“Thappad”… Anubhav Sinha and Taapsee Pannu put across a powerful, if overemphatic, story of a woman who discovers herself

Posted on March 16, 2020

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The beauty of the screenplay is that a purely physical act is used to flesh out emotional trauma. For one, the slap sets off a series of scenes that make us see the man for who he really is.

Spoilers ahead…

Anubhav Sinha is in a golden zone. Thappad is the third of his “Social Issues trilogy”, if you will, and the weakest of the bunch. (The earlier films are Article 15 and Mulk.) But for all its flaws, the core character, the core conflict is superbly unpacked. The “issue” is domestic violence. But Anubhav (co-writing with Mrunmayee Lagoo) is too clever, too aware, too sensitive to make this a film about domestic violence, which is a vast subject, with varying shades. You cannot hope to contain an entire issue in a running time of 150 minutes. All you can do is show how one particular character responds to an issue – experiences it, suffers it, learns from it, and puts it in the past – in her own particular way. Thappad, thus, is about how a homemaker named Amrita (Taapsee Pannu) responds to a slap from her husband, Vikram, played by Pavail Gulati. (If there’s a face that exudes internalised, upper-class Punjabi patriarchy, it’s his. I know I’m stereotyping awfully, but that is how the actor came across to me.)

And this is how the slap comes about. Vikram has been working hard on a presentation and he expects good things to happen to him at work. The presentation goes off well. He asks Amrita to organise a big bash at home, and hordes of friends and family turn up in the evening, and in the midst of this merrymaking is when Vikram receives a call that upsets him, and he gets into an argument with a senior colleague and this argument gets heated, and Amrita attempts to pull him away and he tells her to stop and she continues to pull him away and… THAPPAD!

The situation is so textured that the slap itself isn’t the (entire) problem. Yes, any kind of physical violence is wrong, is unacceptable – but as shown here, it is also an impulsive act by a man who is in a hyper-emotional situation where he may have slapped whoever had tried to pull him away from that argument, even if it had been a man, say, Amrita’s brother. (The way it’s staged, it’s more a “Get the fuck away from me and let me handle this!” slap than a “How dare you interfere in my affairs!” slap.) And at least some of you will agree that we, sometimes, behave most horribly with the ones closest to us, who, over time, we begin to take for granted.

I kept thinking about other Husband Behaves Badly™ scenarios, like the one in the recent Marriage Story or even Shekhar Kapoor’s Masoom, where the husband “impulsively” sleeps with his ex during a college reunion and “forgets” to tell his wife, until he discovers that the ex has died and her son – their son, who’s now his responsibility – has to be brought home. (I was also reminded of Manmarziyaan, where a woman – this time – cheats on her husband by sleeping with her ex, and also slaps this ex.) In the hierarchy of crimes against the people we love, I’d place emotional trauma above physical trauma.

The beauty of Thappad’s screenplay is that Vikram’s purely physical act is used to flesh out Amrita’s emotional trauma. For one, the slap becomes a milepost in Vikram’s life. It sets off a series of scenes that makes us see him for who he really is. Earlier, we saw him as a pampered Mama’s Boy (Tanvi Azmi plays Mama), who’s infantalised even more by his wife, who seems to do everything for him. But after the event, we realise that we were seeing him through Amrita’s loving gaze, that indulgent “boys will be boys” gaze. She’s a happy homemaker who has been conditioned to accept “her role in life”, which includes a certain amount of husband-pampering.

But it doesn’t include being slapped. And after the act, Vikram’s traits don’t appear as benign anymore. They become symptomatic of a man who’s physically a man but, emotionally, still has a long way to go before he becomes one. He falls asleep after the party, completely oblivious to his wife’s shell-shocked silence, and when he apologises the next morning, it’s the farthest thing from heartfelt. It feels like the apology of a stubborn little boy whose mother says “Go say sorry” when he has broken a friend’s toy. More shockingly (though perhaps not surprisingly), he keeps making it all about himself, even when – much later – Amrita says she’s pregnant. It’s less about the fact that her life (their life) is going to change than one of his life goals being crossed off the list.

And Amrita (along with the audience) begins to really see Vikram. He is not a bad man, but he isn’t someone who deserves to be in a marriage, either. He’s the kind of man who thinks a diamond bracelet will bring the smile back on Amrita’s face. (Taapsee makes you see the glow being extinguished inside a woman, as though a light has been switched off.) He’s the kind of man who responds to Amrita’s “Should I learn to drive?” question with, “Pehle paratha banana seekh lo.” When this exchange occurs – it’s before the slap – it seems like banter, a long-running joke between a couple. But afterwards, it becomes one more symptom of Vikram’s malaise, which makes him call their soon-to-be born child a “pota” that his mother can play with. “Pota ya poti,” Amrita corrects him.

