“Panga”… A superb Kangana Ranaut anchors a sports drama that’s really a story about second chances

Posted on January 31, 2020

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Every sports movie needs a twist. The twist, here, is that, in attempting a comeback, the protagonist becomes a symbol for many people (especially women) whose dreams were thwarted by reality.

Spoilers ahead…

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Panga opens in the bedroom of a Bhopal-based couple. Jaya (Kangana Ranaut) and Prashant (Jassi Gill) are asleep — but neither of them is sleeping restfully. She keeps kicking him. He groans, moves to another position, goes back to sleep — until the next kick. The scene is a metaphor, clearly, but for what? Jaya was a damn good kabaddi player, the captain of the Indian team, and now, she’s working at the ticket counter of a railway station. Is she lashing out against Prashant, who she loves (they make an appealing couple) but who has also made her a “wife”, with the attendant compromises? Is she lashing out against her crabby boss, who likes to remind her that her glory days are behind her and she’s, now, just another railway employee?

Or is she unconsciously lashing out against her son, Adi (Yagya Bhasin), who has a weak immune system and has to be monitored constantly? The scene after the boy is born is a beauty. Until then, Jaya has had a dream life. Her mother (Neena Gupta) and Prashant support her career, and even when she’s pregnant, it is understood that she will be back at play as soon as she can. But when the baby is born preterm, everything changes. The doctor says someone needs to look after him all the time, and looking at the helpless infant through the glass wall, Jaya promises him that she will be that someone.

This is a marvellous bit of writing (by the director and Nikhil Mehrohtra). Had Jaya chalked out a schedule with Prashant, he would have agreed — because he agrees to everything. Jassi Gill is a most agreeable actor, and he plays the planet’s most agreeable husband. Years later, watching his son and wife step out of their house, he calls out, “Bye laddu. Bye Adi.” The cho-chweet term of endearment is for her — he really loves her. But staring at her newborn, something inside Jaya makes her decide that caring for him is her job, hers alone. Call it a woman’s DNA. Call it millennia of maternal conditioning. And Adi replaces kabaddi as her enduring obsession.

The scene is great for another reason. It also shows us that Prashant went along with this decision. We aren’t told if they argued about it or if he tried to convince her to return to kabaddi — but I got the feeling that these extraordinary circumstances made Prashant revert to millennia of paternal conditioning. Because later, when Jaya does attempt a comeback for Adi’s sake, he tells her to play along for a while, and then gently tell Adi it’s not going to be possible. It doesn’t occur to him that she may not be play-acting, that she may really want to play again. I wouldn’t call him a chauvinist, exactly. He just comes across as a nice man with a nice family and a nice daily routine that he doesn’t want to break. 

Every sports movie is predictable. Every sports movie, therefore, needs a twist. The twist in Panga is that, in attempting a comeback, Jaya becomes a symbol for many people (especially women) whose dreams were thwarted by reality. You might say a lot of these beats were in Saand Ki Aankh, too, but that was a more rousing film — it wore its empowerment labels more brazenly. Panga is quieter. Jaya wants to do this not for “womanhood” but because she discovers that she doesn’t love herself as much as she loves Prashant and Adi. A dam bursts inside Jaya when she says this — she breaks your heart.

In a broad sense, Panga isn’t so much a sports movie as one about second chances. It’s for everyone who let go of something because that was the “practical thing to do”, but now wants to scratch that itch again. The detailing is marvellous. I loved that, even at 32, Jaya’s body has slowed down. It reminded me of how we keep talking about Federer and Nadal, as though they are dinosaurs, when they’re not even 40 yet. Despite these overtones, I wouldn’t call Panga a deep, prickly movie. Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari doesn’t do deep. There’s a bouncy sense of camaraderie — from the neighbour, from Jaya’s mother — that keeps the family afloat even when Jaya is off training in Kolkata. And Richa Chadda plays a fairy godmother, always looking out for Jaya. The film is an easy watch, in other words.

But that’s not a knock. This is easily the director’s best work. Earlier, in both Nil Battey Sannata and Bareilly Ki Barfi, there was a facileness, a glibness. The films looked like they were competing in the Cute Olympics. Every scene clicked shut just so, like the locks on a suitcase. But Panga feels lived-in. The rhythms are relaxed and the scenes breathe. Consider the stretch where Adi apologises to Jaya, who is sleeping. It isn’t actually a “scene”. Nothing “happens”. A potential “scene” is reduced to a terrific “moment” when she pulls him to sleep, beside her. Of course, it may also be that, for the first time, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari has a genuinely intuitive actress. Kangana can be loud and annoying and abrasive on screen, and I adore that brittleness — it’s what sets her apart. But when she whispers, she’s even better. Jaya may be the kabaddi player, but Kangana is the weightlifter. When in form, she hoists entire films on her shoulders.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi