Pagglait is driven by Sanya Malhotra, whose character gets a subplot that should have been the actual movie

Posted on April 7, 2021

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pagglait

The film wastes so much time on peripherals that it ends up doing a disservice to its terrific central premise: What if you thought you knew someone but really didn’t?

Spoilers ahead…

A man has died. His large family has gathered for the funeral. It’s a traditional family, a god-fearing Brahmin family, the kind where the person performing the final rites has to get his head shaved and sleep on the floor and do a hundred other “because it’s the done thing” things. One of the small bits of irony in Umesh Bist’s Pagglait – or maybe it’s more a small bit of black comedy – is the name of the dead man. It’s Astik. It means theist, believer. Well, the Thing that he (or those who named him) believed in has decided that – despite all that belief – it’s time Astik left this world. And his wife Sandhya (Sanya Malhotra).

We first see her from the back, lying on her bed – which, till just recently, was their bed, hers and Astik’s. She isn’t weeping and wailing like the others. Maybe she’s just one of those who’s still in shock, still numb, and one day it will all burst out of her like lava. Or maybe she really is not all that shocked and numbed. After all, she does say how devastated she was when she was a little girl and her cat died. She reads the condolence messages on her phone as though flipping through vapid tweets. She resents the bland food being served, and wants masala-flavoured chips to go with it. She doesn’t want chai, a drink that will come back to steep the screenplay in a much-later moment. She wants Pepsi.

A lot of Pagglait (the film is exquisitely shot by Rafey Mahmood) is like Seema Pahwa’s Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi. (I’d even use the same headline I used for that review: This dream cast deserved much better writing, a much better movie.) The problem with these films about large families is that we get a sense of the largeness of the family, with all these men and women milling about. But we don’t get the smaller scenes, the smaller moments that make these actors more than just “random person positioned in the frame in order to show that this is a… large family”. There’s the attempt to be all whimsical (how about the view of a rickshaw driver’s shifting bum as he pedals from side to side?). There are awkward “character-quirk” scenes like the one where an elder objects to Sandhya’s Muslim friend being in the house (“ghar ko shuddh rakhna hai”), and… CUT TO the same man pouring himself a peg.

Even the subplots feel as superfluous as some of the supporting characters. The politics within the family. The shock around the insurance policy of the dead man. The attempt to get Sandhya remarried. The rituals at the Ganges. Pagglait wastes so much time on these peripherals that it ends up doing a great disservice to its central premise, which is astounding: What if you thought you knew someone but really didn’t?

Sandhya has never been in love. She never even had one of those college crushes that many of us will remember long into the age we will forget how to tie our shoelaces. Like how some people are described asexual, maybe she was… “a-romantic”. And she thought Astik was the same way, the kind who did not know how to love, jisko “pyar karna nahin aata tha”. Which is why they hardly spoke. Which is why he did not wear the shirt she got him, a shirt that still lies folded in its crinkly plastic wrapping. Which is why his heart beat only to circulate blood, and not for her.

And then she finds out that he had a lover (Sayani Gupta, in a sharply minimalistic performance). The latter is the reason Astik’s heart could not accommodate her, because she had already filled it to the brim, and then some. So Astik was not this “boring” man at all. He was just a man who ended up with the wrong woman, and could not bring himself (or compromise his heart) to see her as the right one – just like he couldn’t bring himself to wear anything but blue.

And that’s when Sanya Malhotra really breaks out. The actress’s biggest strength is the ability to convey emotional restlessness, as though she’s always darting around for the next thing to react to. That quality really kicks in when Sandhya befriends the lover. Okay, maybe “befriends” is too strong a word. Sandhya starts hanging out with the lover and says something that broke my heart: “Kuch purani yaadein maang rahi hoon.” (I just want some old memories from you, so that I reconstruct, at least in my mind, a flesh-and-blood human being out of this robot I thought I was married to). How I wished the film had followed this Bridges of Madison County-like trajectory, of discovering a person whose secrets are so hidden that you realise you never really knew them! Instead, we veer off into melodramatic large-family contrivances about debts and pregnancies. The ending makes it seem that we’ve been watching an emancipation drama. Sure. Only, it’s not about Sandhya’s emancipation, as the film seems to think. It’s about the emancipation of her heart.

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