Amrita comes from a looser, more informal, more middle-class household than Vikram’s, and we get the sense that she has changed quite a bit about her self in order to fit in. Maybe that’s why she turned servile and moulded herself according to Vikram’s life, Vikram’s wants and needs. And the slap becomes less a physical act than a metaphorical wakeup call. Of course, there’s the humiliation of being insulted in front of her friends and family, but the bigger impact is a mix of emotions that she’s able to articulate only after a while. Almost everyone around gives her a version of “Okay, shit happens, I feel for you, but now, move on…” (Even her big-shot lawyer, a powerful working woman, says, “Sirf ek thappad…”) Amrita wonders why she’s the only one feeling this way and why she isn’t able to move on, and slowly, the answer emerges: “Khud ki respect nahin kar paa rahi hoon.”

This is a tricky zone for film-writing: internal angst has to be externalised, and unlike in a novel, a lot of what Amrita thinks has to be put out in words. So a certain amount of a lecture-y feel is unavoidable – but the real problem comes when Thappad tries to talk about the “issue” through several characters, across the gender/class spectrum. Amrita’s younger brother is unable to understand her, despite being a “cool” guy with a “cool” girlfriend. Diya Mirza (why don’t we see more of her?), playing a neighbour, gets one good scene where she quietly ticks off Vikram, but the character is at best a scribble in the margin. The design of Amrita’s domestic help, Sunita (Geetika Vidya), is more troubling – she’s less a character than a “lower-class” caricature, who endures endless beatings from a drunk husband.

Most eye-rolling of all is the depiction of Amrita’s lawyer, Nethra (Maya Sarao). The intent is noble. We are being asked to see that this “issue” isn’t Amrita’s alone. But when the writing in the Amrita/Vikram track is so subtle and intuitive, it’s a shock to see scenes like the one where Nethra leans out of her car window and gulps in air (because she feels “stifled” in her marriage to a man who won’t let her breathe). The worst scene in Thappad has Nethra’s husband (Manav Kaul) forcing himself on her as the television nearby keeps replaying scenes of her big win in a sexual harassment case. This is cheap, self-righteous melodrama (the woman is even up against an Evil Male Lawyer™, played by Ram Kapoor), and it’s best left to the likes of Madhur Bhandarkar.

I wished that this “external commentary” had been restricted to Amrita’s in-laws (they have their own issues), and especially, her parents, wonderfully played by Ratna Pathak Shah (as Sandhya) and Kumud Mishra (Sachin). These are terrific characters, and have the film’s best exchange. Sandhya wanted to be a singer, just like Amrita wanted to be a dancer. But Sachin, who actively encouraged his daughter to dance and rues that she gave it up after marriage, fails to see how he (even if only indirectly) doused his wife’s dream. When Sandhya tells him she wanted to sing, he says he never stopped her. But here’s the real point: he didn’t actively encourage her, either. If she gave up singing for housewifery, he was blind to this sacrifice. It’s a superb example of how even good men can find themselves in grey zones.

As for Sandhya, she’s totally drunk the Kool-Aid. In an early scene, when Vikram comes to pick Amrita up, she sees Amrita limping to the car (her foot is hurt) but the words that tumble out of her mouth are those that ask her daughter to refrigerate the cake she has made for her son-in-law. I liked the touch that, if Vikram is mama’s little boy, Amrita is papa’s little girl. When, after the slap, Amrita decides to move in with her folks for a while, she tells Vikram she’s going to “papa ke yahan”. The small phrase tells us a lot about the dynamics in that home.

Taapsee is still an actress who shows strength (I like to think her character is named after Amrita Pritam) better than vulnerability, but she really puts across a woman who slowly starts living for herself after a life spent living for others. At least with Amrita, the writing is simply fantastic. In an early scene, when Vikram’s colleague comes home and asks how she is, she replies, in a singsong voice, “I am beautiful.” Amrita does feel that way, and part of the problem with the slap is that it happened at home, the one place that is hers, the one place where she feels, well, beautiful. And that’s why it makes sense that her big speech, towards the end, is set at home, too. There’s a sense of asserting herself that might not have come across as strongly had she uttered these same words in, say, a courtroom.

Walking out, I wondered what the (similarly upper-class) homemaker in Masoom would have done today. She, too, faced a situation that many might have chosen to categorise as “Oh, he did it in the heat of the moment”. And there, too, it was just that one instance, but it was enough to leave her roiling through the rest of the movie. But it was the 1980s, and she chose to forgive her husband and accept his son and keep the family intact. (It must have helped that the husband was genuinely remorseful.) It might be interesting to revisit her today, and ask if she’d make the same choice(s). Physical hurt heals. The emotional scars last a lifetime.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi