4 min read.Updated: 28 Feb 2020, 04:27 PM ISTUday Bhatia
The film, while perceptive about the many slights women face, hammers the audience on gender inequality and violence until its nuances are lost
It’s the scene from Awaara that modern-day viewers would like to remove a few frames of. Raj Kapoor and Nargis are frolicking on a beach. It starts out comic, then turns sexy as she dresses behind a screen. He chases her, twists her arm, pulls her to him roughly. She calls him junglee, as lovers do. He snaps, grabbing her throat and slapping her thrice. Instead of hitting back or threatening him with legal action, she grabs his leg and professes her love.
Almost 70 years later, in Kabir Singh, Shahid Kapoor slaps Kiara Advani as she tries to get him to calm down. It doesn’t dampen her love for him – she responds to his ultimatum of six hours to leave her family. Though the scene was criticised, a legion of online supporters and ₹380 crore at the box-office suggest that many in 2019 considered a stray slap a forgivable offence.
Thappad’s poster crystallises this attitude in four cleverly chosen words: bas itni si baat? – is that all? Most of the people in Anubhav Sinha’s film, built around a single slap, feel this way too, not least the perpetrator, Vikram (Pavail Gulati). But his wife, Amrita, at the receiving end of the blow, can’t get past it. Amrita is played by Taapsee Pannu, the trauma and fear perpetually on the actor’s face in Pink replaced here by a great sadness. It’s clever symbolic casting, a recognition that the difference between the violence in the two films is only a matter of degree, that “even one slap is too many" is a logical extension of “no means no".
Amrita wakes up every morning with the alarm. While her husband continues to sleep, she waters the plants, harvests aromatic leaves, grates ginger and makes tea. She tests her mother-in-law’s blood sugar levels. She then wakes her husband, brings him tea in bed. He gets ready, she makes breakfast. He’s always in a hurry to leave for work, so she runs after like he’s a school-going child, pressing food and essentials into his hands.
When we see this routine for the second time, repeated almost action for action, it becomes clear how dependent Vikram is on Amrita, and how contented she is beginning her day by making sure his day starts well. To us, the power imbalance and his self-absorption are evident, but they seem a happy couple, right up until Vikram receives bad news from work during a house party. As he yells at a colleague, Amrita tries to pull him away. Suddenly, he turns and slaps her.
Vikram’s mother (Tanvi Azmi) and Amrita’s own mother (Ratna Pathak) and brother (Ankur Rathee) are shocked, but advise her to shrug it off. For a while, she tries. We see the routine again, performed without love. But Vikram’s inability to treat the incident as anything but an accumulation of pressure on him breaks her further. When she arrives at her parents’ home one night, only her father seems to understand how serious she is about leaving Vikram. Kumud Mishra is incredible in the part, his perennially gentle tones masking the anger he feels on his daughter’s behalf.
Thappad juxtaposes the Amrita-Vikram incident with fraught relations between the film’s other couples. The domestic worker is routinely beaten by her husband; not long after Amrita is slapped, we see her slapped as well (Sinha and co-writer Mrunmayee Lagoo’s view of relationships in economically backward households as violent and doltish is disappointing). There’s adultery and a scene that borders on marital rape. Vikram’s mother and father don’t live together. Only Amrita’s parents get along, and even there it’s revealed that her mother gave up dreams of being a singer after getting married. While the writers' intention is clear, the obviousness is grating. The well-observed smaller slights – complaints about cooking, unthinking putdowns – lose their sting in a sea of injustices.
Sinha’s tendency to hammer the audience gets in the way of his narratives. As if hearing thappad every few scenes wasn’t enough, whenever Vikram says the name of his boss, Thapar, it sounds like thaapad. We’re made to notice every detail of Amrita’s morning routine fall apart in her absence: Vikram not getting his tea the way he likes it, his mother nearly dying because her blood sugar isn’t monitored, even a pointed shot of the plants Amrita used to water, now withered. There are times you wish Sinha could take some of the weight off his writing with inventive filmmaking. But he isn’t a visual director, and the 142-minute Thappad mostly has the look and rhythms of a stage play.
In the absence of brevity, there’s uncommon restraint, both in staging and performance, and the kind of quiet hurt that Hindi cinema doesn’t often access. When Amrita says “Perhaps I turned myself into the kind of the person who could be slapped," it’s with a rueful self-awareness that understands why the women in Awaara and Kabir Singh respond to violence with more love.