Thappad Movie Review: This Anubhav Sinha-Taapsee film is mainstream social cinema at its finest
The film's investigative rigour sets the bar for nuanced, socially-minded cinema in India
From a strictly visual standpoint, Thappad is Anubhav Sinha’s prettiest film. The murk and mist of Article 15 have been replaced by the soft hues of upscale Delhi and Noida. Light jazz plays over the opening sequence. City streets, too, are filmed with an inviting, unthreatening glow. Yet thrumming through it all is a tale of irremissible violence, a darkness reinforced — and not softened — by the surface beauty.
This is the story of Vikram (Pavail Gulati) and Amrita (Taapsee Pannu). At a party, the husband slaps his wife. It brings their marriage crumbling down, though almost everyone is convinced it was a one-off, and that Amrita is being unreasonable in leaving Vikram. “Legal options can get messy,” a lawyer tells her. “Perhaps that’s why we lie to ourselves.” But it’s already messed up, argues Amrita, whose refusal to see her husband’s violence in isolation is tied up with her own sense of self-worth.
Had the film sped its way till this point, it would still have delivered its message. But Anubhav, working with co-writer Mrunmayee Lagoo, probes beyond the obvious. Much of the first hour is dedicated to meticulous table-setting. The circularity of Amrita’s life — wake up early, brew tea, check on mother-in-law — is painstakingly outlined. She’s the demure, ideal housewife, relegated to everyday chores and readying her husband for work. She’s often on the business end of his temper, picking up the blame for the faulty printer or slow Wi-Fi. On the face of it, it's a functional, mutually-respectful relationship. Yet lurking within this ‘contract’ are vast chasms of disparity — a fact not so much overstated as brought alive with sharp editing.
Cast: Taapsee Pannu, Pavail Gulati, Dia Mirza
Director: Anubhav Sinha
Producer: Bhushan Kumar, Anubhav Sinha
The bitter unspooling of one marriage affects several others. This is where Thappad truly acquires its bite. As an examination of domestic violence in urban India, the film does not limit its purview to one couple. Instead, it indicts everyone, from the well-meaning families to the friends and allies who wilfully turn a blind eye. Both sets of parents are brought to task, including the mothers, whose affectionate natures hide deep-rooted notions of patriarchy and self-sacrifice. As Vikram and Amrita come undone, they become a looking glass for all the other characters, and, by extension, the audience itself.
The pick of these parts is Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, as the frisky housemaid, who is frequently abused at home. The film uses her casual hilarity to reveal the permanence of domestic assault, and how gender justice systems in India are still closed-off to the underclass. (This feeling is further complicated by the memory of Soni, Geetika’s debut film about female solidarity and strength that casts a long and obvious shadow on Thappad.)
In an equally noteworthy turn, Dia Mirza plays Amrita’s quiet, concerned neighbor. Her bruised incandescence lends a rare warmth to the film — and there’s a flickering exchange between her and Vikram that’s alone worth the ticket price.
Taapsee is at her best fusing fortitude with doubt. She unfurls the timidity of her character without making her sympathetic. Amrita’s indignation is rooted in a personal quest; with each curveball thrown at her, she emerges from it a little more self-reliant, a little more clear. It’s a robust coming-of-age drama operating within the confines of a separation story, followed up till the end by Taapsee. Pavail’s performance, by contrast, is reliably static: just the right mix of viciousness and immaturity to keep the film in gear.
Since a welcome turnaround with Mulk (2017), Anubhav Sinha has emerged as one of our strongest mainstream voices. There’s a lot to cheer about the incision and reach of his films, with Thappad standing out as his finest work yet. Its investigative rigour sets the bar for nuanced, socially-minded cinema in India. If there’s one thing to learn from Anubhav’s style, it’s his absolute distaste for complacency.