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
In a strange coincidence, within three months, we have two Hindi releases about widows finding their strength and spine in the 13 days of mourning after their husband's death. Seema Pahwa's Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi was the story of Amma ji, played by a terrific Supriya Pathak, who, surrounded by her children and grandchildren, negotiates with her own loneliness and takes charge of her life. Seema, who also wrote the story, used the funeral as a framing device to explore family dynamics, how old wounds fester over a lifetime and the importance of fixing faulty notes – Ramprasad was a music teacher. The film is a compassionate portrait of a sprawling family that, despite the scars, finds a way to sustain itself.
In Pagglait, director Umesh Bist keeps the focus on the new widow. Sandhya is young, educated – she is a topper in English – and unlike Amma ji, curiously unmoved by her husband's death. It was a five-month-long arranged marriage and now she finds herself at a loose end, longing for Pepsi and chips, while her husband's family gathers. We aren't told how Astik died but his absence is a looming presence. As part of the elaborate funeral ceremonies, Astik is now symbolized by an earthen pot, hanging outside the house, which incidentally is called Shanti Kunj – ironic considering how little peace there is. Like in Ramprasad ki Tehrvi, most of the action takes place in this large Lucknow house; the coming together of in-laws, nanads and taujis inevitably leads to comedy, clashes, gossip and drama; and in between the chaos and rituals of death, there is even a hint of romance. Life, in all its glorious messiness, goes on.
The basic plot of the two films might be the same but the nature of the tragedy is different. Astik was in his late twenties. He was also the sole earning member of the family. His loss shatters his parents, played with emotion and authenticity by Ashutosh Rana and Sheeba Chadha. The story, also written by Umesh, sets up the intriguing contrast between Sandhya's indifference and the parents' anguish. In a nicely staged sequence, the action cuts between the father doing Astik's last rites and Sandhya biting into golgappas – she can't cry but her appetite has increased! The premise is instantly rich in dark comedy and emotional beats. But this tension isn't developed sharply enough.
Pagglait starts strong. There's a terrific bit of comedy with the house bell, which belts out 'Ooh La La' from The Dirty Picture, not the most appropriate song in a funeral setting. But the energy dissipates and the film settles into a lukewarm mode. Sandhya is the prime mover of this story. Sanya Malhotra plays her with charm and empathy. Watch her expression in a clever introduction scene – she's yawning as she reads condolence messages on her phone and decides that they are mostly cut-and-paste jobs. Sandhya is an ordinary middle-class girl who hasn't yet found her identity. Sanya locates the void within her – notice the way she looks at Akanksha, her dead husband's girlfriend who has financial independence and agency. Even Akanksha's perfectly manicured nails remind Sandhya of how mundane her own life is.
And yet, Sandhya, and, by extension, the film, doesn't dazzle because there isn't enough flesh on the character. We know that she's smart and that her conservative mother clipped her wings but we don't get enough sense of her inner life. How did she handle her inert marriage and her husband who was a stranger to her, even after five months of sharing a bedroom? We know she hasn't yet adjusted to the Indian-style toilet but had she made peace with his coldness? The film refashions the idea of the 'other woman,' which is welcome. Sandhya and Akanksha are strangers bound by their relationship with a dead man but this fraught bond between them plays out at a superficial, sanitised level. The emotions embedded here don't land.
Like Seema, Umesh also assembles a stellar ensemble cast including Raghubir Yadav, Sayani Gupta, Rajesh Tailang, Sharib Hashmi and Jameel Khan. It's lovely to see these actors play against each other but none of their characters pop out of the frame. What does stand out is Arijit Singh's soaring soundtrack. Pagglait is the singer's debut as composer. The songs, especially 'Dil Udd Ja Re' and 'Thode Kam Ajnabi', are melodious and distinctive. And 'Phire Faqeera', a mix of hip-hop and rap, is superb.
Pagglait reminds us of the many ways in which society and men control women. Sandhya has small desires but even those are frowned upon. The elders in the family are keen to decide her destiny for her. Pagglait reworks the meaning of the word – it becomes an aspirational state, suggesting a woman crazy enough to break the rules and take on the world. Which reminded me of the way in which Anvita Dutt's feminist horror drama Bulbbul made a chudail inspiring.
Pagglait doesn't hit those high notes. It's well-intentioned but lightweight. You can watch the film on Netflix India.