Readers Write In #351: On ‘Pagglait’ and the existential duty of life surrounded by death…

Posted on April 8, 2021

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(by Aneesh J)

‘Pagglait’, in a crude way, is a North Indian slang and stands for a ‘different’ level of crazy. In a way, it is the equivalent of the English language’s ‘bat-shit’ crazy: Mere ‘crazy’ is not enough to define the wide gap; like the difference between a Ranveer Singh and Mika Singh. It can be inverted and used or misused in any which way one wants. In a colloquial sense, it is used to define or stereotype someone one going against the grain. Sanya Malhotra’s Sandhya Giri, then finds herself labeled the same, at least in her subconscious being, when she observes, and inadvertently, forced to see the behavior of distant-relatives/friends/blood-relatives and, well, the ‘other’ woman.

The plot revolves around Sandhya’s coming to terms with the death of her husband just five months after her arranged marriage, and her coming to terms with the fact that there was hardly any ‘love’ in this ‘arranged’ marriage. That’s the fact she’s existing in; with an additional layer of existentialism that she’s got to go through the 13 days of rituals and expectations per Hinduism. That’s hardly the problem; the problem is dealing with folks that come in with their baggage – literally – with no idea of the level of tragedy the affected are dealing with. The kids are fine, they want their own shining ‘Toilet-Ek Prem Katha’, but it’s the adults that get on one’s nerves. As days transpire, as the calendar dates pile on within the timeframe of 13 days, the masks come off, and folks start revealing their true intent; or at least, the amount of empathythat the tragedy/situation deserves. The women start gossiping as to who has child-bearing hips and as to whose husband has the greatest reach in government offices to get the job done: The men just want to be there for photo-op. [In essence, the ones that care more about how the picture of a dead man hasn’t has his mustache photo-shopped while they turned a blind eye when he was shouting that he had to visit the toilet…]

It is easy to blame people, but as the corny line goes: The Show Must Go On. So, if you don’t have the thickskin to deal with EMIs, loans, lifeinsurance claims, someone mustdeal with it; so what if one gets some ‘cut-money’ or a ‘forged’ relationship in accomplishing these ‘future-securing’ tasks. You can blame the ‘taujis’, the ‘mausas’, the ‘mausis’, ‘phoopajis’ all that you want; someone must do it! The movie is an expose of how the seriousness of the tragedy starts withering down as the dates keep adding on; how one’s heart and especially one’s mind ‘expands’ to start thinking of the nextsteps.Of course, one has to show the so-called ‘hypocrisy’ of elders who claim that nobody can eat onion or garlic for 13 days: but drink whiskey and youngsters smoke.

And in the midst of all this, is stranded Sandhya, who’s unaware of how to feel, or at least, she knows that she felt more for the pet that was driven over by a car than the death of her husband (Ah the ways of this world: When Modi said the same thing, he became a rabid communal equating a certain community to pets, on-screen, it becomes a ‘beautiful’ observation and ‘art!’) She’s completed her Master of Arts in English, and she’s married into a middle-class family that has a house named ‘Shanti-Kunj’ that has everything but peace missing in it – at least for those 13 days. She tries her best to ‘feel’ for her husband Astik – who was named thus as that’s an opposite to ‘Nastik’ as re-iterated to his ailing Mom by a supremely under-stated Ashutosh Rana playing the father – but discovers he had his own love during his college days and that he worked with the same woman till his death as well. There are finely etched scenes where she is so desperately lost and tries to find ways to love her husband of five months through her husband’s erst-while lover [as per the lover.]

There are scenes where the ‘homams’ are inter-cut with Sandhya enjoying ‘gol-gappas’ or/and Pepsi. They are nicely captured soas to depict the arc of what Sandhya is goingthrough. There’s a beautiful scene where her brother-in-law wants to write an obituary in English and she educates him regarding the difference between ‘respected’ and ‘beloved’, and between ‘death’ and ‘demise.’ She finally resigns herself to the fact that she cannot take it any longer and just asks him to leave the note and she would pen it.

Every performer, be it SheebaChaddha as the mother, Raghubir Yadav as the cantankerous eldest brother, Rana as Shivendra Giri [Sandhya’s father-in-law],Rajesh Tailang as the ‘scheming’ younger brother, Sayani Gupta as Astik’s ex, put in their little bits and gel in finely in this slow-burn dark-comedy. This is highly representative of the North Indian small-town culture but is better-placed than the Khurrana – or whatever his spelling is these days based on his father’s astrology – and is far more genuine. While Khurrana’s films just decided to exploit the ‘landscape’ of North Indian small towns, this film stays away from exploitation and captures the feelings and mindscape as it occurs. In other words, this is a film that is so far, the one that is farthest from the South-Bombay film industry’s typical non-sensical excavation of the Northern hinterland to gain some moolah with some native lingo and faulty one-liners. This is an attempt, at least a genuine one, at what Sircar did in PIKU concerning the Bengali culture and its relation to the crumbling architecture of Calcutta, or the crumbling ‘haveli’ in ‘GulaboSitabo.’

Finally, what a performance this is from Sanya Malhotra. What a finely plateaued performance! She is so utterly convincing as a woman trying to ‘feel’ ‘liberating’ herself, and mainly her husband from this ‘birth.’ It is a bravura performance she just conquers every bit of emotion with stunning clinical clarity, but never failing to confuse the audience with her confusions. From being unattached to not being able to understand/fathom, to discovering relatives’ schemes, to discovering her husband’s ‘infidelity, she rolls across with remarkable ease. Even when the film in the final reels takes the typical route of women’s liberation and stymies itself from a rich observational film to a trope, she saves the film with her sincerity. Kudos to her.

My final peeve, is with this obsession of placing the Nanis or the Nanas or the Dadis and the Dadas as the pillars of wisdom and modernity: Seriously, get over it – from SulekhaSikhri in ‘Badhai Ho’ to Saroj Singh in this movie … it’s getting painful already … since everyone knows that’s a gimmick.

And of course, the soundtrack is a delight: I leave it with this

Khud Ko Toda Khud Ko Banaya
Khud Ko Ranga Khud Ko Sajaya
Khud KaSanchaPhod Diya Hai
Khud Ko Phir Se JodLiya Hai

I broke myself only to put myself together again
I colored and beautified myself as well
I shattered my own mold
I held and joined myself together again

PhenkhMukhautaCheharaDekha
Bhes Hai BadalaDheera
TooteLafzon Ko Joda Hai
Kavita Kar Lega Kabira

I de-masked and stared at myself
And gradually de-mystified it
Realized have the power to join broken words/promises
And write poems as emotionally deep as Kabira would pen