‘Panga’, starring Kangana Ranaut as a kabaddi player, is an underdog sports film—and a slice-of-life family drama
When Fox Star approached Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari with the idea of a film about a woman kabaddi player, the writer-director’s interest was piqued. Fresh on the heels of the success of Bareilly Ki Barfi, she was open to a new canvas. Women’s kabaddi, which aligned with Star’s sporting property, the Women’s Kabaddi Challenge, gave her a fitting subject.
Like Nil Battey Sannata and Bareilly Ki Barfi, her latest feature, Panga, also explores relationships and family dynamics. Tiwari says this is not a coincidence. “I need to place each of my films in some cultural context. Currently, as a generation, we are losing out on relationships. Families should take a moment to at least hug each other and say thank you or I love you. Nowadays it’s said via text messages."
There are, therefore, two dimensions to Panga—the family dynamics and the backdrop of a national sport. But Tiwari says there is much more to the film, which stars Kangana Ranaut, Jassi Gill, Neena Gupta and Richa Chadha.
“Kabaddi is an integral part of the storytelling but the script is much more layered. Doing a pure sports film was not enough for me. I needed to add drama, something that will resonate with audiences," she says. One image in her mind was of a tiger surrounded by her litter of cubs walking through a misty jungle. Tiwari used videos of predators in jungles as a reference, shooting her kabaddi scenes like a wildlife video.
“A game of kabaddi is like a lioness hunting for food for her cubs. I was clear that I did not want to make two films in one—I didn’t want to treat the sport as different from the slice-of-life layer," says Tiwari. The second layer explores the life of a woman who quit her job to focus on her family and child revisiting her suppressed dreams. “I also didn’t want to show so much grittiness that I lose out on the essence of my characters".
She mentions the famous anecdote of (former PepsiCo CEO) Indra Nooyi learning she had been appointed CEO. She went home a bit early that day to share the news with her family. Her mother, who was waiting for her, stopped Nooyi before she could share her excitement, and asked her to get some milk from the shop first.
“That’s what it boils down to. Family values, societal pressures, guilt factor as parents and the priority given to earning male members of the family," says Tiwari. Panga is the story of Jaya Nigam, a composite of “every Jaya in every household in this country". Played by Ranaut, Nigam is that everywoman who is holding on to secret hopes. “These are women who have put their families first and parked their dreams. The man goes to work and the woman runs the home. I hope that if my film does well, the takeaway will be that behind every woman, there can be a supportive man."
The trailer speaks of second chances, not restricted to women but an opportunity also for men to overturn the stereotype. Tiwari points out that the expectation of the male head of household being the breadwinner could also be tiring. “Maybe he will tell his partner that she should go out and pursue her dreams instead. Nitesh (Tiwari, Ashwiny’s husband, also a director) has told me a couple of times that he would be happy staying home and writing and that I could do the hard work and make the money. I am okay with that too."
Having a writer-director at home has its advantages. When Ashwiny and co-writer Nikhil Mehrotra finished their script, they shared it with Nitesh (Dangal, Chhichhore). “Nitesh is a brilliant dialogue writer and has contributed additional screenplay and dialogue to Panga. As a family member, he said there was no need to credit him, but as a professional, it is my moral duty to give due credit. Why take him for granted?" says Tiwari.
Even though she did not have a cast in mind while writing, by the time she finished the script she knew Ranaut was the right choice. She says: “I knew it had to be Kangana because I needed a mature actor who could convey the layers of emotions. Also, her screen age and real age are the same. Plus, she comes from a small town. All that worked for me."
Interestingly, the two female actors—Ranaut, who plays a national-level kabaddi player, and Chadha, who is playing Meenu, a senior player and friend—are both outspoken off-screen, standing on polar ends of the political discourse. Tiwari says she became aware of this only half-way through production. “We do not select actors based on their ideological stand. But every household can also have ideological differences. That doesn’t mean you can’t coexist. As it was, we didn’t discuss politics at all."
She’s looking forward to diving into her next project, the story of Sudha and Narayan Murthy of Infosys. But she’s quick to caution that it should not be described as a biopic. “We have abused that word. It’s not like you have to put each and every event of their lives in a linear storyline. "
Tiwari believes that India is ahead of Hollywood when it comes to acknowledging the achievements of female film-makers. “There might not be that many women film-makers, but it’s about the respect we get and how the media portrays us, whether it’s Zoya Akhtar, Meghna Gulzar, Farah Khan or me. It also makes a difference if our films do well commercially. Important stories need to be told, but they must be commercially viable. However, a talented director should not be judged only on the basis of box-office collections. Rather, a director should be judged on their storytelling."
Panga releases on 24 January.
Udita Jhunjhunwala is a Mumbai-based writer, film critic and festival programmer.