Panga, apart from the title, is one of the most feel-good films Bollywood has presented in a long, long time. It is not just about a young wife and mother Jaya Nigam (Kangana Ranaut) struggling to make a comeback to competitive kabaddi in which she was the national captain and miracle raider seven years ago. It is much more about how any married mother like Jaya can make the impossible really possible if she has a husband like Prashant (Jassie Gill) and little son Adi (Yagya Bhasin) who break every rule in the unwritten book of patriarchy within marriage.

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari has proved what she is capable of through her earlier films Neel Battey Sannata and Bareilly Ki Barfi and this is reflected in Panga. She chooses Bhopal as her place setting. Her first film was set in Agra, the second in Bareilly and this in Bhopal. This invests Panga, like her other films, with a touch of reality as these cities are shorn of the chutzpah and razzmatazz of glamour cities like Mumbai or Delhi or Bengaluru or Chennai. The characters stand out against the simple backdrop of a simple city instead of melting into the romance and glamour of metro cities.

Jaya Nigam is perfectly content in her present role of wife and mother. The restiveness of missing out on her kabaddi-filled past is seen when she keeps giving her husband kabaddi kicks in her sleep though he keeps murmuring, “but we are in the same team”. There are times when, between roasting and serving hot aloo parathas and bhindi tarkari to husband and son, we see her in deep thought. But this is about her sweet memories of a very different past and not about regretting her choice between playing kabaddi at the national level and rolling out aloo parathas for Prashant and Adi.

She works as ticketing clerk in the railways and often gets roundly rebuked by the big boss who does not forget to remind her that she is no longer on the kabaddi field to take liberties with her punctuality at work. She swallows the rebuke. That she really misses the kabaddi field is shown in a small scene when, through the ticketing counter, she catches a group of young boys in jersey waiting to report for a match. She approaches them and when they ask her what she wants, she shakes her head and quietly moves back to her counter.

The son Adi, more intelligent than precocious, gets to know of what his mother was when his father tells him the whole story about his mother’s glorious past in the kabaddi field which she willingly gave up when she gave him birth. The explanation is because the son was very angry when the mother did not come for the school sports though, according to the little boy “your job is not that important” which hits Jaya and also Prashant, right below the belt. The same Adi asks how old his mother is and when his father tells him, he says, “can’t she make a comeback to kabaddi at 32?” And the ball is set rolling.

The second part of the film switches over from verbal dialogue to actual action when very difficult decisions must be made, not only by Jaya but also by Prashant and Adi who are visibly anxious, nervous and sad when the actual “comeback” process begins. Post-interval, the film becomes very dynamic. Jaya’s best friend Meenu (Richa Chhadda), often critical of her total commitment to her family with no interest in the game, helps her get back though she too, is sceptic about the 32-year-old wife and mother’s return to the Kabaddi field. Jaya proves that she can still make it. She slims down, engages in rigorous physical training in increasing degrees of difficulty under the strict supervision of Adi and Prashant and manages to get into the Eastern Railway team in Kolkata where she has to train for six months!

The film now runs on two tracks – Jaya training in the midst of barbs and bad jokes hurled at her by the very young team she trains with, bonding with fellow player and room-mate Nisha and calling Meenu over to become her personal trainer. The camera often cuts to Bhopal where Prashant struggles with the chores Jaya was an expert at. An aloo paratha turns “scary” according to Prashant himself and Adi refuses to eat it. The house looks a mess and though Jaya’s mother (Neena Gupta in a miniscule cameo) does pitch in from time to time, the home is not what it used to be.

The win, when it comes for Jaya and her entire team and family, is preordained but minus the melodrama and hype Ashwiny could easily have used. Kangana is no surprise when we see her carrying this ordinary-wife-turned-extraordinary sportswoman with genuine conviction through her outstanding performance. Her costumes, het get-up, her role in the Kabaddi ring are proof of the work she has put into the switching channels of her character. The wonder kid Yagya Bhasin as Adi is a treat to watch. In one scene, he advises his mother to go on a “Keto” diet and in another, at the annual school function, he fails to utter in single line in the programme because his father has made a mess of his tiger make-up.

Neena Gupta has one moving scene where she urges her daughter over the phone to also mention her contribution as mother who has changed her nappies and also her little baby’s nappies, as we see her eyes moisten while she talks. Richa, who seems to have put on a lot of weight, adds a good dose of wonderful humour and easy camaraderie as Meenu. Her “sitting for a bride-viewing session” is hilarious when she walks away to attend to a phone call, making her parents and would-have-been-in-laws speechless! The kindly neighbour adds to the “feel good” quality of the film alongside Jaya’s colleagues including the peons!

It is Jassi Gill as Prashant who walks away with the honours in terms of characterisation and performance. He redefines both “masculinity” and “husband” teaching us to look at husbands differently. Not an iota of inferiority or insecurity in him. He actually pushes his wife to chase her dreams right through the film and jumps and dances with joy when India wins and Jaya plays a critical role in that win. All husbands like Prashant are generally dubbed “hen-pecked” in patriarchal lingo but this is how husbands should be. The responsibility of urging mothers to dream beyond the world of being a successful mother and wife lies also with the husband and Panga underlines this ideology.

The cinematography captures slices of Bhopal followed by Kolkata and then Delhi very well through the kabaddi grounds, the working out parks n=and running tracks, Jaya’s workplace, and home while the editing is so good that it can easily chase an award. The music is unobtrusive and melodious, thanks to the director for using the songs only on the sound track. The art direction is excellent given the restraint The only issue is with the running time which is too long and could have been trimmed by half an hour.

Panga is not really a sports film. Nor is it a feminist treatise on the married woman’s right to follow the profession of her choice. Nor is it a non-glamorous version of a “happy family drama.” It is about how husbands should change their attitude and accept the reality that their wives too, have the right to dream and sometimes, go ahead to realise it. Every husband ought to watch Panga and I mean it. Seriously.