Director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s inspiring tale of a mother trying to revive her kabaddi career resonates with all professionals. Richa Chadha, child artiste Yagya Bhasin win hearts with their impeccable show
Rating: 3.5 / 5
By Mayur Lookhar
Kangana Ranaut just loves a fight. It doesn’t matter whether her film is around the corner, but Ranaut never shies away from expressing her strong views. In the last week alone, she’s slammed Deepika Padukone over two things – (a) sharing stage with the ‘Tukde tukde gang’ of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union and (b) condemning Padukone’s insensitive Tik Tok video. She also criticized Saif Ali Khan for saying that the concept of India didn’t exist before the British arrived. She launched a scathing attack on veteran lawyer Indira Jaisngh for requesting late Nirbhaya’s mother to forgive her daughter’s rapists.
That her next is titled Panga  in no way influenced her statements. Ranaut simply loves taking a panga [confrontation]. She’s ever ready to take on the world. Her last film Judgementall Hai Kya  exposed the prejudices against people with mental condition. Her Republic Day week release Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi  celebrated Rani Laxmibai’s valour. Panga  is another Republic Day week film but the battle here is not against the world, but this is about the battle within. A fight to overcome the odds and script new glory.
Ranaut steps into the shoes of a 32-year-old mother trying to make a successful return to the Indian women’s kabaddi team. Post her motherhood, Jaya Nigam [Ranaut] has been working as a booking clerk in a Bhopal railway station. Comebacks are difficult, especially in sports where a person is challenged both physically and mentally. The physical challenge is to regain the lost touch, but the more pressing mental battle lies in the sacrifices that every mother makes to revive her career. Who better to understand these sacrifices than director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, a woman who only started her film career after raising her two kids.
It’s an unusual role though for Kangana Ranaut. No, it’s not the motherhood, but one largely associates Ranaut with strong characters who lead from the front. Jaya Nigam is not one. Nigam acknowledges that she’s no longer the poster girl of the team. Sports teaches humility and these qualities come in handy when an athlete experiences difficult things in the second innings of his/her career. But as many sports connoisseurs would say, there’s no ‘substitute’ for experience. Ranaut exhibits qualities that are remarkably different to the more assertive characters that she’s accustomed to playing.
May be Ranaut could have been more skillful on the kabaddi turf, but she shines in the role of a responsible mother and wife. Jaya Nigam has her moments of doubts, frustrations but as a mother her actions are not driven by any impulse. Nigam’s struggles resonate with every mother globally who is trying to revive her career. Ranaut wins heart with her caring, matured, humble act. Perhaps, the one thing bewildering is how despite being a former India captain, Nigam only makes a first visit to Mumbai post her comeback. Well, kabaddi is a sport more popular in north and central India. Besides, Jaya Nigam had a short international career before she CHOSE (not quit) to prioritize her family over the sport.
Richa Chadha is hilarious as Meenu, Nigam’s former colleague and a local [Bhopal] coach. The spinster is very outspoken, a feminist’s delight and Meenu’s also blessed with a great sense of humour. Apart from her family, it is Meenu who is the pillar of support for Nigam. One is a mother making a professional comeback, the other a happy spinster and coach. Two different but equally fascinating ladies. Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari always empowers her female protagonists with the freedom of choice.
It’s not often that a child artiste steals the show in a film about adults. Young Yagya Bhasin doesn’t like to be called a child artiste. Well, his brilliant, confident show would put many famed adults to shame. The young boy embodies the modern, intelligent, street smart kid. More than Jaya, it is Adi [Bhasin] who wishes to see her mother make a successful comeback. Bollywood has a tendency to project child characters as wise beyond their years, but Tiwari doesn’t let Adi lose his innocence. A good father will do it all for his child, but nothing can replace a mother’s touch. The 7-year-old boy misses her cooking, regrets sending her away when the father messes up. You are left in awe of young Bhasin and his innocence. The little boy will only realise the true worth of his act in the years to come.
Seasoned actress Neena Gupta impresses as Jaya’s pessimistic mother. She loves her daughter, but it is natural for a mother to have a sweet and sour relationship with her daughter. Overjoyed to see her daughter’s interview on a TV channel, the mother reminds her daughter, “Please don’t forget to mention about me in your next interview. Don’t forget I’ve raised you, I’ve also taken care of your child too.” Truly a heart-touching dialogue.
Unheralded actress Megha Burman is adorable as Jaya’s colleague Nisha Das. The ace defender puts up a robust display on the turf field. Jaya’s camaraderie with Meenu and Nisha is the hallmark of Panga. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the Jaya and Prashant Sachdeva [Jassie Gill] relationship. Gill’s humility, reticent nature perhaps made him apt to play Jaya’s husband but the actor appears to be trying too hard to please his on-screen wife. Prashant would be a dream husband. Shy, calm and forever supporting his wife. [He’s not even given his surname to Jaya] And he always does it with a smile. But after a while, the same smile looks very forced. Jaya is the more vociferous, strong character in this relationship. Perhaps the young actor appears in awe of Ranaut. That is not to suggest that Prashant is a hen-pecked husband. Initially, he is a little reluctant to let his wife leave home for trials in Kolkata, but eventually he back his wife. The couple always consult each other before taking critical decisions.
After a brilliant first half, Panga loses a bit of steam. That’s down to due to the rather mundane kabaddi action. At 129 minutes, you won’t complain of the duration, but perhaps Tiwari could have made the initial kabaddi matches more exciting. Also, barring Jaya, Nisha, captain Smita and the Indian coach (played by Rajesh Tailang), the other members of the squad are simply left to play the game. Shimit Amin explored his hockey players wonderfully in Chak De! India , but that film wasn’t based on a character. Tiwari’s Panga is about a mother making a professional comeback. However, while Jaya is very professional, but the Indian captain Smita Tambe [Smita Dwivedi] and the coach look listless. Besides, Indian sports is prone to go by reputations. That sometimes leads to an emotional selection. While Panga doesn’t places reputation over merit, there is always a danger of grumpy, out of form athletes misconstruing it as support for reputation.
Though kabaddi has a long history, the sport has only gained some eyeballs through Pro Kabaddi League. Your reviewer confesses to not following the sport a great deal. And he’s embarrassed about it. Perhaps, the kabaddi enthusiasts would be the best judge of the kabaddi action in the film.
What we can say confidently is that Tiwari has succeeded in bringing out the true essence of her story. Panga breaks away from the usual sports drama. The maternal touch makes Panga an engaging, perhaps a first-of-its-kind family sports drama in Bollywood. We’ve seen sports biopic, the untold stories before but Panga’s appeal lies in its fine refreshing screenplay and dialogues by Tiwari and co-writer Nikhil Mehrotra. Dangal  director and Ashwiny’s husband Nitesh has penned additional screenplay and dialogues, too, and the man is also credited for the kabaddi commentary.
Panga  is strong on the creative front, but it’s bigger victory lies in its ability to forge a strong connect with working mothers and forlorn professionals. It reminds us that if backed with the right family, professional support, a person can make a successful comeback. All it takes is a panga with your inner demons. It ain’t matter who you are, but if you are still nursing a dream, then simply pat yourself and say, ‘le panga’.
Produced by Fox Star Studios, Panga  is set to be released on 24 January.