Thappad hits audiences where it hurts
On Friday morning, at an 11am screening at a multiplex in the suburbs, the theatre was almost half full for a show of Thappad, directed by Anubhav Sinha, who has decided that he is going to be the Jiminy Cricket to Bollywood’s Pinocchio. A man in a checked shirt walked into the theatre and looked almost puzzled by the number of people in the cinema. He took out his phone and called someone.
“It’s half full,” he said. “That’s a lot more than what you’d realistically expect, you know, for a film like this.”
We can only guess at what he meant by “a film like this” and realistic expectations, because the national anthem started playing just then. Did the man mean a film with no A-lister in the cast since Taapsee Pannu is the only actor in Thappad who is considered a star in commercial terms? Or did he mean a film that makes no bones about being woman-centric (by which I mean no established hero plays the role of the husband in the film)? Or perhaps he meant a film that makes audiences feel just a little uncomfortable despite the cushioned seats and air-conditioning.
Thappad is all this and more. It’s about a woman named Amrita (Pannu) who does her level best to be the ideal housewife until one day, her husband Vikram (Pavail Gulati) slaps her. Not that you’d guess from the opening scene, which is heartstoppingly beautiful as it swoops across different neighbourhoods of Delhi to show us different women feeling genuinely happy. This montage stays with you because of the simple joys of things like banter, the wind through your hair, and easy laughter. As the film progresses and the characters sink deeper into the patriarchal quicksand, this opening starts feeling like a fantasy.
It is to the film’s credit that Thappad, pivoted upon an allegedly ‘small’ act of violence, is able to use it to explore how we’ve become comfortably numb to inequality and suffering. Almost everyone tells Amrita she’s overreacting, but she refuses to subscribe to the accepted worldview that needs violence to escalate before acknowledging it.
The biggest victory for Thappad’s script is that its dialogues and setups drove people in the audience to react. The carefully-observed script is lifted to symphonic levels by actors like Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, Maya Sarao, Tanvi Azmi, Ratna Pathak Shah, Kumud Mishra and others. And so, when Ohlyan, who plays the role of a domestic help who is regularly beaten by her husband, gets into a verbal spat with her mother in-law, someone in the audience said, “Don’t do that, idiot! You’re going to get it when he comes home, for going after his mum.”
Hours after the slap, in the dead of the night, a manic Amrita rearranges the furniture in her home to look like it had before the party, as though this will restore normalcy. “I do this when I’m upset,” a woman murmured to her companion. When the next morning, Vikram comes downstairs and holds Amrita close, a couple in the audience had a quick-fire argument. “He’s trying to apologise,” said the man. “Then he should try saying sorry, no?” said the woman. “It doesn’t always work that way. The words don’t come,” he said.
At another point, Amrita’s neighbour, played by Dia Mirza, gives her a hug that is full of warmth and untainted by pity. “I wish I had a neighbour like her ya,” someone in the audience whispered.
As authentic and well-observed as Thappad is on many fronts, the film is also richly unreal in parts. Best of luck finding the mother in-law who will back her (soon-to-be divorced) daughter in-law over her son. Or the man who doesn’t hold on to the bitterness of being dumped. Or the woman who transitions smoothly from being housewife to an independent, heavily-pregnant, single woman.
Sure, these are fantasies, but if we have to suspend our disbelief, then why not do it to imagine into existence a world in which all of us, women and men, are (eventually) genuinely happy?