By Pankaj Sachdeva

After tackling religion and caste in Mulk and Article 15, Anubhav Sinha looks at patriarchy and domestic violence in Thappad. The film opens with a bunch of people eating ice candy. These people are in different states of a marriage—engaged, happily married, unhappily married, and widowed. All of them are connected to Amrita (Taapse Pannu), a housewife, married to Vikram (Pavail Gulati). Amrita and Vikram host a gathering to celebrate Vikram’s transfer to London. At the party, Vikram learns that he will be working under some new guy in London. Not happy by this, an agitated Vikram has an argument with his boss. In the ensuing mêlée, he slaps Amrita in front of everyone. Thappad shows the impact of the slap on the life of Amrita. It raises the point that not even one slap, even if it was in the heat of the moment and even if was not intentional, should be accepted. Nahi maar sakta hai. Co-written by Mrunmayee Lagoo, Thappad tries to show a mirror to people on how unfairly they treat the women in their lives, just as Article 15 was a primer for urban India to make them aware of the stronghold of the caste system on Indian soceity.
In Thappad, women think and talk a lot about their inner happiness. Amrita reminisces about her college days and says to her lawyer Netra (Maya Sarao) that she wanted only two things in life—respect and happiness. She still wishes for these two things in her life. However, due to the thappad, she is not able to respect her self. She used to wake up earlier than anyone in the house, prepared tea, and clicked the picture of the same sky every day. And, she felt happy even by the monotony of her routine. She has lost that happiness. Netra philosophizes that difficult choices force people to choose the easy path where they lie and pretend to be happy like the lie she has been saying to herself about her marriage. In her borrowed time with her boyfriend, she says that everyone has the right to be happy. Later, Amrita asks her mother-in-law Sulakshna (Tanvi Azmi) if she is happy in life who replies that for women, their happiness lies in the happiness of their family. Amrita’s father Jayant (Kumud Mishra) also talks about the happiness of mothers and says they find happiness in the happiness of others. During Amrita’s pregnancy, her parents again discuss that they should keep her happy. When Amrita wavers for a bit in her decision of separation, her father advises her that sometimes doing the right thing might not necessarily lead to happiness. Towards the end of the film, all the women make decisions in life for their happiness. Amrita’s mother-in-law agrees with her decision to move out and blesses her to be happy in life. Netra breaks up with Priyan (Rohan Khurana) and says that she wants to be happy in everything she does from now. Shivani (Dia Mirza) speaks to her daughter and says she does not need any man and that she is happy by herself. These women are only looking to be happy. This is precisely why I was disappointed that the film gave a path to happiness to all the upper-class women but for Sunita (Geetika Vidya Ohlan), a house help, who faced the most abuse, there was no clear exit strategy. Her choices were violent retaliation and contentment with dancing. Her economic situation, perhaps, made it harder for her to move out, but for a film that talked about not accepting even ek thappad, Sunita deserved a path to long-term happiness, too.

The next morning after the party, Vikram talks about the emotional investment he incurred in his company to rise up the corporate ladder. He says to Amrita that he plans to quit because “Mujhe vahan rehna hi nahi hai jahan meri koi value nahi hai.” The same thing applies to Amrita as well. Should she stay where her emotional investment is not valued? Did she not spend years to support Vikram in every way? During this scene, Amrita and Sunita are shown side-by-side on the screen. Amrita is gazing at Sunita where it feels like the film is trying to establish equivalence between the two. Sunita faced daily domestic violence at the hands of her husband. Is Amrita then any different from her given that her husband slapped her as well? Even if it is one slap, violence is violence. Later, Sunita even says to her husband that all men beat their wives and she cursed him for no reason again establishing a similarity between the men.

