Panga Movie Review: Kangana Ranaut’s On-Screen Feminism Is, As Always, A Joy

A sports drama film without caricatured villains is a bold movie. It has its pay-off, but also its trade-off
Panga Movie Review: Kangana Ranaut’s  On-Screen Feminism Is, As Always, A Joy

Director: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari
Writer: Nikhil Mehrohtra, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari
Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Jassi Gill, Richa Chadda, Neena Gupta
Duration: 2 hours 11 minutes

In Mani Ratnam's Kannathil Muthamittal (2002), when the father tells his daughter who has just turned nine that she is adopted, it triggers within the child a turmoil, and the need to find her birth mother, who had submitted herself to fighting for liberation, nestled in the warzone that Sri Lanka was. I remember thinking that nine is too young an age for a child to know they are adopted- what does a child do with such information at such a young age? 

In Panga when Prashant (an endearing Jassi Gill) tells his seven year old son Adi (a child-actor sensation, Yagya Bhasin, whose delivery threw the audience in a frenzy), that it was because of the complications during his birth that his mother let go of her dream of playing Kabaddi for India, I wondered something similar: What would Adi do with such information? 

Here, he doesn't feel responsible, or doesn't even take to it personally- that his existence is told to be the reason for his mother's purposelessness. Instead, he propels his mother towards a comeback. In some sense it could be the maturity of not wanting to wallow in self-hate. It could also be entitlement. Either way, his mother, Jaya's (Kangana Ranaut's kohl-rimmed sincerity) journey forward, to making a comeback into the world of Kabaddi. 

First, one needs to laud the intention of the film towards creating a more gender-balanced world. Research on Harvard Law School and Business School graduates has shown that though in the beginning of their careers, the men and women's salary trend together, as soon as the first child is born, the gap between men and women's wages increases, and this further increases after the second child. Pregnancy friendly laws is seen as one of the structural impediments towards closing the gender-wage gap. (Here the dropping of the wages is dropping out of the Kabaddi workforce entirely, closing the gap by emphatically re-entering its domain)  

One of the film's greatest strengths and perhaps the reason it isn't as rousing as say, Dangal (2016), is the lack of caricatured villains whose sole aim is to wreak havoc in the life of the protagonist.

As a cinematic trope, this is gold, and Kangana mines it with a dormant ferocity we last saw in Queen (2013). I am thinking of when she tells Prashant that looking at him and her son gives her a joy that looking at herself doesn't elicit, and that she needs to prove to herself that she can truly start off from where she left before Adi was born; connecting the dots of her professional career, to create the dots her personal life needed to traverse through to make a complete picture. 

One of the film's greatest strengths and perhaps the reason it isn't as rousing as say, Dangal (2016), is the lack of caricatured villains whose sole aim is to wreak havoc in the life of the protagonist. Here, all your 'villains' are either nuanced, or structural. As a result, one don't feel the euphoria of breaking free from these struggles as obviously as one did in Dangal. (There's also a fantastic reversal of the song 'Bapu sehat ke liye tu to hanikarak hai', where here it is the child who drives the mother mad by forcing her to get up and run. Nitesh Tiwari who wrote and directed Dangal is credited with additional screenplay and dialogue in this film.) The win in that film is a middle finger to that coach. 

A middle finger to internalized misogyny, as you can understand, isn't as cinematic. (Even towards the end of the film, the circumstances that lead Jaya to become whom she does isn't entirely credited to her craft but her narrative- a mother of a child returning to her first love- and the media frenzy around that. How do you celebrate Jaya's passion for the sport when it is the idea of her passion for sports that is being celebrated here? Perhaps, that's both the point and the weakness of the film, that the idea of something is as good as the thing itself.)

Of course, not all the variables that could go wrong are pushed to full throttle- her husband is seen as accommodating though initially, doubtful. Her mother (Neena Gupta) initially accommodating, becomes doubtful when Jaya wants to make a comeback. Her son, with his moments of doubt when his father makes burnt parathas and potatoes dunked in oil, too comes around now and then. There is a beautiful moment when Jaya asks him if he is happy for her mother to play for the team, or for the team to win irrespective of Jaya being in it. The child doesn't answer, but for me it was the former. Of course I would be happy for the team, but cinema is not about such generic happiness. It's about the specific threads of joy we celebrate – of Jaya unshackling from herself through the team's win. Here, by confusing the generic for the specific, the ending is made a tad too pat.

A ridiculously funny Richa Chaddha plays Meenu, the boisterous best friend, and her Kabaddi co-player during her greener years. She becomes the fulcrum on which Jaya will resurrect her career. I will be remiss if I didn't mention Manoshi Nath and Rushi Sharma's costumes. Jaya's costumes, of varied hues and silhouettes, and Meenu's jerseys that she wears even when she isn't playing or training, brings colour and facade to the singular caricatured image of the "sportswoman" who is imagined to dress in certain ways only. There is a moment when Jaya jokes about Meenu's sexuality, they both laugh, it's a nice touch- the ambiguity of her sexuality, and that she truly doesn't give a hoot about what people think. And perhaps that's the point of the film- to rustle feathers. Panga lena, is to bring more meaning, more peace to your universe, even if it means to slightly offset that of others. We all know people who take this maxim far too seriously.

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