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01 April 2021

Pagglait (2021)

Directed by: Umesh Bist
Music: Arijit Singh
Lyrics: Arijit Singh, Neelesh Mishra, Raftar
Starring: Sanya Malhotra, Ashutosh Rana,
Sheeba Chaddha, Raghubir Yadav,
Sayani Gupta, Shruti Sharma,
Natasha Rastogi, Bhupesh Pandya,
Chetan Sharma, Asif Khan,
Jameel Khan, Yamini Singh,
Ananya Khare, Rajesh Tailang,
Meghna Malik, Nakul Roshan Sachdev,
Ashlesha Thakur, Sachin Chowdhury,
Saroj Singh

Once in a rare while, I review new films. Either because it’s totally paisa vasool or because it’s interesting or because it has something important to say. Pagglait ticks the second box.

In a large joint family in Lucknow, shattered parents are preparing for the ceremonies following their son’s untimely death. Their elder son, Astik, had been married barely five months and now, the Giris are balancing coping with their grief with their daughter-in-law Sandhya’s bewildering lack of it.

Sandhya (Sanya Malhotra), in fact, is in her room, scrolling through the comments on her Facebook feed and dismissing them as ‘cut-and-paste’ jobs. She can barely stop herself from yawning. As she tells her friend, Nazia (a lovely Shruti Sharma), Sandhya had a cat once, who was killed by a passing car. She had cried three days and three nights, mourning its death. But now, she feels nothing. She barely knew Astik. He didn’t speak to her much. She didn’t even know his favourite colour.  Besides, she’s hungry. Very hungry. And what she wants to know is whether it is okay to drink Pepsi during the 13-day mourning period. Nazia’s expression suggests she really cannot understand her. 
Neither can her parents, though her mother (Natasha Rastogi) is more concerned about what her samdhan, Usha (the always-excellent Sheeba Chaddha), might think. Usha and her husband, Shivendra (Ashutosh Rana) are worried about their daughter-in-law’s unnatural stoicism, but they also have mundane matters like the cost of the ceremonies, the mortgage on the new flat, their very future to think about.

Downstairs, the family is gathering; there’s tauji (Raghubir Yadav), who reads Atoot Bharat, and excoriates Astik’s younger brother for disrespecting tradition by smoking on the sly. (Alok (Chetan Sharma) points out that tauji is drinking on the sly.) There’s Janaki (Yamini Singh), Usha’s nanad, and her husband, Ghanshyam (Jameel Khan); he quotes Shakespeare and Googles information, she’s in awe of his self-assurance and his ability to remember poetry. There’s the widowed Tulika (Meghna Malik), who Janaki snipes at, and her son, Sachin; Tarun (Rajesh Tailang), Shivendra’s youngest brother, and his wife Rashmi (Ananya Khare), and their children, Aditya (Nakul Roshan Sachdev) and Aditi (Ashlesha Thakur). Above all, there’s Dadi Amma (Saroj Singh), the benevolent matriarch of the family, confined to her bed.

As the family meet, talk, air old grievances and discover new ones, Sandhya desperately wants to eat golgappas. She sneaks out with Nazia on the pretext of a doctor’s visit (her concerned mother-in-law presses more money into her hand, ‘just in case’). She still looks stoic, but something has happened to jolt her out of her emotional void – it dropped out of an office file in her husband’s cupboard. 

But Pagglait is not just her story. Or her journey. It is the story of Shivendra and Usha who have lost their elder son – ‘Duniya ka sabse bada bojh’ as Sholay’s imam says. It is the story of Alok, who nurtures a crush on his Bhabhi, who teaches him English. It is the story of tauji, whose repeats Nazia’s name – “Nazia… Zaidi” – with a deliberate pause in between. And that of Nazia and Parchun (Aasif Khan), the Giris' neighbour and their love (?) story that develops over packets of masala chips and bottles of Pepsi. It is the story of Tarun and Rashmi and a life insurance policy worth Rs50 lakh. It’s the unfinished story of Akanksha (Sayani Gupta) and Astik. Bookended by a death and the tehrivin – the thirteen days of ritualistic mourning in Hindu households.

