Thappad is Anubhav Sinha's most accomplished work yet, and proof of his evolution into a nuanced filmmaker

Sinha’s last three films - Mulk, Article 15 and Thappad - arriving like clockwork once a year since 2018 respectively - have tackled difficult subjects that are extremely relevant to the times we live in.

Pradeep Menon March 04, 2020 08:05:58 IST
Thappad is Anubhav Sinha's most accomplished work yet, and proof of his evolution into a nuanced filmmaker

Perhaps the most important aspect of Thappad director Anubhav Sinha’s reforged and - dare I say it - reformed avatar since 2018’s Mulk, is that his films now always lead to a debate. His current outing starring Taapsee Pannu, contrary to its violent name, is the most nuanced ‘Anubhav.Two’ film yet. A far cry from his Dus, Cash and Ra.One days, Sinha’s last three films - Mulk, Article 15 and Thappad - arriving like clockwork once a year since 2018 respectively - have tackled difficult subjects that are extremely relevant to the times we live in.

In this past politically-charged decade, Sinha isn’t the first contemporary Hindi filmmaker to find a new voice after initially conforming to the bland, market-driven forces behind the typical commercial Hindi movie.

In 2013, Hansal Mehta found renewed vigour with Shahid, and unusual suspect Vivek Agnihotri has gained a loyal right wing following after Buddha in a Traffic Jam and The Tashkent Files, promising to unleash his version of stories from Kashmir in his next. Yet, Anubhav Sinha’s films have invariably been dissected far more, because he directly takes on fundamental socio-cultural issues through sharp character-driven stories.

Mulk spoke about religion and Hindu-Muslim polarisation, Article 15 tackled caste in the Hindi heartland, and Thappad bares a mirror to society with its portrayal of the subtle insidiousness of gender politics - cutting across class - in India. And, with each film, Anubhav Sinha has also gotten progressively more confident and effective in laying out his characters and their latent politics before the viewer.

Thappad is Anubhav Sinhas most accomplished work yet and proof of his evolution into a nuanced filmmaker

Taapsee Pannu in a still from Thappad

Make no mistake, Mulk and Article 15 in particular had much within them that you could challenge the director on.

Mulk had surface level arguments about religious polarisation that had been put forth plenty of times in our discourse before, the film’s victory back then being largely that it was brave enough to say those things aloud at that time. Surprisingly enough, if you revisit Mulk today, you may sense that even the ostensibly superficial and obvious things the film said back then appear complex two years later, considering how severely regressive our overall quality of political discourse has gotten today.

And with Article 15, Sinha was forced to confront after its release that there was a strong upper caste gaze in his film, which talks about the continued and often violent oppression of Dalits in contemporary rural India. From the fact that the film seemed to have an ‘upper caste messiah’ complex, to the depiction of a manual scavenger being termed as ‘caste porn’ to even the much-talked about stab at black humour, where junior cops discussed each others’ caste with their senior, Brahmin police officer played by Ayushmann Khurrana, Article 15 gained a lot of backlash despite also finding appreciation and box office success.

In Thappad, there is a significant leap forward in terms of just how decapitating gender imbalance can be, once you see the full force of it play out in everyday life.

From a purely cinematic perspective, one heartening aspect of Sinha’s updated oeuvre is how effortlessly rooted his films now are. In Dus, anti-terror operatives went on missions with a ‘Let’s rock’ war cry. Foreign locations and characters who spoke like no one you know often populated his frames, and yet, they had absolutely no personality.

Thappad is Anubhav Sinhas most accomplished work yet and proof of his evolution into a nuanced filmmaker

Rishi Kapoor in a still from Mulk. Image via Twitter

In Mulk, the street in Varanasi where the Mohammeds stay feels like a living, breathing part of the real Uttar Pradesh. Article 15, shot stunningly by Ewan Mulligan, has a dark, slow-burn quality to it, conveying so much about the badlands of India where law and order in no way, shape or form resembles what we conventionally understand of it in our cacophonous, CCTV-riddled cities.

But perhaps the most important facets of Sinha’s directorial voice, which he seems to be developing with every subsequent film now, are sheer sensitivity and nuance.

In both Mulk and Article 15, in unpacking the everyday grotesqueries of Islamophobia and casteism, there was also an unshakeable sense of perverse voyeurism. True, many of the scenes he shows in those films probably reflect the ground realities. Yet, there is an unshakeable voyeuristic quality to them.

In Mulk, when the Hindu neighbour turns on the Muslim family because one among them is implicated in a terror charge; or in Article 15, when a Brahmin is told that Dalits will not even drink water from a glass around him, there is a certain perverseness in staging those scenes and saying those lines out loud, which can only be avoided when the gaze itself is completely sensitised to those very real, very ugly issues.

It is this pitfall that he seems to avoid most in Thappad, a sign that Sinha is constantly evolving as a filmmaker. Undoubtedly, his co-writer in this film, Mrunmayee Lagoo is responsible for a story that’s primarily about a woman finding a mostly authentic gaze and perspective.

The occurrences in Thappad are, for the most, so banally staged that their cumulative force becomes apparent only much later in the film. When an ostensibly happy marriage heads towards divorce after ‘a single slap’, it’s easy to question what exactly the agenda of the wife, and hence the creative forces behind the film, are.

Thappad is Anubhav Sinhas most accomplished work yet and proof of his evolution into a nuanced filmmaker

A still from Article 15 teaser. YouTube

But there is a maturity with which the various characters react to the wife’s decision, and how they engage with it through the film, which alone makes Thappad Anubhav Sinha’s most accomplished work yet; even though his technical craft shone brighter in Article 15 than in Thappad.

In the former, the confident filmmaking craft and gorgeous shot-taking in many ways takes away from the issues of caste the film attempts to scrape at. In the latter, the craft is almost invisible, subservient to the raw emotions the wife is subject to after the slap violently frees her from the invisible bonds clamping down on a woman’s full and total freedom as a human being. (This, despite there being some similar tropes across all his recent films, such as long takes with a moving camera, where multiple characters enter, speak and exit as we traverse a larger visual space.)

No wonder then, that one can disagree with his politics, but it appears one will also find it hard to disengage from the cinema of this new Anubhav Sinha.

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