Pataakha Review: What Vishal Bhardwaj Gets Right About Sisterly Love


Pataakha Review: What Vishal Bhardwaj Gets Right About Sisterly Love

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

My younger sister and I are four years apart. Right now, as we both chart our identities as young adults in different cities, our age gap feels like an expanse. But back when our ages were in single digits and we shared a room and regular scoldings – there was no one who felt closer to me. As people who liked being left to ourselves, my sister and I spent a lot of weekends cooped up watching Hindi films on TV and fighting over who would be in charge of the remote. And it was one of those routine Sunday afternoon viewings that introduced us to Raj Kanwar’s Har Dil Jo Pyar Karega.

We took to the film instantly. Its calling card, that turned us into breathless fans, was the song: “Piya Piya”. Our favourite part of the song had the two almost-sisters (they’re actually best friends), doing their signature move on a bed wearing nothing but a towel. My sister and I were so taken by it that it became a daily ritual to recreate it in the confines of our rooms. I suppose, we were mesmerised by the halo of sisterly affection the song emanated, and dancing to it, we believed, was the perfect way to articulate our closeness.

It took some years for us to realise that sisterhood is a bit more complicated than synchronising our dance steps.     

Today as I watched writer-director Vishal Bhardwaj’s Pataakha, a delightful oddball comedy about two warring sisters, I saw a rare glimpse of sisterly disaffection in Hindi cinema, which otherwise sidelines the complexities of this bond. Adapted from Charan Singh Pathik’s short story “Do Behenein” and set in Rajasthan, the film revolves around the war-mongering between Champa Kumari aka Badki (an effervescent Radhika Madan) and her younger sister Genda Kumari aka Chutki (Sanya Malhotra). Much like quarrelling neighbours, India and Pakistan, an undercurrent that runs through the film. And like these two countries that once had a single beating heart, Badki and Chutki too are tied by blood. Yet all they yearn for is freedom from one another. Their single father, Bapu (a stellar Vijay Raaz), holds his sub-standard parenting culpable for their strife.

What I found most fascinating about Pataakha is that it refuses to give a cliched backstory of why the two sisters perpetually launch into fisticuffs.

What I found most fascinating about Pataakha – that comes alive with earthy small-town humour and idiosyncrasies – is that it refuses to give a cliched backstory of why the two sisters perpetually launch into fisticuffs. Hindi cinema has always depicted sibling rivalry with an underlying cause: They hate each other either because they’re step-siblings, or one feels less loved than the other. If it’s not a property dispute, then it’s because they fell for the same person. In Pataakha, Badki and Chutki have no such qualms: They marry two different people (although, their husbands are siblings and they end up living in the same house), and are equally loved and scolded by their father. Instead, the cause of their conflict is internal – their games of one-upmanship are their chosen language to express sisterly disaffection, dipped in affection.

It’s a language most sisters are fluent in. When Badki mocks Chutki’s new clothes and then proceeds to steals them in the dead of the night to wear on a date, I remembered the rage I felt – which, in no time, snowballed into a wrestling match – when my sister borrowed something from my wardrobe without asking me. When Chutki celebrates Badki’s forced marriage with a sleazy villager, even though she is on the verge of tears, I recalled my sister going about her day nonchalantly after being spared a beating by my mother, even as I became the victim.

Sisters are each other’s strength and weakness – you can’t live with them, can’t live without them. Pataakha understands that. It’s new ground to tread, especially in a film universe dominated by predictable sister tropes, such as the sacrificing sister (Laaga Chunari Mein Daag), the chalk-and-cheese twins (Chalbaaz), the doting siblings (Dangal), and the dead or ailing sister (October, No One Killed Jessica). With Pataakha then, Bhardwaj attempts to look at the unpleasant side of sisterly affection – one where you’re dependent on pulling the other down to prop yourself up.

Like Badki and Chutki, my sister and I fought, not because we didn’t love each other, but because we were wired to do so in order to put up with each other. Over a decade after my sister and I were enamoured by two women in towels lip-syncing to questionable lyrics, a Hindi film has finally grasped that public displays of sisterly affection can involve fists too.