SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 5 MARCH, 2020
Thappad - A Film that Unpacks Patriarchy and Domestic Violence
Thappad means “slap.” It means just what it is in its physical sense. In this film, it means a sudden, unannounced slap a husband lands on his wife’s fair cheek in the middle of a house party in the presence of invitees, family members and household help. But the echoes of this slap resound right through the film pointing out how, placed in an urban Indian metro within a loving family at the present time, a slap can shake the very foundations of a seemingly happy marriage looking forward to a bright future in a new house with a blue door in faraway London.
Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk explored with the sharpness of a knife, the victimi sation of a terrorist attack on a Muslim family innocent of any involvement in the attack. Article 375 underscored the lackadaisical and corrupt practices within the legal and judicial machinery in dealing with the rape and murder of two Dalit girls committed by a high caste local politician and a couple of police staff.
The husband (Pavail Gulati) is shocked much more by his wife’s reaction to the slap than the fact that he actually executed the slap! He takes her quiet anger as an over-reaction because patriarchy has taught him to internalise that a husband’s slapping of his wife is no big deal. His mother and even Amrita’s mother and brother feel the same way. “Move on” they urge her, and keep the slap behind you. But the otherwise icon of a dutiful, responsible, perfect housewife Amrita begins to retrospect on her past and introspect on her present, her shock driving her into the silent mode when the only sentence she can now tell her husband is “I don’t love you anymore. How can I live with you then?”
Amrita is shaped as an icon of perfection as she lives out her everyday life having happily quit her promising career as a dancer. The only remnants of her dancing are poor consolation in the form of Kathak lessons she gives to her neighbour’s daughter. She wakes up earlier than her husband who has set the alarm, picks the milk and the newspaper from the doorstep, snips the plants at the window sill, checks her mother-in-law’s (Tanvi Azmi) sugar levels, makes herself a cup of green tea and waits for Vikram to chase him to the car with his flask of coffee, his cell phone and his wallet. But she is happy with her life and with the dream of the London home with that blue door. That slap changes all that and her world crashes around her feet.
Vikram is not spared either. He too, has internalised, consciously or sub-consciously, the patriarchal theory that a husband can do whatever he wants with his wife and slapping is just a “small thing” which happens to all wives. He is shocked at his docile wife’s refusal to mend bridges and leave to stay with her parents “for some time at least.” Her brother is also shocked at her intention to walk out of what he felt was “an ideal marriage.” But his fiancée Swati backs Amrita all the way and this brings a schism in the relationship between this younger couple. Amrita’s mother (Ratna Pathak) is aghast but her father (Kumud Mishra) who addresses his wife with the respectful “aap” stands staunchly behind his daughter till his wife reminds him that he never asked her whether she liked to give up her music when she married.
The beautiful neighbour (Dia Mirza) is a widow and cannot imagine marrying again as her husband was too precious to be replaced. When Amrita approaches Nethra (Maya Sarao), a matrimonial lawyer who sits in her famous father-in-law’s chambers, the lawyer begins to look at her own marriage to a hot-shot star journalist (Manav Kaul), an arrogant pig who never forgets to remind her that she owes her success to his now-paralytic father’s practice she inherited and also to his own fame as a journalist. This man has no clue that his wife is having a torrid affair with a much kinder and humane young Chef who understands her perfectly and gives her the space she needs. But Nethra walks out of it all including the affair because she wants to start life afresh.
Sumitra, the skeletal domestic who works in Amrita’s house is beaten up so badly by her horrible husband on a daily basis that one day, she finally takes a knife and challenges him to kill her. When he does not, she beats him up right back till he backs off, scared to see this new wife. Sumitra is fed up of being beaten up for being “barren” though she keeps telling her husband to go in for a fertility test himself.
This is essentially a character-driven story each character fleshed out to add a new dimension to the narrative honed to near perfection by every single actor whose performance is so organic that you begin to believe that they are real. This is topped by Taapsi Pannu who is making it her habit to enact out-of-the-box roles in almost all her films. Two telling comments she makes on her present situation are – she tells her lawyer “maybe I brought this insult on myself, who knows?” The second and more significant one is when she says she suddenly realises that yellow is her favourite colour so how is it that she was always dreaming of a blue door?
Ram Kapoor stands out in a brief cameo as the lawyer from Vikram’s side. The music is okay but songs, even on the soundtrack, are superfluous in this film. Maya Sarao as the lawyer is very good as the outwardly super confident successful lawyer but a slightly scared and confused woman inside. The opening scenes when she pushes her head out of the car window to allow the breeze to kiss her face is stunning specially for what follows. The cinematography is brilliant and so are the sound effects – Amrita pushes back the furniture on the morning after the party night and the noise reminds us that perhaps, she is trying to rearrange her life back to the way it was before she was married. Vikram is perhaps more devastated than Amrita because the wife has great amounts of inner strength she draws from while the husband does not.
Thappad is not about domestic violence that its title may indicate. It is rather, a critique of patriarchy in the subtlest of manner where a husband’s slapping of his wife, in public or in private space, planned or in the heat of the moment, humiliates and insults not just the victim but also the victimiser. It shows him up as less than a human being because though he is shocked that his wife wants to leave home, it never occurs to him to apologise to her for his behaviour. By the time he realises this, it is already too late. The slap is a reminder for the wife Amrita (Taapsi Pannu) that her position as wife, daughter-in-law and so on is more a put-on than she ever imagined. Her name which means “immortality” is as much a lie as her life is. But the same applies to the husband whose name Vikram which means “valour” is equally a lie.
The film reminds us of Henrick Ibsen’s A Doll’s House first staged in 1879. It still remains one of the most widely performed plays across the world. It shook the European world because of the very unpredictable and radical climax when Nora slams the door and walks out of her husband and three kids, never to come back. This went radically against patriarchal norms that dominated society at that time. Like it or not, they still do.
About A Doll’s House, created as a direct attack on the institution of marriage and its discrimination between the husband and the wife, Ibsen insisted that he never wanted to talk about the mistreatment of women but about discrimination between and among all humans. In a speech, Ibsen insisted that he "must disclaim the honour of having consciously worked for the women's rights movement," since he wrote "without any conscious thought of making propaganda," his task having been "the description of humanity." (Speech at the Festival of the Norwegian Women's Rights League, Christiana", 26 May 1898; in Dukore (1974, 563).
However, the character of Amrita is shaped in a slightly melodramatic mode revealed in the pooja scene when she returns home in reverence to her mother-in-law’s request and carries on an unending monologue dressed up almost like a bride and this takes much of the sting off the thappad. At the same time, Sinha manages to convey that much to our belief in the contrary, most women would think more than twice before leaving home and hearth and husband and children to live life on their own terms. The entire society and family she lives in, reminds her again and again that she should not leave home and “these are just small things all women face and bear with.” And often, she brings it upon herself.