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‘Pagglait’: A Quirky Little Film About the Life and Times of Women in India Today

‘Pagglait’: A Quirky Little Film About the Life and Times of Women in India Today

Anu Ghosh
  • Sanya Malhotra’s power-packed yet unostentatious performance is at the core of the film examining how a young widow navigates society’s expectations.

Netflix’s latest offering for lovers of Bollywood – “Pagglait” (Crazy) is a breath of fresh air that will make you raise an eyebrow, get your heart racing and lips smiling, a strange yet lovely and heartwarming offering.

Written and directed by Umesh Bist, “Pagglait,” is a movie that keeps getting better with every passing minute. It is not a light-hearted comedy, but a movie about a girl coming to terms with reality – an arranged marriage with a man who didn’t love, her, but leaves her with a substantial insurance sum as his legally wedded and dependent wife. Then there are her in-laws, who deal with the crippling emotional and financial loss presented by their son’s demise, pushy and seemingly “well-meaning” relatives who are suddenly interested in her life when they come to know about the money she has inherited, familial expectations and disappointments, all cloaked within the archaic customs and traditions of Hindu funeral rituals.

The film examines this woman navigating society’s expectations and is a fresh take on female emancipation and comes as a relief to see on screen female freedom taking a different form than the regular “strong woman” tropes we see too often — binge drinking, casual sex and smoking endless cigarettes. Feminism, it turns out, is a lot more than that (shocking, isn’t it?). 

You would think the story of a just-married young woman who is widowed right at the onset would be sombre, all the more because the societal subjugation she tackles is the focus of the plot. The film however refuses to mourn, just like the lead. With a quirky spin, Bist chooses to unfold his story as a comic drama. Like its heroine, the film’s mood stays irreverent, and unaffected by the grim reality that backdrops the narrative.

Sandhya Giri (Sanya Malhotra of “Dangal” fame) loses her husband Astik (never shown) five months after their marriage. His relatives do not condemn her in the way Hindu society often does in such circumstances. There is no shaving of her head, no white drab sari, although they show the family eating the customary simple food – no garlic, onion or masala, while the new widow craves spicy chips, gol gappes and Pepsi. There is no shunning and finger pointing at the new widow for being manhoos (bad luck), which we have come to expect from films in this genre.

“No, she is not Manglik. Their horoscopes were matched,” one of the aunts (Meghna Malik) tells another in the film’s opening moments. This brief exchange sums up the Giris and their extended family: they are not the worst among conservatives, but they are not very progressive either. 

Sandhya herself is neither liberal nor terribly illiberal. She has so far gone along with choices made on her behalf, down a path everyone has suggested for her. Her topping her MA degree earned her a husband with an impressive salary that wowed her middle-class parents. She got married because they told her to do so, to the man they found for her. And now that he is prematurely gone, grappling with the inability to mourn her husband’s premature death, even when people around her are bawling their eyes out and following superstitions,. The film effortlessly portrays the powerful role that blind faith plays in Indian families when dealing with tragedy.

“Pagglait” traverses the period between Astik’s cremation and tehrvi, the concluding ceremonies on the 13th day after his passing. It show’s Sandy’s evolution as an independent person in those 13 days while the rituals continues all around her. They say it takes 13 days for a soul to find moksha and it takes that much time for a young widow to begin to see herself – an educated woman in an arranged marriage, a dutiful daughter-in-law in a conservative household, and a girl with suppressed yearnings of her own – in a new light.

Amidst an atypical Indian joint family, the film serves up a believable reflection of insular societies within the larger Indian polity, setting the stage for a dark drama bordering on the ludicrously funny. The film is a refreshing take on the joint family complexities but without making anyone out to be a villain, as it shows that it’s not people but situations that matter.

The Giris are an orthodox family. But they lose no opportunity to insist that they are open-minded. It takes one sequence to make the gender dynamic clear: the men sit on the floor at mealtime; the women serve them. Not that the women have no voice at all in this family. Janaki talks up her husband Ghanshyam (Jameel Khan), a bank officer who quotes Shakespeare and attributes Sandhya’s strange behavior (lack of tears) to PTSD.

The matriarch of the family is the bed-ridden grandmother-in-law (Saroj Singh), with whom Sandhya shares a special bond. She, mother-in-law Usha (Sheeba Chaddha) and Sandhya are three generations of women who are charged with keeping the family traditions alive. But as with all Bollywood dramas, conflict is integral and here it emerges when family members are informed that Astik has left behind ₹50 lakh worth of insurance money for Sandhya alone and nothing for his middle-class parents who are in crippling debt. Thus, begin the conniving attempts by the patriarchal figureheads in the family, hell-bent on keeping the money within the family. That and Sandhya finding out Astik was in love with his colleague and might not have been entirely faithful to her during their brief marriage leads to some stark revelations, both of her marriage and herself, steering the narrative forwardat a brisk pace. 

