Family movies in Indian cinema particularly Bollywood come in wide varieties, to the 90’s generation the most popular variety of family movies were the ones Mr. Barjatya created. The tales of families which laughed together sang together, ate together (the women of course cooked and served together), danced together, celebrated a plethora of events together, and were always happy. Let us admit it a lot of us still enjoy watching these tales of unending happiness because they are anything but real. A large family in India can remain this happy only in a fairy tale and that is where Pagglait scores its first point for relatability with its audience. The extended family that writer-director Umesh Bisht present’s here is as real as it gets. The opening shots of the movie take you to an ancestral house in a small lane of an Indian town where a death has occurred, but this movie is not a tale of grief.
The protagonist Sandhya (played admirably by Sanya Malhotra) has lost her husband five months into her marriage. But she is unable to grieve. As the story unfolds, we come to know it was a loveless marriage with no bond between the couple. A scenario that may have perplexed a few but one which is far too common in India. A marriage like this should not come as surprise in a country where factors like compatibility and physical attraction between a couple are the least considered factors for a marriage. Love marriage is accorded the status of a big scandal when love should actually be the biggest reason for a couple to marry, but then we in India are different from the rest of the world, right? Coming back to Sandhya, as the movie progresses you realize she could be just any of the hundreds of girls you see around you. She could be one of those brilliant girls you see every year on the front page of the newspaper when exam results are declared. But then we wonder how the lives of these women shape up after their commendable academic achievement, the reality is quite close to what Sandhya’s mother tells her when she questions her what did she get by topping M.A English “Itna acha ladka mila tha, 70,000/- kamatha tha” her mother responds to her immediately. The ultimate truth of a woman’s existence in this country, from the time a girl is born everything in her life, is planned with one end goal: marriage.
The movie is a slice of life portrayal, the way each member of the family has been sketched. The Tau ji (played by the inimitable Raghuveer Yadav) is that one relative who is the know it all of the family, who loves berating and pulling everyone down, who will shove rules and regulations down everyone’s throat, but seems to be exempt from them himself and is “very open-minded” when it suits him. The one relative everyone secretly detests but no one will dare to admit. There are more interesting humans, the aunt who never has anything positive to say about anyone, the uncle who cannot stop flaunting his knowledge, and those group of relatives who have a plan up their sleeve to benefit from any occasion. A review I had read before watching the movie stated Sandhya is surrounded by a family full of caricatures. This cannot be further from the truth, someone who has seen Indian families up close can surely vouch for the fact that when a whole extended family gathers under a roof, you need not go looking for drama elsewhere.
The movie’s biggest strength however remains the portrayal of Sandhya coming to terms with her grief. It starts with a woman who knows she should be feeling sad but is perplexed that she isn’t. Moves to her discovering her husband’s past, feeling betrayed, and then coming to term with it. The portrayal of the journey adds strength to the fact that each person accepts grief and responds to it in different ways. It is a welcome change to see Indian cinema portray a woman who takes her time to process the grief and does not judge or label her for it. Another reason for which the makers of the movie ought to be lauded is for not portraying the characters in a uni-dimensional manner, trying to slot them as villains or good people. The pain in the eyes of Sandhya’s parents-in-law (played with perfection by Sheeba Chaddha and Ashutosh Rana) is visible, they are in grief over having lost a young son, but the financial turmoil they are in seems to overpower them. Sandhya’s parents especially her mother (played by Natasha Rastogi) who appears selfish on the surface, but when she tells her husband there are two more daughters left to be married off, you know she is a woman who isn’t happy with her circumstances but societal approval is extremely essential to her. But yes, it was disappointing to see her change her stance for money rather than for her daughter.
The movie’s climax is liberating, you cannot help cheering for Sandhya when she says “Agar hum apana faisla khud nahi legen na…Toh dusre le legen” before venturing out to take charge of her life. But there is one aspect of the movie which could have been different. As stated by Aparna Vedpuri Singh, Founder and Chief Editor of Women’s Web “despite a lot of good things about it, the one thing that irked me about Pagglait was how the film ultimately had to cast her in the good bahu mould – someone who rebels, yet knows what her responsibilities to her ‘true family’ are.”1 She could have been shown as dividing the insurance money between her parents and in-laws, or it could have ended on a note that she left, leaving the insurance cheque behind. Was it necessary to accord validation to her decision to walk out and find her own life? But then maybe it is one step at a time, Bollywood seems to have come quite a significant distance from the days of portraying a widow as “bechari”, abused with no purpose in life to her as the woman who sets out to chart her journey. At least it gives us the hope that albeit slow, but Vikas will happen.