How Sanya Malhotra's Pagglait challenges the notion of widowhood, perpetuated by Hindi cinema
Pagglait is perhaps one of those rare emotionally intelligent films that questions whether grief should really be an obligation anymore.
There is a glorious scene in Umesh Bisht’s Pagglait that wordlessly challenges the long-standing traditions that define Indian families and Indian filmmaking. The setting is this: A 20-something Sandhya (the ever-dependable Sanya Malhotra) is newly widowed. Her husband Astik, who she had only been married for five months tragically passes away. A pall of mourning envelops the Lucknow mansion that she shares with her in-laws. Except Sandhya cannot get herself to mourn for a husband she barely knew and a stranger she lived with.
The masterful scene in question unfolds like this: When Astik’s brother is shown scattering his ashes in the Ganges, Sandhya is seen satiating her appetite. With her friend in tow, Sandhya tricks her conservative family into believing that she is stepping out of the house where she has been informally imprisoned since her husband’s death to the doctor when in reality her destination is the neighbourhood cart of a golgappa seller. As the priest guides Astik’s brother to put his hand forward to complete the mourning rituals, the scene intercuts to Sandhya, Astik’s widow picking up a golgappa in her hand and putting it inside her mouth.
The sequence is revolutionary in more ways than one. Ask yourself this: When was the last time a Hindi movie depicted a woman enjoying eating food? Women in Hindi cinema – mimicking the fate of those in innumerable Indian households – have historically been built to hide their appetite. Like the men in our families who always eat before our mothers, aunts, and sisters, the women in Hindi cinema exist to serve, or at best, fiddle with food. It is the men who eat.
Pagglait, on the other hand, opens with Sandhya struggling with the language of loss but knowing exactly what she feels like consuming at any point of the day: Pepsi, a packet of chips, a plate of golgappas.
The agency that Sandhya’s unwillingness to sacrifice her appetite is even more groundbreaking when you consider her societal identity – an Indian widow. A widow in Hindi cinema suffers arguably a far worse fate than the one afforded to standard portrayals of women. By default, an Indian widow is a shorthand for suffering in Hindi cinema – the death of a husband also triggers the disappearance of a woman. They are rarely afforded the luxury of starting over. But by forefronting a woman’s appetite, and by effect suggesting that her life does not run its course just because her husband’s happens to, Pagglait counters that narrative.
There is another narrative that Pagglait challenges through imagining Sandhya as a full-bodied human being, which is far from the idea of a grieving widow. In our movies, men who suffer loss either through heartbreak or death simply pine but it is the women who grieve as if it is their mother tongue, full-time job, and their only passion.
It is impossible to watch Pagglait without thinking of Seema Pahwa’s understated directorial debut Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi, especially considering Pahwa has openly expressed her disapproval about the numerous similarities in both the films. (Both the films were even shot in the same house in Lucknow).
Like Pagglait, Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi too revolves around a funeral and a family reunion. The widow in Pahwa’s film – Ammaji (a sensational Supriya Pathak) – is much older but the lexicon of grieving is familiar. She is reclusive, retreated onto herself, and completely unaware as to how to live a life that is devoid of the security blanket of a husband’s surname. Even though Ammaji has lived a fuller life compared to Sandhya, it is perhaps not incorrect to say that as someone who centred her whole life in catering to the needs of others, she hardly tended to her own. In a sense, the story of her life is incomplete without that of her husband, which explains why throughout the course of the movie, she takes to repeating the circumstances surrounding his untimely death to whoever will listen.
It is this same mode of the grieving widow that we have encountered Radha (Jaya Bachhan) aligning with in Ramesh Sippy’s seminal Sholay (1975) or Meera (Ayesha Takia) in Nagesh Kukoonoor’s underseen Dor (2006). In fact, even in one of the smartest films of last decade, Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani (2011), Vidya Bagchi’s (Vidya Balan) shrewd plan to exact revenge is defined by the grief that she endures as a widow.
It is as if the churn of the decades have yet to completely obliterate Hindi cinema’s penchant for associating the motif of grief with widows. This form of emotional persecution rears its ways in different ways for the female leads in various movies – there is the grief that is disguised as duty toward one’s family (Nargis in Mother India); the one where widowhood denotes the grief of domestic neglect (Tilottoma Shome in Shanghai), and the one where widowhood warrants a solution (Rani Mukerji in Babul) or justice (Madhuri Dixit in Mrityudand).
The inherent aftermath of this gaze is that Hindi cinema and the Indian society automatically assumes widowhood to be an onset of female asexuality. In Mohabbatein, Preeti Jhangiani’s Kiran is a young widow whom the movie allows a new romance but not before priming her up to be someone devoid of any romantic or sexual needs. Kiran is perfectly asexual and content serving her in-laws until Karan (Jimmy Shergill) stumbles into her life, and convinces her to fall in love with him. Her romance is an outcome of coincidence rather than one borne out of choice. In all these films and depictions then, widowhood is seen as the expiry date of one’s life, and not just one part of their life.
Before Pagglait, the two Hindi films that came close to straying away from this conservative, passive depiction of widowhood were Abbas Tyrewala’s Jaane Tu...Ya Jaane Na (2009) and Shakun Batra’s Kapoor and Sons (2016). Incidentally, Ratna Pathak Shah plays the widow in both these films. Although both these outings differ in scope, but in neither of these two films does Shah’s widowhood threaten to define or overpower her identity. Yet in both these films, the death of the two men that prompts Shah’s widowhood is incidental to the plot. That is not the case in Pagglait that is a terrific examination into the ways Indian families lose their grace in the time of grief.
I found myself being reminded of Mohini Sharma’s fantastic turn as Mrs Sharma, a middle-aged widow in Kislay’s directorial debut Aise Hee while watching Pagglait. Kislay’s film is probably the closest to Pagglait in terms of the agency that it reserves for its female lead. In Aise Hee, Mrs Sharma chooses to live by herself after her husband’s death instead of moving in with her son’s family, refusing to play the role of the submissive widow whose life is all but over. In the process, she discovers independence, both financial and emotional in the same way that Sandhya’s reluctance to conform to the expectations of a mourning widow accords her. As both these films underline, grief is nothing but another form of co-dependence.
Pagglait is perhaps one of those rare emotionally intelligent films that questions whether grief should really be an obligation anymore. More importantly, it centres a widow in its narrative whose existence does not have to serve a purpose. Grief is at last, incidental to the plot of her life.
Pagglait is streaming on Netflix India.
All images from YouTube.
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