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Thappad, Review: This slap is going to cost you dear

A simple, significant, timely and relevant story line might be too thin to stretch into a full-length movie. Having settled for such a plot, the options would include spreading the narrative thinly across the pages of a tight screenplay, or padding it up with sub-plots and characters that might not be vital to the theme. Thappad (Slap) opts for the latter choice, and, in the process, dilutes its impact. What emerges is a well-made film that promises a lot but delivers just a bit much short.

Apparently a perfect couple, Vikram and Amrita (Ammu) live a clock-work existence. She manages his day perfectly, from the time the morning alarm rings, till the time he leaves for office, and then again, from the time he arrives home, till the time they go to bed. In between Amrita, a trained dancer, also gives dance tuitions to her neighbour (a single mother)’s teenage daughter. She also takes a daily reading of her mother-in-law’s blood sugar and monitors her diet.

Vikram is making a pitch to his bosses to bag a transfer to London, to head the company’s branch there. It goes well, and he is chosen, above a white man, who was also in the running. Overjoyed at his dream getting fulfilled, Vikram throws an instant party the same evening, where one of his bosses is also invited. There he gets a call from another boss that though he will be sent to London, he will have to report to the white man. This infuriates an already drunk Vikram, who attacks the boss who is present at the party. Amrita tries to intervene, and Vikram does what he should not have done: he slaps Amrita in the face. A startled Amrita does not know what to make of it, goes away into her room, and shrinks into a shell.

Vikram realises that he has done wrong, but not the extent of damage he has caused. He offers a half-hearted apology, citing his plans and ambitions as the reason for his getting so highly provoked. Amrita decides to go to her parental home for an unspecified period, not sure about her future course of action. When she learns that her mother-in-law has fainted on account of high blood sugar levels, she decides to visit her marital home and continue the daily check-ups. Deciding to take legal action for a separation, Amrita is in a quandary: is a slap sufficient ground for a judicial intervention? Her counsel thinks not, but she is determined to battle it out. The slap stood for much more than one isolated act, she insists. And then, in the middle of this impasse, she finds out that she is pregnant. Whatever happens to her and to Vikram, what will now happen to the baby, which will be on its way in another seven months?

On the writing side, director Anubhav Sinha has collaborated with Mrunmayee Lagoo Waikul, and that sounds like a good idea: a man and a woman, for a woman-centric subject, which does receive logical perspectives from both angles. As consultant, they have Anjum Rajabali, a veteran at his job. Mrunmayee is the daughter of actress Reema Lagoo, and acted in films like Talash, 3 Idiots and Dangal, besides working as an assistant director in films and TV. Whatever be the level of her contribution, there is little to suggest that she was writing her first film. Sinha has written seven of the twelve films he has directed, of which Tum Bin 2, Mulk and Article 15 were the last three (he produced them as well). Article 15 has brought him encomiums and they are still pouring in. Mulk, too, was much appreciated. Rajabali was ‘thanked’ for his contributions to Godmother, Sarfarosh, Ghulam, Khakee, and many more. Anyway, when three writers are involved, one has to be wary of apportioning credit or blame. In this case, largely, the writing is on the credit side. Dialogue, too, merits a plus, eschewing clap-trap phrases in favour of realistic vocabulary.

On the debit side are the sub-plots, although the writers have been clever enough to integrate them with the mainstream. Each of the sub-plots are like short stories about men and women, more women than men, caught-up in situations they are unhappy in and want to get out of, but none of them wants to opt for the obvious solution. The widow whose daughter is learning kathak refuses to consider remarriage. A top-notch advocate refuses to elope with her soul-mate, even as she opts out of a marriage that is going nowhere. Amrita’s sister-in-law takes a stand for her and takes her to the advocate above while her brother believes that she is making too much of a minor issue. This leads to a rift between the two and the sister-in-law heads for Bengaluru, her home-town (the events are taking place in north India), yet she does not rule out a patch-up. A servant slaps her husband back and locks him out of the house, because of his regular beatings, but realises that this was not a good idea—what if he locked her out? Where would she, a woman, go, late at night?

