By Poulomi Das Feb. 28, 2020
Although it is backed by a compelling performance by Tapsee Pannu, Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad serves a crowd-pleasing definition of feminism that is more interested in making a statement rather than interrogating the status quo.
Late into Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad comes a scene that lays bare the film’s central inadequacy: its writer-director’s inclination to settle for easy solutions. When Sunita (a terrific Geetika Vidya Ohlyan), a lower-class maid is violently slapped by her short-tempered, alcoholic husband in the throes of a particularly abusive episode, she slaps him back.
The crowd at the packed theatre I watched the movie in, instinctively cheered. The divide couldn’t be any clearer: A married woman – the sole breadwinner of the house – prone to domestic violence, finally stands up for herself. Yet, it leaves an uncomfortable aftertaste: a victim resorting to retaliation, speaking the same language as the oppressor, can’t be the answer to domestic violence. The problem is, it’s a sequence designed to pander – to elicit extreme reactions instead of interrogating power imbalances – and goes against the very thought that Thappad is built on.
Set in Delhi, Thappad is centred on the lives of Amrita (Tapsee Pannu) and Vikram (Pavail Gulati), an easy-going Delhi couple, presumably in the early years of their arranged marriage. As a homemaker, Amrita’s life borders on repetition: She wakes up before dawn and cheerfully performs a set of mundane household tasks – fetching milk, serving bed tea and breakfast, checking her mother-in-law’s sugar levels – that make her domesticity look like a rehearsed dance. The husband she is devoted to, treats her more like a personal assistant than his wife, rattling off a set of orders whenever she steps into sight. She’s jovial enough to comply, having moulded herself into an existence that derives contentment by serving others.
Initially, Vikram’s self-absorption seems to be cut from the same cloth as any Indian man, who never needs to pay attention to either his marriage or his wife. But it rapidly descends into an injurious brand of entitlement when an incensed Vikram slaps Amrita at a party in their home after a spur-of-the-moment spat with a colleague. Amrita’s humiliation unfolds in public, witnessed by the guests in her home, which include her parents, neighbour, mother-in-law, and the teenage daughter of a neighbour (Dia Mirza).
That Sinha argues that a slap, even if it is the first and only occurrence, is cause enough for punishment deserves repeated reiteration, especially in a society that routinely trivialises violence against women.
Sinha and Mrunmayee Lagoo Waikul’s screenplay mines the first-hand reactions of Amrita’s family to drive home the indifference that Indians harbour toward physical violence. Amrita’s affectionate mother-in-law (Tanvi Azmi) is more concerned about the guests being left unattended than her son’s misstep, suggesting that a visibly pained Amrita plaster a smile on her face and let it go. Although taken aback, both her father (Kumud Mishra) and mother (Ratna Pathak Shah, inspired casting) don’t seem outraged enough. Amrita’s younger brother (an awful Ankur Rathee) takes to justifying the actions of his brother-in-law while Vikram himself, disappears into the crowd, conspicuous by the absence of any remorse.
Thappad revolves around the ramifications of this one night. But the sequence (Thappad is edited by Yasha Ramchandani) in question, plays out haphazardly, in a way that undermines its significance. In the fragmented, non-linear rendering of the events of the night – the film immediately jumps to the end of the party – Sinha misses details that would have revealed crucial faultlines: Did Amrita eventually go back to hosting the party? Or did she stay inside her room? Did Vikram come to apologise or did he continue sulking? And more importantly, do the guests react at all to this display of force? Instead, Thappad moves on, painting a portrait of a terse separation and divorce battle that threatens to go to court, but it’s only a matter of time before middle ground is sought.
At over 140 minutes, Thappad is stretched thin, crumbling under the weight of the disparate threads of the plot that aren’t all as rewarding. Amrita’s plight is juxtaposed with that of five women – her mother, her mother-in-law, her maid, her brother’s girlfriend, and her lawyer – each of whom negotiate with male egos. Aside from the sub-plot involving Sunita, which despite its half-baked progression manages to drive home the point that violence against women isn’t restricted by class or social status, the four other parallel stories add very little to the film’s depiction of gender imbalance and the viewer’s understanding of domestic violence.
The narrative detour focusing on the fraught relationship between Nethra (Maya Rao), Amrita’s lawyer, and her condescending journalist husband (Manav Kaul) in particular, is the film’s weakest link, replete with an affair, unreasonably verbose monologues, and stilted acting. It’s also Thappad at its most ignorant – Sinha alludes to marital rape nonchalantly without tethering it to any exposition; Nethra (seemingly modelled on Menaka Guruswamy) is shown to win a vague “landmark” sexual harassment case that feels like a dishonest last-minute addition.
Sinha and Mrunmayee Lagoo Waikul’s screenplay mines the first-hand reactions of Amrita’s family to drive home the indifference that Indians harbour toward physical violence.
In that sense, Thappad’s exaggerated screenplay isn’t equipped to distill any new insight on the Indian mentality toward displays of male force, taking refuge instead in existing tropes. At one point, Amrita tells Vikram that she did think of exacting revenge by hitting him back but couldn’t go ahead with it because “her parents didn’t raise her that way” and in the film’s climactic monologue, the blame is placed squarely on generations of Indian mothers for internalising submissive behaviour and passing it on as family inheritance. Thappad does make mention of Indian men not being chastised for stepping out of their boundaries a few times, but never really carries the idea of accountability through. Vikram and the men in his family are conveniently let off the hook, without as much a dent in their reputation.
Even though there’s a scene where Amrita acknowledges that maybe part of the problem was that as a wife, she chose to reduce herself to someone who could be slapped, Thappad shies away from confronting how Indian men, even the most well-meaning ones, feel a certain degree of ownership towards their women. It’s a glaring shortcoming, for any conversation on violence against women is redundant without an acknowledgement of the source of male entitlement. Their relationship is also surprisingly sexless, that limits the film from painting a complete picture of existing power equations in a marriage. Where the film justifies itself, is in taking a potent stand against a hierarchy of violence – Indians have a tendency to pay attention to domestic violence only when it is of a certain degree.
Thappad does make mention of Indian men not being chastised for stepping out of their boundaries a few times, but never really carries the idea of accountability through. /T-Series
Thappad does make mention of Indian men not being chastised for stepping out of their boundaries a few times, but never really carries the idea of accountability through.
That Sinha argues that a slap, even if it is the first and only occurrence, is cause enough for punishment deserves repeated reiteration, especially in a society that routinely trivialises violence that doesn’t leave physical scars on women. The one moment when Thappad lives upto its intentions comes through a striking backstory centred on Amrita’s parents that makes a point about about how daily misogyny is fused into gender roles in marriages. It’s the closest Sinha comes to revealing the insidious web of patriarchy that forces men to become oppressors, sometimes even without intending to. Shah and Mishra are in terrific form as is Pannu, channelling her inner disappointment and awareness through silences and gazes, and it is the scenes that have these three actors that lend Thappad emotional depth.
In an interview before the film’s release, Pannu insisted that, “Thappad is this year’s PINK”. But it’s exactly this that Thappad foregoes becoming, serving instead a crowd-pleasing definition of feminism that is more interested in making a statement than interrogating the status quo.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.