Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: Panga challenges the idea of a conventional sports film
The director on subverting expectations, working with Kangana Ranaut, and giving voice to the unsung
Film titles go a long way in setting up expectations. No one knows this better than Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari. Her 2015 directorial debut, about a mother-daughter relationship, was called Nil Battey Sannata, meaning ‘good for nothing’. She next directed the wondrous Bareilly Ki Barfi, a perfect title for one of the most scrumptious Hindi films of the past decade.
This time around, though, Ashwiny has changed tack. Ditching the three-word convention, she has called her new film, a kabaddi-themed sports drama, Panga. “When I first announced the title, everyone thought it was going to be dark and gritty. They were waiting for something massive to happen, like a mountain falling off. As audiences, we are used to watching a certain kind of sports film. But I wanted to challenge that. That’s why this is a slice-of-life drama that just happens to be about sports,” Ashwiny says.
Set in Bhopal, Panga follows the journey of an ex-kabaddi player named Jaya (Kangana Ranaut). A railway employee and mother, Jaya decides to make a comeback — a tough call. She meets up with another sportswoman (Richa Chadha), who encourages her to get back in the court. But Jaya has responsibilities; she’s nearing middle-age and her family, though supportive, needs fending for. The competition, too, has gotten tougher. “All that talk about women empowerment…,” we hear Jaya say in the trailer. “I’m a mother and a mother doesn’t have dreams.”
For Ashwiny, the theme of personal resurgence went beyond kabaddi. “Around the world, there are lots of women who leave their jobs after becoming a mother. It happens in every household. Even my closest friends, who are well-educated and accomplished, had to suddenly quit their jobs.” Through the film, she wanted to assess the eschewed gender norms that mark Indian families. “Despite having educated husbands who are co-parenting, it always seems to be the woman’s responsibility to take care of the child. And this is just a small, urban section of our society. What about the other 70 per cent who have absolutely no help or support system? With Panga, I wanted to give voice to the unknown.”
The pitch for a film on female kabaddi came from Fox Star Studios, who own the IP for the Pro Kabaddi League. Kangana, who has never attempted a sports film before, was aboard early. This is Aswhiny’s first collaboration with the actor. “I knew a character like Jaya had to be played by someone who is very deep,” she says. “I also knew Kangana would base this character on a real-life person, and it turned out to be none other than her mother.” The Panga trailer ends with light banter between Kangana and Neena Gupta — a running thread of maternal solidarity across all of Ashwiny’s films. “I wanted Neena ma’am’s voice. The story of Jaya’s mother, and what she has gone through, is important to the script. It’s not as huge a role as in Badhaai Ho, but her voice is big.”
Panga was filmed in Bhopal, Goa, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Delhi. Ashwiny wanted to retain her visual grammar, highlighting the family drama and shooting the kabaddi like a National Geographic documentary. It’s different from how her husband, Dangal director Nitesh Tiwari, shoots sports. “Both of us have completely opposite filmmaking styles,” Ashwiny says. “Having said that, both of us are extremely inclined towards sports. I love badminton and would love to make a film about it someday. So yes, learning from each other’s films does come in handy.”
Next up, Ashwiny is directing a biopic on Infosys founders Narayana and Sudha Murthy. Married in 1978, the couple is known for their inspiring life journey and philanthropic pursuits. The film is titled Murthy and expected to go on floors this year. “I’m writing, writing, writing,” Ashwiny says. “This one will take a lot of time to write.”