In Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad (2020), when Taapsee Pannu’s Amrita covers her face a moment after she is slapped by her husband, there is an almost deafening silence. She glances sideways to check who had seen her in that instant, and slowly crawls back to her room upstairs. This sequence is shot in slow motion, captured brilliantly by Soumik Mukherjee- the lens covering the shock in each one of those faces who saw the moment.
Co-written by Mrinmayee Lagoo and Sinha, Thappad begins with an elaborate sequence, introducing us with the characters that we would meet in the course of the film. We meet the lawyer (Maya Sarao), the neighbour (Dia Mirza), the maid (the sublime Geetika Vidya), the sister (Naila Grewal) and the parents (Ratna Pathak Shah and Kumud Mishra). At last, we come to Amrita and Vikram ( Pavail Gulati), and become acquainted with their daily routine through the course of the day. Amrita is the patient and willing housewife to Vikram, and is happy to sacrifice her dreams of becoming a classical dancer, never mentioning it to reverberate her position in the house. She performs her duty as a housewife with a rhythm, and the second she is slapped, the music stops. Whatever she does, it is performed without a sense of the self-esteem. Shaken, she goes back to stay with her parents and then, gets a lawyer to help her out. The proceeding scenes with Sarao are sketched with slight dozes of crowd-pleasing dialogue, presented in fairness and moral tone, but what makes it impactful still is the intent. “nahi maar sakta”- is what Amrita stands for, that it might be just one slap, but he can’t do it.
What works in Thappad is not just in the intent, but in the characters with which these positions are chalked out. Vikram might be the husband who has slapped his wife and doesn’t apologize (till the end), but he is never demonized. He is not shown as the definition of an abusive male counterpart, but as a product of the patriarchal culture that is enmeshed in rigorous boosting of individualism that blinds him to the the concerns of the opposite side. Even the lawyer does not become the sole beacon of righteousness in the face of domestic abuse, but is a fully understood character in itself, who is able to cope up with her own demons personally. Kumud Mishra exceptionally charts Amrita’s father, as a man who gradually turns inwards to realize the subtle sexism he had inhabited. Through him, Sinha infuses the politics of Thappad, with the reference to celebrated poet Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s poem- “Samar Sesh he”.
Ruling out all these subtle exchanges is Taapsee Pannu’s masterful central performance, at once physical as it is evocative. Watch out for her in the scene when Vikram comes to her the next morning, hugging her shoulder, and she gives a subtle look of realization that he has not apologized. Thappad is Pannu’s film, in all its capacity. Pavail Gulati lends strong support as the wronged husband, and kudos to the immaculate casting of Tanvi Azmi as the mother-in-law who fully understands Amrita but is never quite brave enough to articulate. Dia Mirza, Ram Kapoor and Manav Kaul in an extended cameo fit in beautifully with the narrative.
After Mulk and Article 15, Thappad is Sinha’s latest installment in perhaps the most astonishing directorial awakenings in Bollywood in recent memory. With Thappad, Sinha treads the domestic path, and shows intrinsically how it is just not about one slap, but the intent in doing so. That there are everyday exchanges in our vicinity that are as real and problematic with regards to domestic abuse. Thappad is an important film, a rare piece of film making that is driven not by how stylistically aware it can be, but how film making can interrogate with contemporary reality. It is never melodramatic, and situates itself with a fitting conclusion that deeply understands the outcome of an exposition. How much can change, and how much has to change- beyond Amrita? The answer lies within the domestics.