Director: Umesh Bist
Writer: Umesh Bist
Editor: Prerna Saigal
Cinematography: Rafey Mehmood
Cast: Sanya Malhotra, Sayani Gupta, Ashutosh Rana, Sheeba Chadha, Raghubir Yadav
Streaming on: Netflix
Umesh Bist's Pagglait is the second Hindi film in quick succession to position a coming-of-age silhouette against the cultural afterglow of death. The setting is similar to Seema Pahwa's directorial debut, Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi, where the ritualistic nature of grief – or more specifically, the buildup to a ceremonial Hindu tradition (tehrvi: the 13th and final day of mourning) – triggers an emotionally fraught family reunion. The bereaved Lucknowi haveli is near-identical, the spatial geography and thin walls are the same (characters overhearing conversations is no stretch), as relatives and friends pour in to amplify the performative obligation of sadness. The conflict – based on the financial ramifications of losing an earning member – is similar as well. The central character of both narratives is a widow, too. But whereas Pahwa's black comedy revolves around an older lady who laments the loss of her long-time husband – marrying her to a future of unrestrained womanhood – Pagglait is centred on a girl unfeeling towards the lamentation of loss. The transformation is therefore tougher to film, because it starts from a space of indifference instead of despair.
Five months into an arranged marriage, Sandhya (Sanya Malhotra) simply cannot get herself to grieve for her dead husband. After all, she barely knew him. We first see her in bed, checking out her own Facebook wall ("235 comments") while trying to suppress a yawn. The elders downstairs think she is weeping in silence, as any dutiful wife would. When her husband's tearful parents arrive, she asks the mother-in-law for a Pepsi instead of a sombre chai. But when her friend Nazia arrives, Sandhya worriedly admits to her that, far from depressed, she is in fact famished ("daba ke bhook"). A Shakespeare-reading uncle opines at the dining table that she has PTSD. Her mother tries to perform a havan to rid her of evil spirits. Sandhya even attempts to smell his shirts in the cupboard to feel something, anything. But the truth is unpalatable to onlookers: Sandhya cannot mourn the memory of a stranger. By all accounts, he was a good man in a good family. But he wasn't yet her man, and the house isn't yet her home.
This choice of protagonist is fascinating. What it does is lay the foundation for a young woman who must first learn to love before rejecting an identity defined by it. Unlike most films where a coming-of-age arc is a result of heartbreak, Sandhya is faced with the prospect of bypassing a tragedy to jumpstart her heart. Early on, she finds a photograph of her late husband's ex-girlfriend in one of his bank files. For some reason, Sandhya decides that maybe this girl, Akansha (Sayani Gupta), is the key to her own awakening. She wants to know whom he loved and why ("independent, working, modern?"): she hopes to learn a little more about the personality of the man that everyone swore by. In the process, she also hopes to move past her own insulated existence.
Her "education" is contrasted against the sobering journey of his parents – played with great anguish by Ashutosh Rana and Sheeba Chadha – whose emotions struggle to navigate the formalities of a farewell. (At one point, the scattering of the ashes in the Ganges is cross-cut with Sandhya satiating her pani-puri cravings.) The old couple have a home loan to pay, a houseful of people with opinions about their future, a family not as open-minded as they claim to be, and a young widow whose care falls under their purview of parental duty.
A quintessential middle-Indian film like this relies heavily on the marriage of atmosphere, slice-of-life vignettes and performances. The cacophony is important. One can tell the "vibe" the moment a film opens with a sleepy shot – in this case, the compressed springs of a bicycle seat as it pushes through the lanes of the old town. The implication is that the family, whom we will soon be introduced to, is as strained as the squeaky seat. The quirks of untimeliness soon emerge: the doorbell of the house, to the dismay of many, is a sexy Bollywood song completely at odds with the mood of mourning. Passive-aggressive patriarchs arrive without being "invited," hormonal youngsters eye each other, a separate teacup is kept aside for Sandhya's Muslim friend, a brother-in-law nurses a crush on his bhabhi, the women solemnly gossip in the kitchen, and an ancient bedridden grandmother becomes a key figure in Sandhya's reckoning. The cast is so solid that it's almost predictable. Raghubir Yadav plays the oldest brother and man of the house, and for the second time this month after Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, the actor's inherently kind face wears the veneer of casual misogyny. When a teen niece storms in on an adult meeting and openly refers to her sanitary pads, Yadav's character mumbles under his breath: "Aur dikhao Padman, cinema has ruined this generation."
Sanya Malhotra is a fine actress, and her role as Sandhya – a 20-something girl fundamentally changing in the short span of 13 days – is tricky terrain. She is in constant danger of being played for laughs and disarming eccentricities – the kind that borders on the lines of mental diminishment. Yet she manages to evoke a sense of empathy. Malhotra treats it as an extension of her wonderfully nuanced performance in Ritesh Batra's Photograph, where she was a shy and sheltered Gujarati girl who gently wakes up to the possibilities of living through an unusual relationship. In Pagglait, this relationship is almost posthumous, but she gets the blooming-flower voice on point. Her graph is not as crowd-pleasing as a Queen because the milieu can't exactly afford the luxury of newness and place. But it's all there: the subtle softening of her face when a man claims that he loves her, the one-way exchange with the grandmother, her conflicted bonding with the husband's ex, the unfilmable epiphanies.
Perhaps the only real problem with Pagglait is that the writing becomes a bit presumptuous. The force-fitting of an Arijit Singh soundtrack (which features some admittedly good music) to score Sandhya's inner feelings doesn't feel right for a protagonist who is discovering her own voice. For instance, when she first finds the other woman's photograph, the reaction is exaggerated, thanks to a song whose (translated) lyrics approximate to: "I'm angry with myself, why did he turn out to be a cheater?" When she notices the romance of her surroundings later, the song asserts: "I'm not a stranger anymore". Another time, after an argument, a dramatically angsty track scores her broken-walking-on-streets phase. A funky quasi-party track abruptly appears in the closing moments.
I'm all for a lilting album, but there is a time and space for it: Pagglait does not earn the obviousness of orchestrated sound. Instead, a single word or blank stare can go a long way. Take the sparse title – a colloquial term of patronizing tone, that says more about societal prejudice than the people it's directed at. As Sandhya eventually notes: "When women get wise, everyone calls them mad (pagglait)". But when a film gets wise, it turns everyone into a fad.