Director: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari
Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Neena Gupta, Jassie Gill, Richa Chadha
In a pivotal scene in Panga, Jaya Nigam, ex-captain of the Indian women’s kabaddi team, who at 32, is struggling to make a comeback, says: Main ek ma hoon aur ma ke koi sapne nahi hote hain. Every mother understands the specific hurt in this sentiment. Because every mother, irrespective of age, income bracket and background makes immense personal sacrifices to raise her child. To be a mother is to be a constantly roiling, highly combustible fusion of ferocious love, permanent guilt, eternal anxiousness and a residue of resentment at the opportunities lost. Panga, co-written and directed by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, gets that.
Panga is the story of a woman so obsessed with kabaddi that even seven years after she has quit the sport, she involuntary kicks in her sleep. Marriage and motherhood got in the way of her dream to play for India but Jaya isn’t outwardly unhappy. She has a tender, loving relationship with her husband Prashant and her son Adi. She enjoys the pleasures of domesticity but the thought that she could have been more gnaws quietly at her soul like a rat working its way through a hunk of cheese. She feels keenly the small slights. Like countless women, she is taken for granted. Her son doesn’t see her relentless hard work, either at home or at her railway job. After all he says: You’re only selling tickets. Jaya sits behind the counter at the railway station and watches life going by. But when Adi finds out what a star his mother used to be, he pushes her to try again and Jaya decides to seize the day. She decides to once again, take a panga.
Panga works on the strength of its performances and its writing. Ashwiny, co-writer Nikhil Mehrotra and Nitesh Tiwari, who has been credited with additional screenplay create a lived-in world with characters who have depth and personality. Jaya isn’t obviously heroic. She is torn between her family and her passion and riddled with doubts and insecurities. Her frustration and vulnerability make her journey more relatable and more triumphant.
It also helps that Kangana Ranaut plays Jaya with skill, sensitivity and nuance. Watch her in the quieter moments like the scene in which Jaya is going away for training. Just before she leaves, she stops and looks at her own home with longing. Her uncertainty about her decision is heart-breaking. Or the scene in the hospital when her son is born. Her expression captures that rush of love that a mother feels so beautifully that it made me tear up. This is a terrific actor at the top of her game.
And yet, Kangana doesn’t monopolize Panga. Ashwiny gives the other actors equal affection and attention. Mukesh Chhabra’s casting is bang on. Punjabi singer-actor Jassie Gill is instantly likeable as a supportive husband who fights his own limitations – he’s an Indian man with zero training on how to be the primary caretaker. So all the things that Jaya would do as routine become big drama, including an edible breakfast. Prashant’s struggle is a subtle salute to homemakers whose hard work is rarely celebrated. At one point, Jaya tells Prashant that if she had to make a list of all the things she does to keep their home functional, it would fill a book. Prashant loves his wife but he also sits at the dining table waiting to be served his meals. Jaya also has a job but the home is her responsibility – no questions asked. This is the norm that Prashant decides to break. Jassie plays him with a bumbling sweetness so you see his shortcomings but you also root for him.
Kangana Ranaut plays Jaya with skill, sensitivity and nuance. This is a terrific actor at the top of her game
Neena Gupta is reliably lovely as Jaya’s mom. Again, the writing is so solid that her character makes a big impression in few scenes – in one, she’s telling Jaya to also give her credit in press interviews. There is such love and pride in her voice. And once again, Ashwiny gently reminds us of the tireless work that mothers do. It’s a full-time job for a lifetime.
But the scene stealers of Panga are Richa Chadha as Jaya’s friend Meenu and Yagya Bhasin as her son Adi. Meenu is a tough, no-nonsense kabaddi coach who tells it like it is. Adi has the wisdom of a grown man but his precociousness never tips into annoying. Which is a tough balancing act. These two get some of the film’s best lines. They also deliver some of the film’s most potent messaging. But Ashwiny tempers this with humor and lightness. Thankfully, Panga never gets shrill.
Some will argue that Panga is too sanitized and optimistic. The actual struggle of a mother picking up a career again is much harder
It does however get flat in the second half. I think, after so many sports films, including Nitesh’s own masterful Dangal, I’m a little fatigued with training montages and matches. We know that the underdog will eventually win – that is the cardinal rule of the sports film. So directors try different ruses to notch up the tension. Here Ashwiny succeeds only partially.
Some will argue that Panga is too sanitized and optimistic. The actual struggle of a mother picking up a career again is much harder. Of course it is. But for now, I’ll take the warmth and hope that this film offers. I think you should too.