Supriya Pathak and the many faces of Anguish

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Supriya Pathak and the many faces of Anguish

Illustration: Arati Gujar

The steely and dark series Tabbar begins with a nervous Pawan Malhotra driving a car through farmland covered by dense foliage. The texture and tone tell us it’s a tense moment, but it’s Supriya Pathak’s disheveled countenance that gives away a sense of loss and guilt in a single shot.

The Punjabi series, directed by the promising newcomer Ajitpal Singh, is a caustic exploration of Punjab, and a searing ode of the limits a desperate man can be pushed, to protect his family. But while the men act as agents of violence, carnage and hara-kiri in this series, it’s Supriya Pathak’s role of a resilient but ultimately defeated mother that stands out, for the many ways she embodies discontentment, hope, anxiety and anguish. This is not even the first time, this year, that Pathak has quietly, yet resolutely stood out in an ensemble cast she subsequently dwarfs in terms of ingenuity. Her recent roles might seem the same on paper, in execution, Pathak finds a different note to hit.

This is not even the first time, this year, that Pathak has quietly, yet resolutely stood out in an ensemble cast she subsequently dwarfs in terms of ingenuity.

Like most senior actors who are now blazing a trail in the OTT space in India, Pathak made her start in the revolutionary 80s, working in films like Kalyug, Vijeta, Bazaar and Masoom. Her popularity would soar decades later with the quirky tv soap Khichdi, where the played the famous ‘Hansa Bhen’, a delightfully inane matriarch who shares a unique bond with her husband.

Over the last few years, storytellers have begun to see in Pathak, more than just the agreeable middle-aged woman of the house. In Rashmi Rocket most recently, her motherly instincts are driven not by the burdens of being one, but by the fire in her belly. To a reluctant, and cornered athlete, she becomes the voice of defiance. In a scene, a call placed to her by Rashmi (Taapsee Pannu) evokes a sense of relief like no other. It isn’t a scene inviting your pity but one that communicates the lifting of a long-held burden.

Over the last few years, storytellers have begun to see in Pathak, more than just the agreeable middle-aged woman of the house.

In Ramprasad ki Tehrvi, Pathak plays a grieving widow who is now the subject of a large family’s mutinous ways of carrying forward the memory of her beloved, late husband. At no point does Pathak in this incredibly restrained role that has very few lines, overstress the gravity of her situation. Grief, in the Hindi film industry, can be communicated with something as straightforward as white clothing, a neck shouldered by a friend, or a handful of chemically induced tears and wails.

In Tehrvi, however, Pathak maintains an elusive grace, holding together the sense of loss in a setup where most others are just bickering or bantering. Privy to the rot around her, Pathak keeps her calm, as if meditating, despite her surroundings on the state of the world that her husband as left her to. In Rashmi Rocket she is anguished by the distance between her and her daughter. But in both cases, the grief doesn’t give way to resentment or withdrawal. Both characters continue to prod, continue to cultivate the anguish that would eventually suggest a way sideways, if not out.

In Tabbar, Pathak’s motherly instincts are paired with the almost metallically sound guilt that maternal conflict brings with it.

In Tabbar, Pathak’s motherly instincts are paired with the almost metallically sound guilt that maternal conflict brings with it. Is she supposed to do the right thing, set an example for her family or should she also choose survival over morality? Hers is the clearest conflict of interest, between raising and anchoring a decent family to making sure it survives to have a shot at it again someday. Pathak’s wide eyes, her nervous gaze are like weaponised turmoil, piercing and destabilising. Her calming smile off-sets the many conflicts she carries in her heart, so quietly are they rendered it feels she is transforming between these different characters while retaining something different in each. Pathak has played second fiddle to iconic patriarchs – most famously Amitabh Bacchhan in Sarkar – before as well. In her recent roles however, Pathak has managed to ensconce a place where she feels herself, and can deliver something that is both chilling and endearing.

Relaying inner conflicts, and the anguish that comes with it is so underrated in this country we don’t buy it until someone animatedly points it out. Pathak has on the other hand, wedded the beauty of her pleasant countenance to a slow descent into horror and inner conflict with consummate ease. In Tabbar, Pathak is supreme, as the desperate-for-a-centre mother to struggling brothers and wife to a hesitant yet righteous husband. Be it guilt, fear, apprehension or grief, Pathak has quietly delivered telling performances without sprinting or stretching her way through them. The look of horror or guilt in her eyes, must now be a cinematic time stamp, each worth it’s time, place and role.

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