In my post on Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, I had written about the invisibility of a couple in their marital life. Thappad also portrays the invisibility but only of its women. Their lives. Their dreams. Their choices. The next day after the party, Vikram comes down, and all he talks about is himself. How he felt humiliated. In his scheme of things, he does not see Amu as an individual, and not once he brings up the humiliation he inflicted on Amu. How she would have felt. The house with the blue door in London is Vikram’s dream. Amrita starts dreaming about the same forgetting that her favorite color is yellow. The nameplate outside their house only has Vikram’s name and Amrita’s name is missing from there. Even Amrita’s brother also does not see the issue with Vikram’s slap. At the house of Vikram’s father, his sister-in-law serves food quietly while all the men eat together. She has only one speaking line in the entire film. Amrita’s father says about his wife Sandhya that all her life she lived for the happiness of others forgetting her own happiness. Later, Sandhya makes him realize that while fulfilling the dreams of his daughter, he forgot the dreams of his wife. She wanted to be a singer but he never asked and encouraged her. Rohit Jaisingh (Manav Kaul), the journalist, does not see that his wife Netra can have the skills to be a good lawyer. He slyly remarks that a rival lawyer would have deliberately lost to her. Netra remarks that in public events, everyone is seeing only him and she wonders what she is doing there with him.
The women are seen only in terms of their relationships—Vikram’s wife, Rohit Jaisingh’s wife, Justice Jaisingh’s daughter in law—rather than as individuals with their unique identity. As Amrita says, all the love Vikram’s family showered on her was for the person who is Vikram’s wife, not for the person who is Amrita. Woh jo sara pyaar tha na, woh Vikram ki wife ke liye tha, mere liye nahi tha. No one came to see her even once after she left the house. This was also Thappad‘s most memorable scene where Amrita speaks her heart out to everyone in her family that instead of asking Vikram to course correct, they asked her to move on. Therefore, she decides to leave them. This scene reminded me of the final scene from T. Rama Rao’s Sansar (1987), one of my favorite films from childhood, where an emotional Uma (Rekha) accuses her in-laws of breaking their relationship with her because of her husband’s faults. They did not even come to see her new-born son after her return even while staying in the same house. Therefore, she decides to stay separately because their internal divisions have become long-lasting. She moves out with her husband while promising to visit them every weekend.
Alankrita Shrivastava’s acclaimed Lipstick Under My Burkha had such unlikable men that it made us condone some of the actions of its women. Thappad indicts men but does not demonize all of them. There are some decent men in the film. Netra respects her father-in-law. Vikram’s mother says that everyone used to find faults with her cooking but her own father-in-law never said anything to her. Shivani believes men to be wonderful people because her husband was one such man. The writing of the film gives some men in the film an arc. Even the character of Vikram is written in such a way that one does not hate him at any point, but one can see his flaws. It would have been so easy to make us all hate Vikram but Thappad avoids that route. There is this tiny scene where he angrily goes away from Amrita’s house but when he sees her father standing at the gate, he comes out from the car and touches his feet. It is a scene that is so thoughtful and telling. Pavail Gulati is spectacular bringing out the difficult-to-portray complexity of Vikram with élan.
Vikram does not seem to be a bad person or husband but the signs of his entitlement were visible all long. The slap only made Amrita see these things which she had been ignoring. Early in the film, when the printer or the internet does not work, Vikram starts blaming Amrita. He orders her to switch on the geyser. When he comes down, he gets annoyed by the noises in the kitchen. He invites people to his house for a party without even asking Amrita. Just watch him how he orders Amrita with his hand gestures to meet and greet his boss when he arrives at the party. When he sees his neighbor with a new car, he slyly comments, “Karti kya hai yeh?” insinuating that she does not deserve it. While going to work, he comments as to why do they let women drive. Vikram brings up he agreed to marry Amrita even though she did not know cooking despite being him a foodie as if he did her a favor. He enjoys a smoke himself but when he sees Swati (Naila Grewal) taking a drag, he questions her if her financé knows about it. Even the morning after the slap, it was all about him. His dreams. His humiliation. His future. Amrita listened to all this quietly hoping he will say something about her. But he does not apologize to her. He only does so after their divorce right at the end when he finally realizes his mistake.
