As I left the first-day, first-show screening of Thappad at a downtown Toronto in a bit of a daze. There had been a great deal of buzz around this latest film by Anubhav Sinha, whose previous works in recent years have taken on issues such as Muslim identity and Indian nationalism in Mulk (2018) and caste discrimination in Article 15 (2019)—both in the context of the Indian constitution. In Thappad, the discourse dwells within the spheres of domestic violence. (Incidentally, “thappad” means “slap” in Hindi; Sinha is clearly not big on subtlety.)
Thappad features Amrita (Taapsee Pannu), a dutiful young housewife in New Delhi, who has given up her dream of being a classically trained Kathak dancer to perform daily chores for her husband Vikram (Pavail Gulati) instead.
She wakes up every morning at 6:30 a.m., makes a cup of tea boiled with snippets of a lemongrass bush growing on her kitchen windowsill and a scrape of ginger, savors a solitary cup of tea looking out at the view from the balcony, and then gets busy with household duties. She checks the blood glucose levels of her diabetic mother-in-law Sulakshana’s (Tanvi Azmi), prepares and packs Vikram’s breakfast and lunch, walks him to his car, handing him his coffee cup and wallet. One evening, when his office colleague is over and Vikram can’t figure out why the printer isn’t working, Amrita plugs it in and hands him the printout.
Amrita does all this with a smile. This is how many young Indian women are brought up—to become indispensable to their husband’s lives, usually at the cost of their own personal aspirations. Amrita gets a rude awakening to all that she’s given up one night. During a party at their home to celebrate his success at work, Vikram slaps Amrita—in full view of the people in attendance. As Amrita’s domestic help Sunita (Geetika Vidya) later remarks to her abusive husband, “I thought only women like me got hit. But any woman can be hit by her husband.”
The slap shakes Amrita out of her marital stupor. She ends up in a legal battle with Vikram, despite her hotshot female lawyer Nethra’s (Maya Sarao) initial counsel to forget about the slap and move on. It’s the same advice that her own mother Sandhya (Ratna Pathak Shah) and Sulakshana give to her. Women need to ignore small indiscretions, they advise. But Amrita holds steady. Vikram isn’t allowed to slap her even once, she counters.
Many people had already seen the “thappad” in the trailer for the movie, so there was no shock value invested in that moment. Instead, the movie builds up to the slap and its repercussions, showing us just how normalized such behaviour is, and the many ways in which male privilege works in society—South Asian or otherwise.
But Thappad isn’t simply a compendium of regressive attitudes. Before Amrita finds a lawyer to fight for her, she does find support—from her father Sachin (Kumud Mishra) and her brother’s fiancée Swati (Naina Grewal). While never entirely putting down Vikram, they stand up for Amrita’s right to feel wronged. “Sometimes, the right decision isn’t the happy decision,” her father says.
Perhaps one of the more telling scenes about the state of patriarchy and privilege is one between Amrita’s parents, Sandhya and Sachin. Sandhya feels Amrita should work it out with Vikram. Marital spats are common, she tells Sachin. Women should limit their aspirations, she adds. When Sachin argues that he himself never imposed such conditions, Sandhya points out how she gave up her own dream—a decision that Sachin never once questioned.
Given all these nuanced discussions around structural and other inequities that allow for a slap to be considered a minor issue, and the way in which the pace of the movie mirrors Amrita and Vikram’s character development, Thappad is disappointing in how it sticks to a tired Bollywood formula—a lot of expositional dialogue that ends up hitting you on the head. There’s also the requisite lecture at the end, where Amrita explains her motivations. The uptempo background score in some scenes is also fairly jarring. It sounds weirdly out of place in an otherwise taut drama, and does nothing to either relieve or heighten the tension.
These are small concerns in a movie that is otherwise well-acted by an ensemble cast, however. There are several moments from Thappad that I am still thinking through. In one quick exchange, for example, Vikram’s lawyer Gujral (Ram Kapoor) tells Vikram that one of the charges against him is “outraging a woman’s modesty.” But I didn’t, protests Vikram. Actually, you did, his lawyer retorts back.
There are so many layers to consider in that bit of repartee—from the outdated Victorian era laws that still inform the Indian judicial system to the ways in which Indian societal norms dictate a woman’s modesty. I’m sure I’ll be talking about Thappad in my own social circles, to illustrate the many ways in which patriarchy is normalized. One can only hope that the movie helps spark many such discussions, and help us reconsider some of those attitudes.
Director: Anubhav Sinha
Writer: Anubhav Sinha, Mrunmayee Lagoo
Starring: Taapsee Pannu, Pavail Gulati, Tanvi Azmi, Sushil Dahiya, Nidhi Uttam, Kumud Mishra, Ratna Pathak Shah
Release Date: February 28, 2020
Aparita Bhandari is an arts and life reporter in Toronto. Her areas of interest and expertise lie in the intersections of gender, culture and ethnicity. She is the producer and co-host of the Hindi language podcast, KhabardaarPodcast.com. You can find here on Twitter. Along with Bollywood, Toblerone bars are one of her guilty pleasures.