Director: Anubhav Sinha
Cast: Taapsee Pannu, Pavail Gulati, Kumud Mishra, Maya Sarao, Ratna Pathak Shah, Geetika Vidya
Shubham Yogi’s short film, Suno (2019), opens with a married couple (Amrita Puri, Sumeet Vyas) composing an excuse to explain her black eye to office colleagues. They joke about it. We learn that it was an accident caused by an adventurous night in the bedroom. When she plays along by attending a support group session, a discomforting truth about consent and patriarchal power dynamics creeps up on the seemingly progressive young wife. A sex injury becomes an unwitting metaphor for how male entitlement is entrenched even within the most primal corners of intimate co-existence. Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad, co-written by Mrunmayee Lagoo, can’t afford to be as private. A slap, in full view of mute bystanders at a Delhi house party, is the most literal metaphor possible. Being a feature-length film, it inherits the responsibility of reaching beyond the “suno” (listen) to confront the psychological and legal repercussions of deep-rooted male chauvinism. And it does – often quietly, sometimes loudly, but mostly with a clear voice.
A man, angered by office politics, lunges for his boss at his own party. Given that the spat is triggered by a phone call from a CEO whose surname rhymes with the title (Thapar), resistance is futile. He lashes out at the people who try to subdue him – he shoves his colleague away, tells his brother-in-law to “fuck off,” but reserves his harshest blow, a resounding slap, for his worried wife. The enraged men vacate the stage, leaving the startled woman to wilt under the spotlight of shame. Over the course of the 140-minute film, Sinha does a fine job of revealing an ‘inadvertent’ slap for what it is – the cumulative consequence of several patronizing little pats. These little pats are invisible to the naked eye. But they manifest in the everyday manners of orthodox companionship: The husband boasting about his professional exploits to his wife, her leaving the dinner table when the men “talk shop,” his gentle teasing of her cooking skills, his tearing hurry at breakfast, his brisk requests to fix the malfunctioning printer, his indulgent smile when she speaks about household problems, even the tone he calls her name out with. If you listen carefully, you might hear in this tone a boy agitatedly summoning his mother. The sound sits in line with the definition of an arranged marriage: A surrogate parent-child setup in which the (man)child retains the right to dominate the parent.
Physical intimidation is a proud ingredient of South Asian disciplinary culture. “One tight slap” is the mantra of parental love: A prescribed medicine to cure the most wayward of infants. It cures Amrita (Taapsee Pannu), too, and rescues her from a future of emotional infancy. Her reaction isn’t immediate, but with Pannu’s masterful control of the vacant gaze, it feels inevitable. As the lost meaning of womanhood dawns upon her, so does the death of her marriage – she is invariably dressed in white, the colour of mourning, after the incident. The divorce proceedings are the funeral, but rising from the ashes isn’t an act that can be eulogized by a coming-of-age “zindagi” song in her case. It is slow, reflective and almost unfilmable. As a result, director Anubhav Sinha (Mulk, Article 15), Hindi cinema’s patron saint of woke filmmaking, constructs an environment that enables the verbal exposition of her awakening.
For starters, Amrita’s role as a housewife – and more importantly, a woman who sacrifices her dreams of a classical dancing career – infuses her with a vulnerability crippled by a new medium of expression. There’s a musicality to the way she goes about her morning routine; the second she is slapped, this adopted rhythm is at odds with the deafening silence in her ears. Sinha surrounds her with handpicked characters whose personal threads are in the position to inform, and be informed by, her uphill struggle. Some of the casting here is immaculate: There’s the conservative mother (Ratna Pathak Shah) whose complicity sneaks up on her, the sensitive father (an excellent Kumud Mishra) whose good-cop energy lifts his daughter, a housemaid (Soni’s Geetika Vidya) with an abusive husband, a mother-in-law (Tanvi Azmi) torn between conditioning and reason, an empathetic neighbour (a reinvented Dia Mirza) who doesn’t flaunt her single-mother status, and a hotshot lawyer (Maya Sarao) who allows Amrita’s case to free her from an uncaring marriage.
Some of their positioning is too mechanical. For instance, Amrita spells out her state of mind (“The slap woke me up to the fact that I only participated in everyone else’s dreams”) to her lawyer in a very moral-of-the-story language. The lawyer’s own transformation is on the nose, too – after an Amrita monologue, she meets her (strangely passive) lover so that we know exactly how inspired she is. Yet, the Marriage Story-style chemistry between lawyer and client extends into a barrage of crowd-pleasing dialogue. All through, the writers resist the hyperbolic traps of gender warfare: It’s never lost upon us that fairness, and not feminism, drives the women. The words may be performative, but their goal is distressingly real.
It’s also to the makers’ credit that the man in the middle, Vikram (Pavail Gulati; exuding a Rajkummar-Rao-meets-Naveen-Kasturia vibe), is not demonized, just like the female gazes in the film aren’t glorified. He isn’t a dismissive person; he’s the product of a culture that normalizes dismissive gestures. He is the kind of husband so consumed by the heroic idea of individualism – quitting a wealthy family business to work his way up the corporate ladder – that he expects everyone in his vicinity to blindly aid his quest. His job is the only job, which is why he makes Amrita look like more of a chirpy housewife than a sturdy homemaker. When he tells her lofty tales about his courage at work, little does he know that he is, in fact, building her courage to be heard. To be seen, and in the process, shake the elaborately arranged pillars of Indian matrimony.
Taapsee Pannu’s exceptional lead turn, however, tides over the narrative wrinkles. Her Amrita, in a way, is the culmination of the actor’s (unofficial) separation trilogy – after near-divorces in Mulk and Manmarziyaan, she goes all the way here, with half the tears and angst at her disposal.
Having said that, not all the characters are equally organic. Unlike a Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, it’s in the depiction of toxic traditionalism that the film succumbs to the rage of its script. The lawyer’s arrogant husband (Manav Kaul, as a celebrity journalist), Amrita’s younger brother (who sides with Vikram) and the housemaid’s violent husband come across as B-movie caricatures. Their resolutions, too, are handled with an impunity that wants the audience to mock their fates rather than applaud their better halves. Other moments reflect a tired male gaze: For example, when the brother’s fiance is spotted smoking at the party, it’s almost certain that she will be the firebrand that changes Amrita’s life. A “modern” girl who smokes – who would have thought?
Taapsee Pannu’s exceptional lead turn, however, tides over the narrative wrinkles. Her Amrita, in a way, is the culmination of the actor’s (unofficial) separation trilogy – after near-divorces in Mulk and Manmarziyaan, she goes all the way here, with half the tears and angst at her disposal. Unlike most of the protagonists Pannu plays, Amrita is a woman whose strength isn’t a byproduct of her aggressive physicality or inherent fragility. Unlike her literary namesake, there is no Sahir Ludhianvi to accelerate her enlightenment either. On the contrary, her restraint – and respectful resistance – is a defence mechanism, because she knows no other way. One senses that she isn’t severing a readymade bond to make a grand statement. She is doing it for herself, so that she can live, and sleep at night: She is far too conditioned in the art of selflessness to be a symbol of social liberation.
The film understands Amrita, and Taapsee Pannu, too. It understands the modesty of her desires and personality of her actions. Thappad, after all, opens with the ultimate image of desi domesticity: A wife brewing tea and cooking parathas. It closes with an identical image, except this time it’s a woman brewing tea and cooking parathas. Somewhere in between, an identity comes full circle. Somewhere in between, everything has changed, but little will change.