The Dangerous Optimism of Thappad: At Best, a Facile Slap on Patriarchy and At Worst a Celebration of Neoliberal Choice

The film’s commitment towards ensuring that men are not seen in the binary of good or evil but as victims of patriarchy too is a lofty goal, indeed, but fails to make reparations towards that end
The Dangerous Optimism of Thappad: At Best, a Facile Slap on Patriarchy and At Worst a Celebration of Neoliberal Choice

One of the things that neoliberal feminism or activists of neoliberal feminism does well enough is to seamlessly integrate unequal voices into that of a collective—and then present them on a stylized platter like dishes on a heavily curated smorgasbord, giving you the illusion of choice under the cover of a common identity. Take, for instance, the carefully collated montage at the beginning and end of Anubhav Sinha's Thappad,  providing a glimpse into the intimacy of disparate lives but for the purpose of the filmic text, meant to be seen in relation to the sameness of the characters' experiences. Except that they are not the same.

Cut to the stories being told,  an empathetic feminist millennial woman (the brothers' fiancee) debates on the necessity of marriage with her partner; the successful women's right lawyer yet diffident wife in her own emotionally abusive marriage shares a moment with her lover; the firecracker yet compliant domestic help is shown stuck in a violent marriage; the 'feminist' father of the protagonist reminisces about his marriage day, assuring his wife that she has been the 'perfect wife'; and a self-assured, independent single mom tells her teenage daughter, she is happy without a man. And then these carefully curated unequal lives telescope into an intimate appraisal of the protagonist, Amrita's marriage— the internet is not working, a file is being asked for; and a chirpy, dutiful wife makes herself available by 'choice' to her husband. The insides of the home are after all her territory and the role of the 'perfect housewife' is something that she picked 'out of choice', and 'out of love' because she thought her partnership rested on gendered delegation of work— only that her labour is unpaid and worse, unaccounted for which initially appears logical to her. Such a conflation of unequal lives, as marked out in the introductory montage, however, glosses over an important point;  that 'choice' and a simplistic re-assessment of one's contribution to the effortless working of patriarchal machinery is a loaded term, not available to all. And therein lies the dangerous optimism of Thappad.

Sinha's latest social issue film on women in Thappad, following previous explorations of Islamophobia in Mulk (2018) and casteism in Article 15 (2019) is therefore carefully constructed to deliver a meaningful message and to some extent, it does succeed; many reviews have been written hailing it as a feminist film, the topic of domestic violence has invaded dinner table conversations, and generations of men, oblivious of their own dominant privilege, have apparently started reassessing their lives. The latter, if true is definitely a win.  But, while watching it for the second time in a span of two weeks, I could not look past the fact that the filmic text postures too much through in part dramatic but profoundly limited writing coupled with assuring performances from the lead cast.

Subtlety is not exactly Sinha's strong suit as clearly demonstrated in Mulk and Article 15. Sinha is the kind of filmmaker who wants to ensure that his audience walks away, having learnt something and he does this in part through the clever staging of drama; his screenplays are sometimes constructed as a series of teaching moments— the inner logic of the content mobilized by the intimate journey of his protagonists, who are all about 'finding themselves' through the muck. Yet, in Thappad, the screenplay exercises restraint and play with a subtlety that is perhaps a little bit of an overshoot— a restrained Taapsee Pannu, effectively transmutes into the once gregarious wife, now empowered protagonist Amrita, conveying way more through meditative glances and muted colours than dialogue. It is not so much about her story as much as the way this story is marketed, from the trailer to its promotion, to the content itself, where unequal lives are juxtaposed to generate an affective shift that makes the viewers believe, it is not just Amrita's story but that of other women too.

It is not, however, the story of every woman but that of an upper class, upper-caste Indian woman lodged in a rung of the patriarchal machinery, where viable choices appear differently than it would appear to another woman located in a different rung. And behind the agency and empowerment of such a woman, lies a slew of other vectors: a supportive family and easy access to pre-existing economic capital that allows her choices in the first place. It is also what makes her resistance possible and most importantly, valid within the text. It is not possible for the house help, Sunita conditioned in a script of abusive dependency to so easily walk out of her violent marriage; in the aftermath of the slap, Sunita tries to justify the rote violence, she is subjected to on a daily basis by saying that all men, perhaps hit their women. The successful women's rights lawyer, stuck in a loveless, abusive marriage cannot so easily walk out of her own marriage because part of her professional success comes from being attached to a famous father in law. In a nuanced scene after she wins a high profile important case, her regressive husband makes a throwaway comment about how loudly she wears her success, as opposed to great men, like his father, who would shrug off his many successes. It is a pity that we do not get to see more of their stories. The film, however, chooses to tell Amrita's story in detail, reflecting on her growth and the unique nature of her resistance.

Amrita's resistance is valid and ultimately vindicated because she is the perfect victim, blameless to a fault—the kind that patriarchy allows as resistance, insofar that its very structure is not destabilized. She is the perfect wife, loved by everyone in the family, someone who does not believe emotional labour equals capital and care-work deserves to be economically validated, a woman who makes her life about the man in her life— in short, the perfect candidate for patriarchy's concession. She falls victim to a slap that makes her reassess her life— and it is this slap/ sleight of hand, designed and composed from every angle to drive home the point of her being the perfect victim and her subsequent reassessment that fails the messaging it attempts to deliver.

In real life, I would be uncomfortable critiquing Amrita's measure of resistance, after all this is her story, alone and it is not anyone's place to judge her for her choices but the film actively promotes a message with the goal of recalibrating lives in the context of Amrita's story. So it is only fair, that Amrita's story is rendered visible for its many slippages and affordances that are only possible because of her circumstantial positioning. Films, as we know, serve a greater purpose than simply storytelling; they are ancillaries in the naturalization and transmission of societal logic. The subject in contention here is, of course, patriarchy, which brings me to the men in Thappad.

The film's commitment towards ensuring that men are not seen in the binary of good or evil but as victims of patriarchy too is a lofty goal, indeed, but fails to make reparations towards that end. Patriarchy is momentarily challenged but far from subverted; the man-child husband, oblivious till now is forced to reckon with his privileged conditioning but ends his realization on the onset of his divorce being finalized with, 'I will earn you next time'— after all a perfect woman like Amrita must be accommodated on some of her terms in this equation to ensure the smooth functioning of the patriarchal system.

The film ends with Amrita divorced, but not with her realization that her emotional labour needs to be economically acknowledged too, which brings me to the point— would this film work if Amrita was not so perfect? Being compensated for emotional labour is pragmatic, as the feminist fiancee of Amrita's brother reminds her but would India's patriarchal audience accommodate Amrita's story in the same vein if she was more combative about her dues, and not just enacting the role of a dutiful wife now having to reassess her life? Would they accept her resistance, if she opted for compensation, as her experienced lawyer suggests, who struggles with an emotionally abusive marriage herself?

This is, after all, a time for new age masculinity. Gone are those days when fence-sitting men hailed themselves for 'not being toxic' and were quick to distinguish themselves from their rowdier, overtly misogynistic, male brethren; the liberal man sometimes outwardly wears the label 'feminist' while, as several high profile Metoo cases demonstrate, they engage in repeated acts of physical and emotional violence in private. The #notallmen debate has taken on a political valence as for once conversations surrounding masculinity have shifted from the outward actions of men to inwards, zooming in to the cultural conditioning of men; the internalized misogyny has come to the fore as men have started feeling vulnerable. But of course, vulnerability and precariousness are not familiar words in a  cultural vocabulary that has largely conditioned men to think of themselves in terms of their agentive objectivity.  Generations of men who have been indoctrinated in cultural scripts of what it means to be 'like a man' suddenly feels threatened as they recognize that something vital is in motion; masculinity was not something that required defending until recently. Likewise, the film defends its men by presenting them at odds with an impossibly perfect woman— the kind who forces them to delve inwards but also provides space for minor readjustments.

In the scene where Amrita breaks down and directs her angst towards mothers, all mothers to be exact who have trained women to be patriarchy's perfect subjects, I could not help but scream inwardly, but what about the fathers'? Why do they get such concession in her monologue? For generations of women indoctrinated in the script of care-work and motherhood, surely the film could have made some concession about acknowledging that it isn't women's work alone.

It is important to note that this script has been co-written by a woman, Mrunmayee Lagoo which brings me back to neoliberal feminism. Neoliberal, virtue signalling feminism, much like its subject and object of censure, patriarchy is another analogous machinery that capitalizes on a series of false starts to ride the zeitgeist of the time, without really digging at the hard questions. Thappad is a good example of this; not only does it effectively participate in neoliberal commerce but also manages to emerge as a collective voice. Thappad is, therefore, a product and a symptom of the neoliberal zeitgeist. But, we are also living in a time of muscular nationalism and explicit toxic masculinity, it would be unfair if I did not provide some concession for an intentional messaging, however simplistic, that does make an attempt to slap patriarchy on its face. For this aspect only, Thappad needs to be lauded in part, perhaps.

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