Mumbai, 28 Feb 2020 7:30 IST
Anubhav Sinha follows up his Article 15 (2019) with another nuanced yet direct slap on a patriarchal society that dominates lives across India.
They are all around you. Like house elves, they ensure that everything is in the right place at the right time for men to go on and rule the world. From the tea and breakfast that appear miraculously in the morning to the dinner that is always ready. Your reviewer often goes home to a hot plate of dinner waiting for him. To say that he is thankful would be an overstatement. To say that he is even conscious of that fact would be an untruth.
Amrita is one such woman. She answers any question about her well-being by saying "I am beautiful". And she is. She is the supporting housewife Vikram (Pavail Gulati) needs. She is the pride of her mother (Ratna Pathak Shah). She is the pet of her father (Kumud Mishra), and the source of comfort of her mother-in-law (Tanvi Azmi). She provides, cares for and supports all of them without question. All she requires for herself is happiness and respect. Not an unreasonable demand.
The happiness, she has already compromised for the happiness of the people around her. It is when the respect is brought into question that Amrita finds herself in an identity crisis. A slap at a party, in front of everyone, leads her to rethink her idea of love.
Anubhav Sinha carefully sets the story in the city of Delhi, in an upper-middle-class ambience with its high education and moral values. It is these values that make Vikram say ruefully, "Shit happens." When he tries to placate Amrita by saying that he simply lashed out because his company had disregarded his emotional investment, hard work and time, it is the defence of the man-child.
On the other hand, Amrita's decision to go back to her maternal home results in a legal notice, questions on her behaviour and maturity, and accusations of irresponsibility.
Sinha carefully crafts this story through multiple dimensions, most of them women. While the men behave like men do, it is the women who truly show the extent and reach of the patriarchy. When Tanvi Azmi's matron says "we have to learn to bear it", or when Ratna Pathak Shah sternly says "women have to kill their dreams", it is the product of ages of desensitization.
So, when Amrita decides to go to her maternal home as a protest, she becomes 'immature' for not recognizing the stress Vikram was going through, or the disrespect that her mother fears from their neighbours. Even her brother decides to chide her; after all, he runs the same risk with his girlfriend.
Sinha portrays a mirror opposite to Amrita in Dia Mirza's Vidya, a single mother bringing up her daughter in the toxic male cauldron that is New Delhi. The reaction to her successful and single life is reflected in Vikram's casual question to Amrita, "What does she do for a living?" To which Amrita replies, "She works hard."
Sinha uses this to capture the prevalent mentality. A woman cannot succeed as an entrepreneur unless supported by someone. Her identity is bound to her husband and to his family. This is prevalent through the sisterhood of women in the film. Whether it is the hotshot lawyer (Maya Sarao), whose abusive husband offers her the 'privilege' of his name to use, or the delightful Sunita (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan), who bears her daily beatings because she thinks she is nothing without her husband.
Even the most 'woke' man in the film, Kumud Mishra's kind father, realizes that despite all his forward thinking, he failed to understand that his wife had dreams as well. "I didn't tell you," she reminds him, "but you didn't ask either. You let it go." That moment is a testament to Ratna Pathak Shah and Kumud Mishra's ability as artistes and to Sinha's writing.
All of this is captured in the beautiful frames and cinematography of Ewan Mulligan and Soumik Mukherjee, who do a fantastic job. The soft background score by Mangesh Dhakde deserves credit for not overpowering the drama unfolding on the screen. Sinha's screenplay moves at a brisk pace, without any loud and overbearing moments of action. This is done through some applause-worthy dialogues and confrontation scenes that stay with you beyond the film.
There is also the lovely motif of the tea-making, which, like the water in Article 15 (2019), embodies the patriarchal system. It is where Amrita finds her solitude before her day is dedicated to the rest of her family. The tea is where Vikram fails, and lashes out again. It is also what Amrita's father uses to show his love to his wife.
But these would have failed without the performances. Taapsee Pannu emerges as a strong, determined woman who finds herself through the travails. She embodies that shock of realization, and the fact that violence is often ingrained even in the best of men as a cultural phenomenon. Her performance is subtle, effective, but never subdued.
Pannu is backed by a fantastic debut for Pavail Gulati. As the man-child who never looks beyond himself, Gulati delivers a good performance on screen, even through an annoying character.
There are some fantastic character artistes who deliver throughout the film. Maya Sarao, Tanvi Azmi and Ratna Pathak Shah are fantastic as the three different dimensions of women, struggling to break free like Amrita.
Then, there is Geetika Vidya Ohlyan. The actress captures a sense of freedom, subtle acceptance of the practical truth faced by women in a different class than Amrita. She is a delight on screen.
Naila Grewal and Dia Mirza embody the other side of the independent, free-thinking women who fight through. Both actresses make an impact. Dia Mirza is particularly effective as the care-giver who first stands by Amrita when all else fail. Where she gives love, Grewal's Shruti offers practical help. It is the sisterhood that ultimately rescues Amrita.
Yes, Anubhav Sinha could be accused of mansplaining here. Just like Article 15's hero, for all his kindness, came from the upper caste, Thappad's moment of realization arrives for Vikram when his boss tells him he is wrong. Not when his wife pleaded with him. There are moments when Maya Sarao's advocate is shown suffering sexual abuse from her husband but lets it go. Her quiet separation later feels like a cop-out. So is Amrita's decision to not demand alimony or fight for custodial right. Perhaps the director could have been braver at that.
But then, such a film hardly penetrates into the layer that it must. That layer would be the apathetic men who rule this country, dominate its streets, and write reviews. At a time when the streets of New Delhi are bathed in blood shed by toxic masculinity at its peak, Thappad is a reminder that it is the women who still have sense in a self-destructive world. It is a reminder that while men need them at all times, they hardly ever deserve them.
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