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Something feels amiss

Director Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad is a film that has arrived at the right time but lacks the razor-sharp sting one felt almost tangibly in Mulk and Article 15.

Shoma A Chatterji | Kolkata |

This film is all about a slap. A husband slaps his wife at a party filled with friends, office colleagues and superiors with everyone looking on. But that is just the beginning. It is not Amrita (Taapsi Pannu) alone who is a victim of the family framework conditioned deeply by patriarchy. Her husband Vikram (Pavail Gulati) is perhaps more socially conditioned to find nothing wrong in slapping his wife in public not because he is angry with her but because he gets into a tiff with one of his office people and she tries to pull him away.

And except Amrita’s father (Kumud Mishra) and her brother’s fiancée Swati, everyone genuinely believes that she should leave it behind and move on. During the entire film, it does not occur to Vikram even once to apologise to his wife and he realises it when the penultimate moment of parting comes. But even had he said “sorry” would it have undone what had already happened?

The film tends to drag a bit to drive home how dedicated and happy a housewife Amrita is through repeat shots of her stopping the alarm that the husband has set on the time-piece, fetching the newspaper and milk from the doorstep, snipping the plants on the window sill and finally, sipping her cup of lemon tea till her husband wakes up. She checks her motherin- law’s sugar level and makes her breakfast.

Then, she even rushes after him when he is getting into the car to hand him his flask of coffee, his cell phone and wallet. All this appears quite monotonous but Amrita seems to enjoy it all. Does this not suggest how happy she is in this boring life? Why for God’s sake? She answers this question herself twice over the film both times to her lawyer Nethra (Maya Sarao).

“Perhaps I contributed to this slap by making myself a willing subject to it. Who knows?” Thappad comes after the hugely acclaimed Mulkand Article 15 for director Anubhav Sinha. He takes great pains to draw parallels between the ambience and changing mindset of Amrita. The next morning, she ties her hair up in a bun, her body language revealing that she is in the process of taking a decision. She then proceeds to shift the furniture back to its original positions, drawing back the settees, the stools — a physical expression of her mindset trying to cope with the desperate desire to rearrange her life the way she is rearranging the furniture.

When her husband tells her that he ought to quit a company that does not realise his worth, she relates this to her own position in the family and in his life. Should she not also quit the home she felt was her own and move on? Slices of the lives from other women of different ages and varied family and professional backdrops show how they are unwilling and sometimes, unwitting victims of their own making. One of them is a young and beautiful widow (Dia Mirza) with a growing daughter who learns Kathak from Amrita but gave up her dancing after marriage.

She is determined not to remarry because her husband was so perfect that she cannot imagine anyone replacing him. Amrita’s domestic maid is forever blamed by her husband for their barren marriage and beats her up black and blue for complete non-reasons. Nethra, a very successful matrimonial lawyer is constantly reminded by her star husband, a top journalist (Manav Kaul), that she owes her success to his father, once a successful lawyer now chained for life to his wheelchair, unable to understand anything and also to his own success as a journalist.

Nethra has a chef for a secret lover not because she is adulterous by nature but because she is forever seeking escape from an arrogant husband. Swati does not care for Amrita’s brother asking her to go back to her husband because she feels Vikram’s act is unforgivable. Amrita’s mother-inlaw (Tanvi Azmi) pleads with her to please forget and move on in the marriage. The elderly lady herself does not live with her husband who lives with the other son and his wife.

Why, the film steers away from explaining. Amrita’s mother (Ratna Pathak Shah) admits that her mother taught her to accept everything and anything in a marriage because that is what every woman —wife, daughter-inlaw, sister and mother —is born to do. “My mother taught me this and her mother taught her the same and perhaps her mother before that,” beautifully underscoring the trans-generational conditioning both boys and girls are made to internalise completely till they believe that life cannot be any other way.

Nethra takes a few tips from her client as they draw close and finally, she quits her father-in-law’s chamber, leaves her husband and home, and also cuts off from her chef lover because “I want to begin life afresh.” Sumitra, the domestic maid, begins to beat her husband back and even threatens him with a knife and till the man is terrified of an angry wife he cannot recognise and backs off. But there are some guffaws in the script.

The long sequence when Amrita comes to her husband’s home because her mother-in-law has kept a pooja that demands her presence; her long speech delivered to the older lady is both an exaggeration and a melodrama. It turns Amrita into a living icon of perfection and dilutes the sting of that slap. Clipping this scene would have made for a tighter screenplay. The songs disturb the seriousness of the drama. This character-driven scenario spills over with a marvellous performance from Pannu as Amrita backed by supporting actors who stand behind her, with her, and before her right through with special commendation for Gulati who cannot understand what hit him and wants his wife back desperately.

Maya Sarao as Nethra is also very good — she is a scared and confused young woman behind an over-confident exterior. Thappadis a film that has arrived at the right time and place. But the slap lacks the razor-sharp sting one felt almost tangibly in Mulk and Article 15. The echoes are not as loud as they should have been.