In his filmography spanning nine films as a director, Dibakar Banerjee's latest, Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, is a dark comedy in his inimitable style. Written by Banerjee himself and Varun Grover, starring Parineeti Chopra and Arjun Kapoor in lead roles, the plot revolves around a policeman and a banker on the run. It follows their journey as they navigate shared feelings of distrust, suspicion and hate.
Banerjee knows the upper-caste North Indian male with an accuracy that is almost unnerving, considering he himself isn't one. Through his films like Khosla ka Ghosla, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and now Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar (SAPF), he depicts the trials and tribulations of life in the capital without the clichéd aesthetic of South Delhi opulence. It is the nexus of class, power, money, corruption and male dominance that he explores through the cinematic medium. The underbelly of petty crimes, hassles of property dealings, and police brutality are some of the themes that he has dealt with in his films. His recent offering follows in a similar mould, except that this time he portrays a more nuanced and subtle atomisation of toxic masculinity and patriarchal attitudes in society.
In SAPF we encounter a Haryanvi cop (Kapoor) looking to get his job back who has been roped in to kidnap an affluent banker. Banerjee and Grover make the class disparity apparent in the first first few scenes of the film, when Chopra (the banker) promptly shifts from calling him 'bhaiya' to 'boss' (a term usually used to refer to waiters and public transport drivers). Chopra's character continues to refer to him that way despite it being very clear after a few initial scuffles that he isn't out to physically harm her. The fact that despite this knowledge she doesn't refer to him by his name is representative of the manner in which the upper class view society. It is a kind of dehumanisation that is solely aimed at those who do not share similar backgrounds or social circles. Indian middle and upper classes routinely indulge in casual denials of personhood by referring to all their service providers by their professions and not their names. While one can make the argument that it is in the interest of convenience, the fact that people barely know their names apart from their identity as doodhwalas or paperwalas is quite telling of the ignorance of the upper strata of society.
The class antagonism, however, isn't one-sided. Kapoor's character says in one scene, "Ab garam pani aur saaf tauliye ke din gaye, madam", insinuating the kind of hotel experiences that Chopra's character is used to. It is a caustic remark aimed to make her acknowledge her sense of entitlement even under difficult circumstances. He resents her for her academic achievements and accolades. He views her as a member of a class that is oblivious to their social capital and their privileged upbringing.
A running theme of the film is the treatment meted out to women in India. One of the scenes has Chopra's character begging for mercy on account of her pregnancy. A chilling scene, but it nonetheless begs the question why the value of human life and dignity, especially of women, attains a special status if they are expecting a child. Crimes against women are rampant in India, so is sexism. The rhetoric of the helpless woman in Hindi cinema, the abla nari and the moral superiority of expecting mothers is thus a result of the manner in which our society views women. There is an implicit assumption that working women are less dedicated to their "real" calling in life: the household. Banerjee and Grover use this deftly in their script by choosing instances where a normal expectation of the female protagonist is met only when the pregnancy card is played. This is a clear allusion to how pregnancy in Indian society is seen as a worthy cause to treat a woman with more respect than she rightfully deserves. A disturbing yet realistic portrayal is in a scene where Kapoor's character, Pinky, apologises to Chopra's character, Sandeep, for slapping her in her "condition". One hardly takes a moment to realise that it is not the violence in itself that he is apologetic for but the fact that it was a pregnant woman that he assaulted.
It is to the writers' credit that the script has well-drawn character arcs that complement the story and take it forward. The film also includes Raghubir Yadav's character, Uncle, who initially comes across as a genial avuncular figure in the lives of Sandeep and Pinky until his casual misogyny and repression of his wife, played by Neena Gupta, become all too frequent for comfort. She even jokingly reminisces about how he had asked her where she would go if she left him. Although spoken in jest, it is an unfortunate reality that confronts married and unemployed women in India, who are often helpless and at the mercy of their husbands. Be it asking his female paying guest to cook, speaking on behalf of her and cutting her off, crediting her husband for her hard work or not letting his own wife express an opinion simply because she isn't as educated as he is, Yadav's character is the typical middle-aged Indian male archetype that one finds in every family.
In keeping with the current political scenario, and perhaps Grover's own background as a political satirist, the story is cleverly peppered with dialogues that indicate the soft authoritarian streak that has become the norm. This is the making of what is popularly called a "right-wing uncle". These men are characterised by their continued utterances of their familial glory, reliance on WhatsApp for news and adoption of war lingo for jingoistic fervour. One such hilarious instance is when Yadav's character asks a policeman, "Aap surgical strike kyun nahi karte?" It is exactly the kind of conversation that is common among supporters of the ruling dispensation, where military lingo and official vocabulary are carelessly thrown around with no regard to their real-life implications.
Why SAPF is an important film has a lot to do with the depth and authenticity of the situations that Banerjee and Grover have limned. Whether it's the much talked about bank manager scene or the Sensex scene, the nonchalant ignorance of women and the wilful denial of their views is an integral part of India's social fabric. It is noteworthy that Banerjee and Grover choose to make the female character humane with flaws. Instead of the usual trope in films where the woman is either a saint or a vamp, giving the female protagonist a redemption arc goes a long way in paving the path for strong female voices in films. The moral turpitude of the female character makes this story engaging primarily because of the manner in which her act influences the lives of others. Her unapologetic stance about her involvement in a scam and her consequent attempt at correcting her mistake – albeit in a small form – are testament to how people cannot be seen in a black-and-white binary.
Some have claimed that the merit of the film lies in merging the two different Indias that Sandeep and Pinky belong to. I would instead argue that both Sandeep and Pinky belong to the same India. It is the same India where the less privileged become collateral in scandals involving the rich and powerful. Sandeep is able to save her bank only by fraudulently duping lakhs of honest middle- and lower-class families. Each class needs the other to survive. The capitalist system is also created and supported by the hordes of working-class people who work for low wages and are continually exploited. It is like Hegel's master-slave dialectic, where the recognition of one by the other is necessary for its survival. There is a clear delineation between the haves and the have-nots. Pinky, with his brash attitude, rustic temperament and vernacular education, is exactly the kind of person that one does not expect as an invitee at soirées that somebody like Sandeep would attend. Pinky would be somebody working at the party. Both belong to one India. Subjugation and poverty are coexisting realities in a country like ours. A skilful portrayal of this is in the initial scenes of the film, when both the characters hide at a typical sophisticated party of the crème de la crème of Delhi. As they are about to leave, the next scene is that of a girl vomiting right outside the bungalow. The juxtaposition of the two situations is a brilliant metaphor for the ugliness that inhabits privileged spaces.
If nothing else, Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar is a praiseworthy study of the patriarchal undertones in a society that pedestalises the man and oppresses the woman.