The acting is brilliant by the entire cast which, let’s be honest, can rarely be said about a movie these days. At the heart of it all, lies the power-packed yet unostentatious performance by Malhotra, who brings the lead character to life with much aplomb, adding a layer of subtle nuance to Sandhya’s predicament and the way she chooses to deal with it. Malhotra is exceptional in the movie – from a naive girl who blossoms into a woman who has to find her own path, she does justice to every scene. It’s her best role yet. Her unusual relationship with her dead husband’s ex (Sayani Gupta), is refreshingly different.

The supporting actors are equally adept. Raghubir Yadav’s delicious portrayal of his character, a treacherous bigot who tries to control his family with an iron grip, is a treat to watch. The simplicity with which Yadav goes about his job is commendable, expressing on screen a persona that is as relatable as it is repulsive.

Rana and Chaddha are magnificent as parents and morally conflicted in-laws, dealing with their worst nightmare – emotional loss and the sudden financial burden that comes post a son’s untimely demise. Surrounded by shallowness and fakery from their relatives, only their tears feel genuine. Rana’s scenes are powerful enough to move you to tears and his stoic silence conveys more than any adroit dialogue could.

Gupta as the ex-lover seems earnest on-screen too, and through her acting metes out justice to a well-etched supporting character, and an unwitting catalyst for Sandhya’s transformation. All actors are spot on and never falter at all. The unanimously stellar performances of the film really add an extra kick to it, creating the perfect storm of realistic storytelling with a generous dose of moral messaging.

The script touches on the devastation that follows the untimely death of a young family member, without even fraying into a detailed backstory of how he met with his end, in a marvelously simplistic way. And yet, instead of hampering the steady development of characters and story, it establishes a unique cinematic style that is engaging to say the least.

This calm narrative style is the strength of this film. It is matched by the shades of grey in all the characters: none of them are all-out evil, but they are no saints either, and when they err in the most human of ways, the film does not reject them. The narrative style and script are unconventional and something to learn for Hindi cinema to learn from. Bist is definitely a director to watch out for.

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The only break in the film’s tone comes with the song “Phire Faqeera,” playing in the background at one point. The song made news because it marks singer Arijit Singh’s debut as a composer. However, the track suffers from an A.R. Rahman hangover, without the perfect harmony that is Rahman’s signature. The title track is generic, but “Dil Udd Ja Re,” and “Thode Kam Ajnabi,” are pleasantly pensive and mood-setting albeit a little too similar sounding to each other. 

The script and direction chooses juxtapositions, contrast and quietness to drive the point home. Scenes like the ones where an evening out, eating pani puri is intercut with a pandit narrating a ritualistic story, while a family sits on a boat in the middle of the Ganges with their sons asthiyan (ashes) is unnerving yet subliminal and artistic. It’s a film where nothing “big” really happens and instead we are delighted by a string of “small” incidents, turn of events and changes. A lot of the film’s drama is internal and the conflicts human. The film is a labor of love and it shows.

The spotlight remains on Sandhya throughout, but the sidelights too are rich in detail, from observations about sexually curious teens in a traditional family, to that gorgeous Lucknowi home, and an unlikely bond forming between women who would have been pitted against each other by a writer prone to stereotyping. 

The film is not without faults, however, and they are glaringly obvious. The dynamic relationship between widow Malhotra and ex-lover Gupta is set up to be a positive one, where the women build each other up, one where they don’t let a patriarchal society pit one against the other.While the intention is good, the execution is poor and seems a little contrived. In an India currently ridden with Islamophobia, in a film set in a pointedly religious, upper-caste Hindu milieu, the film takes its commentary about sectarianism further, via the insulting discrimination faced by Sandhya’s best friend, Nazia Zaidi (Shruti Sharma), who, responding to a social media post by one of Sandhya’s two younger sisters, lands up in her marital home – Shanti Kunj, Lucknow.

Nazia is an outsider in every sense of the term. Her arrival is viewed with alarm by Astik’s family, especially by his tayaji, his mother and the busybody maternal aunt Tulika. A separate teacup is earmarked for the guest – its color is red so that there are no slip-ups – and she is required to eat her meals outside the home. Parchun (Aasif Khan), a young neighbor always at hand to help Astik’s father is given the responsibility of escorting Nazi around.

While I love the fact that she exists in the script and that more than one Hindu character is appalled at the treatment meted out to her, I do wish the sole act of rebellion against it had come from her and not from the protagonist. There is a touch of a minority-savior complex in their equation, well-meant though it is, with Sandhya, an upper-caste Hindu insisting her Muslim bestie be a part of the 13-day funeral ceremony, much to the family’s shock and dismay.

In a film that raises tough questions, it is disappointing that the irrational beliefs surrounding death are not questioned at all, nor are patriarchal funeral practices such as a man, not a woman, lighting the pyre, and a man, not a woman, immersing the dead person’s ashes in the holy river. I would love to see a movie that would tackle these age-old customs.

But, all in all, “Pagglait,” a feel-good movie that uses death as a trigger for self-discovery and liberation, is a must watch, in fact, I’ll go so far as to say, one of the best movies to have released on a streaming platform since March 2020. “Pagglait” is streaming on Netflix.

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