Some scenes deserve mention: the advocate soaking in the fresh breeze as her soul-mate, a chef, drives her around, the long, silent slo-mo as Amrita retreats after the slapping incident, the slaps that are shot as blurs, the three bites that Amrita insists Vikram take into his paratha as he rushes into his car because his presentation has been ‘pre-poned’, Amrita re-arranging the things in the bedroom, violently…these are quality stuff. Then there are the debits too. The long soliloquy that Amrita delivers when she pours out her heart at the ‘comeback’ into the household, the scene where Amrita’s mother starts talking about how her husband did not encourage her singing after marriage, although he insists he never objected to it. She feels he would have objected, so she never brought it up. The rather long and unduly rapid cycling scene where the advocate sets off to meet her beau for a vital conversation at dawn is a bit over-the-top.

The advocate’s track, with the media gaze, and the two scenes with her husband, seem contrived. So does the make-up between Amrita’s brother and his wife. Madam advocate’s sudden breaking off with her beau is a rush job too, leaving him in a situation that he did not deserve at all. Vikram’s choice of the witness he is advised to seek and buy, for a false testimony, is pathetic, and the scene is left half complete. So she refuses, then who does he try to buy? If nobody, why so? There were forty guests at the party! His relationship with one of his bosses, the one who attends his party, is highly ambivalent. Perhaps these glitches are the result of wanting to apply closure to the tracks sooner than it would take to draw them to a logical conclusion, but then why have so many tracks? It’s messy. And, believe me, it is hard to remember names, and who’s who, what with so many characters, most having names and surnames for identification, and most interacting with each other.

Casting has to be praised, and Anubhav Sinha (turning 55 soon) has got the best out of them. His ensemble cast delivers, in almost all the scenes. Vikram and Amrita look their parts, with the bearded, moustachioed Vikram, played by an actor making his debut (great to have someone in this role who does not have an image or baggage) providing a counter-point to the broad yet vulnerable visage of Amrita, who keeps reflecting and seeking validation on her choices. Like-wise, the two mothers provide counter-points to each other, with veteran actresses in place. As the advocate, the actress is aptly turned out, and touches a chord as she rolls down the window of her car and lets her spirit soar, but suffers from a below par speech and emotive quotient. Sinha keeps the mocking sneer that parks itself on the actor playing Amrita’s father’s countenance away from its parking lot, and he benefits by this absence.

Although Anubhav Sinha is obviously wearing his heart on his sleeve, championing the cause of wronged women, and nailing a ‘mere’ slap as its condemnable, symbolic genesis, he makes sure that the film does not drift into a revenge saga, quite the contrary. Man-woman relationships, marriages, extra-marital affairs, domestic violence, and associated whirlpools defy easy solutions, though there is some release offered in the film. Very interestingly, Sinha takes the Sanjay Leela Bhansali style of nomenclature several steps forward—almost all the names in his credit titles have the mother’s name as the middle name, whether the person is male or female. So he himself is Anubhav Sushila Sinha. There are exceptions though, notably Mrunmayee, Anjum Rajabali and actor Siddhant Mahesh Karnick (under-utilised player). For the record, read the name of this reviewer at the end, which is written here as it never was. I don’t use my father’s name or mother’s name; in fact I don’t use any middle name. But we can make a one-time, indulgent exception.

Starting with Taapsee Pannu, the performers in Thappad include Parvail Gulati, Tanvi Azmi (mother), Tanvi Azmi (mother-in-law), Ram Kapoor (Vikram’s advocate), Manav Kaul (the dithering boss), Kumud Mishra (father), Dia Mirza (widow, neighbour), Gracy Goswami (Dia’s daughter, aged 13, big screen debut) Ratna Pathak Shah (mother), Naila Grewal (sister-in-law), Sushil Dahiya (father-in-law), Ankur Rathi (brother), Maya Sarao (servant), Sandeep Yadav (her abusive husband). Also seen on screen in a relatively minor role is TV actress Nidhi Uttam. Shakeel Azmi has penned inspired lyrics, tuned by Anurag Saikia, and the track sung by Raghav Chaitanya is touchingly rendered.

Moral of the story? Don’t fall into the slap trap, it might cost you dear. Men have to be taught not to beat their wives, no matter what the ‘justification’. Just as corporal punishment has to be stopped in all schools, without exception, domestic violence must end in all homes. Easier said than done? Here’s a guy who has made an effort to drive home the message, in a resounding manner. Let’s hope it reverberates far and wide.

Rating: ***

–By Siraj Ruqaiya Syed