Director Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad  is a dignified response to perpetrators of patriarchy and matriarchy.
Rating: 4 / 5
By Mayur Lookhar
Just one thappad (slap). It seems pretty odd for one to think of severing ties over this one act of aggression. But one mistake can bring empires, governments, businesses down. One mistake can cost a life. Human relationships though ought to be thicker than any material creations or prestige. The logical mind would thus question why would a woman file for divorce over just one tight slap? No previous domestic violence incident, no extramarital affairs, no sexual impotency. J-u-s-t O-n-e S-l-a-p!. A bewildered advocate Netra [Maya Sarao] questions Amrita Sabharwal [Taapsee Pannu].
Netra’s bewilderment is understandable for if she is to fight for Amrita, then there ought to be more than this slap that has influenced Amrita’s decision to file for divorce from her husband Vikram Sabharwal [Pavail Gulati].
After tackling Islamophobia, casteism in Mulk  and Article 15 respectively, director Anubhav Sinha examines the nature of human relationships through the prism of Indian family value system. As per an article by India Today in 2018, India accounted for the lowest divorce rate (1 %) in the world. Among 1000 couples, only 13 got divorced. So, are we to presume that most Indian married couples live happily ever after? Perhaps the pertinent question here is that out of the remaining married couples, how many are happy in their relationships? And how many are simply dragging on? With a married population of over 30 million males and 33 million females [2011 census], it’s virtually impossible to gauge how many are truly living a happy married life.
Be it 1 or 100 thappads (slaps), the number here is immaterial. Sinha simply explores the human relationships through his varied characters. Principal among them is Amrita, a middle-class woman who gave up her dancing dreams and chose to be a homemaker. There’s Netra, a high profile lawyer who is bearing her cocky husband Rohit Jaisingh [Manav Kaul] but is in a platonic relationship with a chef. Sunita, the Sabharwal’s housemaid who endures domestic violence. Then there’s Shivani [Dia Mirza] who despite societal pressures, and even persuasion from her 16-year-old daughter Saniya [Gracy Goswami], is happy to remain her beloved James Fonseca’s widow. Thappad  also examines long lasting marriages – Amrita’s parents – Sandhya [Ratna Pathak Shah] and Sachin [Kumud Mishra], and her parents-in-law Sulakshana [Tanvi Azmi] and Romesh Sabharwal [Sushil Dahiya].
Amrita is carrying the legacy of her mother-in-law. A legacy where the woman sacrificed her dreams and chose martial responsibilities. It’s common of wealthy families to look for a middle or a lower class bahu [daughter-in-law]. The gulf in economic, social status often leaves a girl and her family indebted to the wealthy groom and his family. Does this qualify to be a happy marriage or is it a privileged compromise? Amrita is a classic example of this ‘privileged relationship’. Sadly, while trying to honour their marital duties, they inadvertently succumb to patriarchy/matriarchy.
Let’s be clear. Amrita’s in-laws are no oppressors. Sulakshana loves her bahu more than her own blood. It is not the solitary thappad. In fact, it is this slap that has opened Amrita’s eye to the mundane, obligatory nature of her marriage. Most women spend decades before realising that their marriage was nothing but an obligation. Amrita was obligated to marry Vikram. Netra was obligated to marry her mentor’s son Rohit. For poor Sunita, words like patriarchy, matriarchy, mundaneness, they don’t even exist in her world. All she knows is to serve her employers, serve her husband, mother-in-law and endure abuse.
There’s no such thing as a perfect marriage, but neither should one live a life of compromise. On the face of it, Sachin-Sandhya are a matured, happy couple, but Amrita’s troubles turn out to be trigger point for Sandhya’s emotional downpour. The once talented songstress chose marriage, family over her dreams. Sachin is very liberal but he nor his mother ever bothered to ask Sandhya about her dreams.
A mother is the pillar of support of a family. While she is loved by her husband and children, but she is also undermined by her own flesh and blood. We associate simplicity, innocence with mothers. That’s why we poke fun at her when she says something that we deem as beyond her knowledge. We respect mothers, wives but then it is always she who serves the men and other members of the family first at the dining table.
While Thappad  is no novel story, but it’s refreshing to see a complex human relationship story without the usual bickering, oppression between couples or their families. Despite Amrita seeking divorce, Sulakshana hasn’t lost respect for her. Often a brother bays for an abusive jijaji’s [brother-in-law] blood but Karan [Ankur Rathee] defends Vikram and urges her sister to forgive and move on. Sandhya, too, keeps harping that Amrita needn’t take any rash decision. This no bad blood between the sparring couple’s family may be a far fetched idea in an emotional world, but we welcome it.