Then, there is Amrita’s father Jayant whom I initially disliked because he felt like someone who thinks he is a good man because he did what is expected from a decent human. Like the imaandari-ka-ghamand that we saw in Amit Masurkar’s Newton. Also, he behaved in a really patronizing manner with his wife. He would say these comments at his wife either praising himself or subtly reminding her of her faults. In his first scene in the film, he reveals to Sandhya Ji (Ratna Pathak Shah) that on their wedding day, her father cried and asked him to forgive the mistakes she will make. However, he adds that she never committed any mistake, just that she boils the tea too long. Then, at later stages in the film, he would continue to reiterate that she boils the tea much longer than his liking. When Amrita was about to be born, he says to Sandhya that he did not fight with her during the pregnancy. Because he did not fight with her during pregnancy (which one would expect from a person at all times), he praised himself. And, then, finally, in one of the film’s most beautiful scenes, Sandhya makes him realize that she had to compromise on her desires to take care of her family. He is taken aback because he believed he never stopped her from doing anything. But at the same time, he never encouraged her either. He motivated his daughter but he never did the same to his wife. I was surprised by myself as to how much I disliked his character’s mahanta. But after much thinking, I felt a little less harsh towards him. His imperfect feminism was way better than others’ entitled patriarchy. At least, he was trying. He admonishes his son for raising his voice while speaking to his fiancée Swati. He is the only one in the film who called his wife with a respectable Ji. Like Amrita had talked about respect and happiness, Sandhya Ji at least got the respect in her marriage. He is also one of the rare men who is seen working in the kitchen. When Vikram goes to the kitchen, he cannot even find tea and gets frustrated in a minute. (There is another nice guy Priyan who is a chef. Perhaps, the film is saying that men who can cook are better.) If Thappad does not villainize all the men, it also puts some blame on women and their years and years of conditioning to accept patriarchal norms without questioning them. But no one is portrayed as a saint or a devil in the film.
Like other films this year, Thappad also has moments of solidarity among women. When Vikram wonders about Shivani’s rapid professional growth, Amrita replies, “Mehnat karti hai.” Later, in front of Vikram’s lawyer, Amrita stands up for her lawyer. “Lawyer se activist nahi bani hai, lawyer se ek aurat ban gayi hai.” But as always, it is the silent moments that stand out. Vikram increases Sunita’s salary without her asking and says that she should tell him if Amrita calls. To me, it felt like he was bribing her. She accepts it but quietly returns it later, demonstrating sisterhood by standing up for her Didi.
Thappad imbues itself with little details. The night after the party, a restless Amrita is not able to sleep and starts arranging the furniture of the house, indicating the changing dynamics of her life. When Amrita leaves Vikram’s house, the plants wither away. Vikram starts realizing the value of Amrita. His tea tastes terrible. He has to order food from outside. Post their divorce, Amrita and Vikram sit in their respective cars and drive towards the opposite sides of the road as signaled by the indicator lights pointing to their separate paths in life (she turns right). One other discernible thing about the film is the use of glass walls. Many scenes in the film are shot where characters are framed behind glass. A few of Amrita and Vikram’s conversations scenes are shot where they are sitting behind glass frames. I am not fully sure if this represents something. Also, unlike Anubhav Sinha’s previous films Mulk and Article 15 which had a grey tint in frames, Thappad is shot in brighter colors.
                                                                             Conversations Behind Glass
                                                                                          Glass Frames
Anubhav Sinha has also quite subtly added political commentary in the film. There is the mention of Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s poem Samar Sesh Hai. Amrita’s father speaks some lines from the same poem. Samar sesh hai, nahi pap ka bhagi keval vyaadh, jo tatasth the samay likhega unka bhi apradh. The war is not over, the hunter alone must not partake the sin; time will judge those who stood by and watched. This indictment of bystanders also harks back to the neutrality dialogue in Article 15 where Ayan, on being asked to remain neutral, replies that staying neutral when a fire is raging means standing with the ones who lit it. There are other tiny political items in Thappad. The news playing on television is about the internet blockade. There are free press awards; one of them given to a journalist named Rohit. At some other point, Rohit says Salve is overrated. There is Jaisingh as well. The name and professions of these characters seem way too similar to some (in)famous real-life people.
Early in the film, Amrita asks Vikram that she should learn driving but he brushed it off saying she should first learn to make parathas without burning her fingers. Life comes a full circle. After her divorce, Amrita drives back herself in her car. She even makes parathas. Not for anyone else but for own self. All through the film, she keeps wondering if she is doing right or wrong. Her father assures her if the voice of her heart is saying it is right, then it must be right. If she finds happiness or not, that time will tell but for now, she has found a sky of her own. A sky of her very own.
[Read more of the author on his blog here]