Surely, Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad has very little to do with the thappad itself?
The film brings to us Amu or Amrita (Taapsee Pannu) who dreams of a house with blue windows somewhere in suburban London. This Amu is certain that Vikram, her husband, will get that promotion he’s always wanted. This Amu is confident in her role as a housewife, “a choice I made”, she’s quick to remind everyone and herself ever so often. This Amu gracefully parades her seemingly perfect life, all while lending her ears, rather dispassionately, to the marital problems of the women around her.
Thappad promises to be a movie about Amu and several other women but what it is, is a legal battle with women walking in and out of a witness box like immemorable inhabitants. Amu, thankfully, stands at the centre of it all but the women around her, each with a fitting tragedy assigned to her, remain unnecessary appendages. Like Saturn and its many moons, the names of which we rarely recall. These women are an assembly of archetypes, maybe an invitation to pick the one you relate to the most? Maybe Sinha’s enthused need to squeeze in all kinds of sad women into his film?
I watched Thappad sandwiched between two men who begrudgingly accompanied me to a theatre on Cunningham Road, the emptiness of which, unbeknownst to us, was already beckoning the days of lockdown that would soon befall everyone. As interval approached, the McSpicy paneer burger we smuggled in disappeared, so did the boys’ patience. We get it, she has it tough, it’s the same thing every day, it’s a hard knock life! We get it, they insisted.
The film’s unendurably slow pace, one that my companions simply wouldn’t have, is quite telling of Amu’s existence. Her daily routine, involves waking up a good one hour before Vikram, drawing in the curtains so as to not disturb his sweet slumber, preparing everyone’s preferred morning concoction ready to be served hot as and when they wake up, checking her mother-in-law’s blood sugar level, watering the plants, clicking a picture of the same superb view from their stately bungalow, making polite conversation with the neighbour, seeing off Vikram and feeding him both breakfast and belongings that he couldn’t be bothered about, all done without fail. All done every day. A list of activities too long to waste precious word count, but here you have it.
Three times this routine, the entire length of it, coursed before us on screen. The first time with accompanying lively and jubilant music in the background. The second day, the pace of her routine is upped, signalling the mindlessness and monotony that comes with it. On the third day, the morning after the infamous thappad, Amu is seen trudging along this oh so joyful life of hers and she drags us, an irritable audience, along with her. This last day, we are ready to denounce this regime, we are over it. The crowd warily identifies the thappads, small and big, in their heroine’s perfect life.
Thappad threatens to crawl on at this point, with Amu crossing roads in slow-motion and close ups of her pained face, all paired with the trumpeting tune of some Manyavar-esque ad song. But Sinha swoops in to slap his audience with an absurd legality right before the movie breaks for interval. My two friends spent much of this time googling the law, which to their indignance gives man an indecent amount of ownership over his wife. They were aghast and betrayed, much like Amu or rather Taapsee Pannu, who they were in solid support of.
The movie (as well as the trailer) insists on informing us that everything and everybody is stacked against Amu; an unsupportive brother, an ambivalent lawyer who otherwise plays the judicial system to her tune, mother and mother-in-law with their adjustment advices. But to Amu and to the audience in turn, it is no longer about the thappad which, let’s be honest, simply slapped some sense into all of us gawkers.
Egged on by her divorce lawyer, Netra Jaisingh, Amu soon abandons her pupa of docility and begins to make some measured comebacks. This new Amu recalls that it was yellow and never blue that was her favourite colour. Plants and a mother-in-law wilt in her absence. The actor’s dialogue count increases and she responds in revelations (somewhat prescriptively) every fifteen minutes or so. We are rooting for Amu and rightfully so, for as she says, one slap does reveal things before and after, wrong, and wrong waiting to happen.
But the happy ending Anubhav Sinha imposes upon our heroine (and the variously embellished ladies around her) is an easy, “fair” justice; a careless remedy doled out by someone who has little understanding of the insignificance these women fight daily. The movie wraps up fairly quickly once Amu’s husband realizes his folly. But it is peculiar, amusing even, how throughout the film, Amu implores Vikram to acknowledge his flaws, but all it takes is another man with barely-there screen-time to knock him with a hey there buddy, you know you screwed up right? Guess that ties up everything conveniently.
When Article 15 premiered in 2019, critics were quick to question Sinha’s conviction and confinement to messianic ideas of conclusion; an easy way out, an un-messy knot wrapping together his gift to the array of affected he makes films about. In Thappad, there is some progress made by way of better concealing the director’s cluelessness about his subject. For those of us dying to strike back, a certain Sunita (Geetika Vidya) will not disappoint, saving the film with a thappad that wins back the title. And Thappad, I must say, despite its calculations and miscalculations, continues to capture us in these curious times of Corona. Maybe not a slap of the kind we’re waiting for but most definitely a polite smack to those who say “Bas itni si baat?”