Director Umesh Bist creates a lovely, lived-in world within the chaotic confines of Shanti Kunj. He peoples his film with interesting vignettes that colour every interaction between the host of characters.  We don’t meet Astik. We don’t know how he dies. Pagglait is not plot driven as much as it is a series of set pieces that illustrate the undercurrents in joint families – the grievances, the hypocrisies, the gossip. 

There’s affection and long-running grouses. There’s laughter amidst the grief. There’s romance flowering in absurd situations. There’s bigotry, implied and underscored in a million little ways. There’s a doorbell that would be merely annoying but is now totally inappropriate in this setting.

Nothing is in your face – Bist, who also wrote the story and dialogues, is not interested in ‘fixing’ problems. His is the gaze of an observer – “Here is the quintessential North Indian joint family,” he seems to be saying. “Here they are, with all their flaws and foibles.” He makes no judgement, just presents them as they are – they resonate with us because we all know people like them. We are them.

When Aditya proposes to Sandhya, for instance, and she accepts, both Shivendra and Usha are shocked. It’s not just because Sandhya is remarrying, but because it is oh, so soon. When there’s a separate cup given to Nazia and Sandhya questions why, it is Nazia who, knowing the reason, shushes her. When Shivendra is forced to try to circumvent the policy beneficiary and is called out, his self-disgust and his repudiation of his brother’s venality is indicative of a strong moral code. When Sandhya tries to get to know her husband through a visibly uncomfortable Akanksha, she tells her, “Uski biwi thi, yaar! Thodi yaadein hii to maang rahi hoon.

Bist also peppers his dialogues with wit, often scoring a hit when he does so. But he does so with a light hand. When Parchun, designated to take Nazia out to eat, tells her he will take her to the best mutton biriyani joint in town, Nazia says she’s vegetarian. A visibly taken aback Parchun says, ‘Really?” Nazia’s response is simple, humorous and pointed – “Har Sachin Tendulkar nahiin hota.”  The point is made, but Bist wisely leaves it there.

This lightness of touch and the inherent humour is visible in other scenes as well.  When the family complain that Sandhya is unnaturally calm, “PTSD” remarks Ghanshyam solemnly. His character has already been established earlier on, and this droll expression surprises a laugh out of us. When Sachin follows Aditi, “Bhai tu hai mera,” she snaps at him but, after thinking a moment, concurs to his sheepish, “Utna bhi qareebi rishta nahiin hai!” 

Or Sandhya, hearing Alok narrate the story the priest tells him of how immersing the ashes in the holy Ganga absolves a soul of all sins, snaps, “Was Astik married to me or to Ganga maiyya?” And later, when her mother warns her that her society would think she’s mad because of the way she’s behaving, Sandhya remarks, “Jab ladki log ko akal aati hai na, toh sab unhe pagglait hi kehte hain.”

There’s also some telling social commentary – about gender dynamics, about patriarchy, about societal expectations, about society at large. (It gets a little preachy, but again, the light hand made it palatable.) When Shivendra and tauji go with Alok and Parchun to the ghats for Astik’s death rites, they are surrounded by touts who offer them ‘discounts’ if the dead person happens to be a mother or father. “It is my son. What discount do you have for a son’s rites?” asks an anguished Shivendra.

Headlined by a stunning Sanya Malhotra – the young woman has never failed to impress me – who learns more about her husband in the 13 days after his death than she did in the five months she lived with him, Pagglait is a young woman’s journey to self-realisation, without any chest thumping or cheerleading. “Agar hum apne faisle khud nahi lenge toh doosre le lenge,” she says, but her quest for self-agency is as unfussy as the film itself. Her unostentatious performance lends Pagglait both poignancy and warmth, even as she crackles with a barely-restrained energy (like her unruly curls).

Ashutosh Rana and Sheeba Chhadha as the grieving parents are the emotional core of Pagglait. Their grief is both intense and dignified. Their concern for their daughter-in-law is personal, not opportunistic. And a reciprocal affection is reflected in Sandhya's final action before she leaves. They, and the rest of the ensemble cast, turn in powerful performances that lets us see their inherent complexities.

Bist also uses Arijit Singh’s music (his debut as composer) very unobtrusively, allowing the songs to pull his narrative forward. This lightly-steered dark comedy of manners makes us introspect the hard realities of societal mores that are still embroiled in crippling orthodoxy.

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