The rise in production and consumption of “social-message movies” in Bollywood of late has given birth to some actors’ careers (Ayushmann Khurrana), and somewhat resurrected flailing ones (Akshay Kumar). But, if there is one person, this movement has entirely changed (arguably liberated), it is director Anubhav Sushila Sinha. Take his output before the still hauntingly effective Mulk (2018) and tell me that you saw a filmmaker who wanted to use the medium of cinema to make a change or challenge a sleeping system. I’m sure that even if we tried to read more into his action films, we would find nothing, but another director-for-hire chained to the mechanizations of a (forgive the pun) cash-grabbing system.
However, as India approaches another type of Emergency that threatens to not only repeat the atrocities of the past but insists on cementing that ideology deeply into the populous for centuries to come, an “Angry Old Artist” arises. Unlike the actors who aim to bring change, or reinforce the status quo, this director rarely uses genre as a mask to ease the audience into hearing what he wants to say. His previous two films, Mulk (2018) and Article 15 (2019) – about Islamophobia, and casteism respectively – wanted the audience to hear it loud and clear how deeply troubling these practices are. Through characters that acted as stand-ins for the audience, the director firstly introduced these problems to those unaware or ignorant of it, and then gradually, exposed our complicity in sustaining these practices.
His newest, arguably best film, Thappad (2020), also wants the audience to know how enraging, and hypocritical a traditionally patriarchal system is. But here he doesn’t give us a protagonist like Ayan in Article 15 who actively channels the rage that the audience is supposed to feel. Instead, he provides a lovely, brilliantly effective opening montage that introduces us to all the characters his story is going to revolve around. A couple discusses the freedom that they feel with one another while riding together on a bike, eating an orange candy bar. Another couple talks about how they feel liberated with each other rather than their respective spouses while they travel together in a car, eating a similar candy bar. Cut to an older couple talking about their dreams and aspirations at home while they share the orange-colored popsicle. Then to a mother and daughter adorably bickering about the need for a man in the mother’s life, while enjoying that same ice-cream. Before, finally, showing a financially disadvantaged lady joking with her husband, while of course taking a bite from that candy bar, about his dominating presence and how she won’t tolerate his behavior at home. The matching presence of this orange stick in all these lives is less representative of how popular these ice lollies are in India, and more symbolic of the connection between all these characters despite their differences in class, and age. This surface normality exists everywhere.
Something Sinha gradually chips away at using the central storyline that plays out between Amrita (Taapsee Pannu, expressing her character’s confusion ever so convincingly) and her husband (a great Pavail Gulati never making his character feel evil). We first meet this well-to-do couple similar to how we meet the other characters in the film. There’s a peppy background score underscoring their daily routine. Bright light dominates each frame. Even the costumes they wear are bright pinks and whites. But, when the thappad (slap) comes, not only does the background score go numb, so do the visuals. Amrita begins to wear faded whites, something one usually associates with funerals in Hinduism. The montage of her waking up, attempting to cut the potatoes, and joking about her inability to make food begin to feel monotonous and suffocating. And, most of all, she begins questioning her role as a wife (Sinha brilliantly frames Amrita occupying one half of the frame with her house-help in the opposite to give the illusion of a mirror-like image in a defining moment). The director lingers on this phase of introspection that Amrita goes through extensively, making you very much feel the disconnect she begins to experience from people who she thought she believed.
You, too, then, like her, begin to “see the things that you chose to ignore before.” The individualistic attitude of Vikram, in particular, becomes increasingly apparent. The investment of his time in his company and the embarrassment he has to face because he slapped her in public are the primary concerns. Not what Amrita is feeling. He tells her to “forget it because it was a casual mistake,” but can’t muster up the courage to say, “Sorry.” His other gestures, too – getting offended when Amrita says something about his family, subtly bribing his house-help to give testimony in his favor in court – plead for sympathy. But lack much, if any, empathy for his wife.
Sinha, however, is not content on only implicating one man for his casual sexism. He, ambitiously, wants to tackle people from all walks of life who willingly or unwillingly become part of this deeply entrenched patriarchal system. The old couple glimpsed in the credits is, in fact, Amrita’s parents, both grappling with their daughter’s potential divorce in different ways. Her mother (a typically stellar Ratna Pathak Shah) questions her daughter’s inability to suppress her desires because she did that, to some degree, in her marriage. Her father (a profoundly moving Kumud Mishra), on the other hand, is more openly supportive, especially after realizing his lack of involvement in allowing his wife to live her life. The couple who are seen on the bike, in the beginning, turns out to Amrita’s brother and his girlfriend, both with differing opinions on how our protagonist should tackle this problem. The lady in the car eventually becomes Amrita’s lawyer, herself going through an identity crisis because of her marriage in a wealthy family, making her consistently question the protagonist’s reason for seeking a divorce. The mother (a wonderfully restrained Dia Mirza) and her daughter are Amrita’s neighbors, attempting to guide our protagonist out of this forced system. And, lastly, there is the house-help (an excellent Geetika Ohlyan) who sees all this happening in her employer’s house trying to justify her abusive relationship with her husband as normal because even the middle-class condone it.
It’s a complicated web of sub-plots that Sinha never exactly manages to balance, with the house-help and lawyer story coming across as too underdeveloped. However, each account provides enough messiness always to make Thappad (2020) feel not only an indictment of a person but of a whole mentality that allows men the free will to exercise individualism while criticizing females for even desiring a bit of that.