For such an unhurried film, Panga has a bracingly violent start. All of Bhopal is sleeping, except for Prashant (Jassie Gill), who’s getting kicked by his wife, Jaya (Kangana Ranaut), in bed. These aren’t light kicks either. Ranaut isn’t an actor given to half-measures and I’d wager Gill left the set that day with more than a few bruises. Not only are the kicks satisfyingly hard, they have a certain rhythm and coil to them. They’re athlete kicks.
It’s a nice detail, because Jaya is an athlete, or at least was one. A national-level kabaddi player, she quit the sport to take care of her son, born prematurely and with low immunity. She never returned to kabaddi, working instead at a railway ticket counter and investing all her energy in her precocious school-going child and loving husband. She feels a pang now and then, but tells herself that neither her umar (age – she’s 32) nor kamar (waistline) would allow a return to the game.
In Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s first film, 2016's Nil Battey Sannata, a working mother joins her daughter’s school so she can first learn and then tutor her in math. Panga, too, has a mother risking embarrassment for her child: once the boy learns that Jaya left kabaddi for him, he badgers his father to persuade her to make a comeback. In a montage scored with an Annu Kapoor comic number, Jaya starts training again, with the intention of giving up in a month. But when the time comes, she can’t. She left kabaddi, but kabaddi never left her.
It’s barely a surprise when the super-supportive Prashant – an endearing, if slightly wishful, creation – insists she try and make her way back to the national team. Tiwari and co-writer Nikhil Mehrohtra carefully unpeel the various levels of social indoctrination that someone like Jaya must overcome before they can follow their dreams, not only practical problems (Prashant is inept around the house) but her own guilt at what in her mind amounts to abandoning her child.
For a sports film, this is a timely idea to be grappling with (Sultan, in 2016, also dealt with it). There are more prominent Indian women athletes today than perhaps ever before, and some like Mary Kom and Sania Mirza have returned to their sports after becoming parents. But in a more general sense, the film is an empathetic look at the social cost of continuing with one’s life after marriage and children. That Jaya should consider herself lucky – that she actually is lucky, as she’s told by several women – to get to do the thing she’s good at, is one of the more poignant reiterations of this film.
Nitesh Tiwari is credited with additional dialogue and screenplay, and there’s a hint of Dangal’s unnecessary villain in the figure of national team captain, who for no reason keeps slighting Jaya. I can see why the film tries to introduce a late-stage antagonist, though; Panga is easy-going to a fault. It’s not often one gets to say this about a Hindi film, but there are moments when it could really use some drama. The kabaddi isn’t badly executed but because the film takes its time building to Jaya’s comeback, the final championship is both rushed and predictable.
After a series of high-strung, if often brilliant, performances in Rangoon, Simran, Manikarnika and Judgmentall Hai Kya, it’s a relief to see Ranaut play in a more down-to-earth style. Jaya is more comfortable in her skin than Rani Mehra, but Queen does come to mind: it’s the same homemade-sweater-wearing, chaat-eating, cautiously progressive middle-class milieu. Gill does little but look lost and smile broadly – a surprisingly winsome strategy. Richa Chadha, in a very Richa Chadha role as an outspoken coach and friend of Jaya’s, is supremely relaxed. She even gets to do a little shout-out to her own line from Gangs of Wasseypur: “Ghoor kaahe rahe ho?" The best adaptation of a famous line, though, is by a character who’s there in just one scene, the doctor who tells Jaya, “Ab goli kha".