harmonious home and hearth. Until something shakes up her belief about her existence.
What makes the film work, are the excellent characterizations of the actors in peripheral roles. Tanvi Azmi plays the tolerant mother-in-law, who says women need to compromise for other people’s happiness. Ratna Pathak Shah plays Pannu’s mother and is partly responsible for ingraining some “good housewife” notions in her daughter. Kumud Sharma plays an endearing father who says the right things and gives sage advice. The most fizzy part comes from Geetika Vidya who plays the maid. She made me sit up and wonder where I saw her last until I remembered that remarkable film ‘Soni’. Maya Sarao plays Nethra, a successful lawyer, who is fighting her own battle unsuccessfully at home. All these people and several others like Dia Mirza, Ram Kapoor, Manav Kaul and Naina Grewal slide into their roles perfectly. Pavail Gulati does a remarkable job of holding up in front of these talented actors.
The film doesn’t scream or shriek for women’s empowerment. For most part, Pannu plays a silent, morose housewife trying to figure out where her simple quest for ‘respect and happiness’ suddenly faltered. She walks out of the marital home, not in a huff, but after much thought. And yet doesn’t think twice about coming back when a family member’s health demands her attention. She agrees to attend a pooja because it means so much to the family. Even when she speaks up, she is restrained and respectful.
It is the dialogues and reactions which send your brain whirring. “I married you even though you didn’t know to cook.” “It is such a privilege to be XYZ’s wife or daughter-in-law.” You have heard them before, and didn’t think they were out of place then, as patriarchy is so ingrained in our lives. And so when people say, that “filing for a divorce because of just one slap is over-reaction”, you might find yourself agreeing. It is the conditioning that you have grown up with. And the culprits are all of us. The men and women around us — and we ourselves.
Amrita should have walked out much earlier. It is time for women to stand up for themselves. The world will follow.