There’s a thought that through the varied flawed relationships are Sinha and screenwriter Mrunmayee Lagoo Waikul questioning the institution of marriage? However, that would be a myopic view. Often films tend to attack patriarchy. Sinha’s Thappad  though subtly condemns patriarchy and matriarchy in equal breath. Sandhya is a victim of matriarchy, but she expects her daughter to bear the same. Perhaps, they are so burnt by patriarchy/matriarchy, that they fear their daughter can never be an equal to any man, including their father. Amrita is about to beat her father at chess, but Sandhya deliberately or accidentally knocks off Amrita’s chess pieces. It’s an action that’s perhaps borne out of the suppressed sub conscious mind.
Thappad  is simply a mirror reflecting the complex human relationships. As one who has never entered wedlock, your reviewer is not in any position to judge these characters. Honestly, but who are you or me to judge anyone? Too many of us suffer from our moral ambiguities.
A simple story, but it’s the gripping, engaging screenplay and superlative performances that drives Thappad. Yet another feminist tale, but Amrita [Pannu] is a far cry from the feisty [perhaps fake] feminist Rumi Bagga of Manmarziyaan . Amrita starts off as a happy-go-lucky character but that one slap changes her life. The joyful Amrita now sadly bears a grim look for the rest of the film. Amrita’s not taken a rash or impulsive decision. It takes days before she has a clear vision. Through this period though, Amrita bears a stoic expression. She’s hurt and grieving internally. Remarkably, it’s takes a good 20-25 minutes before we hear a dialogue from Amrita after the slap. Pannu emotes the two shades to Amrita convincingly.
While Pannu is admirable, but it is debutante Pavail Gulati who blows you away with a flawless act. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Vikram’s [Gulati] led a pampered life. He’s good at delegating authority, but he can never do the hard yards himself. Vikram’s obsessed with himself, his work. Quite frankly he’s over rated himself at both work and home. Vikram’s impetuosity is a result of his overzealous attitude. He wants to be a self-made man and so it will hurt his pride to seek help from his wealthy father or big brother. Vikram embodies the frustrated employee who thinks the world is forever conniving against him. Maybe, that explains why he doesn’t reflect upon the humiliation that he caused to his wife by slapping her in front of family and friends. Forget an apology, their next conversation sees Vikram compel Amrita to smile. The man wants to control her every emotion. Gulati’s convincing show makes you hate Vikram but simultaneously, Gulati earns your praise.
It’s not just Gulati, but Thappad drives on the champion efforts of stalwarts like Ratna Pathak Shah, Tanvi Azmi, Kumud Mishra and unheralded talents like Maya Sarao, Geetika Vidya Ohlyan.
Ohlyan impressed us in the Netflix film Soni . Contrary to the intense, restrained Soni, Sunita is a bubbly, boisterous maid who loves watching dance reality shows. For Amrita, it was just one slap, but poor Sunita endures a beating on a regular basis. A Sunita resonates with all women who are subject to domestic abuse but have accepted it as way of life. The masses tend to have antipathy towards the rich man’s problems, but a Sunita connects with them instantly. No surprise that it is Ohlyan who draws the loudest cheers. Ohlyan puts up another tour de force. Here’s an unconventional beauty out to simply floor you with her immense talent alone.
Dia Mirza has had a see-saw career. The plum roles have been far and few lately, but the actress makes quite an impact as Shivani. The widow loved her husband but is content to live with his memories. Shivani shares a friendly relationship with her daughter. In a defining moment, Shivani casually tells Amrita, “Rishtey banane toh aate hain, par nibhane nahi” (We know how to forge relationships, but don’t know to maintain it). And that’s the message Thappad delivers subtly. Having experienced marital bliss and later the pain of separation herself, Mirza seamlessly fits into the soul of Shivani.
The film drags a wee bit post interval and that prevents it from being a masterpiece. Also, it’s a tad unusual to have neighbours Vikram and Shivani leave for work at identical times. Was there anything that Sinha was trying to suggest that we missed here?
Mulk [2018[, Article 15  and now Thappad . Each of the three Anubhav Sinha directorial have scored heavily on the creative as well as technical front. Like Mulk and Article 15, the background score of Thappad is gripping too. Mangesh Urmila Dhakde produces a background score that emotes the mood and tone of the environment perfectly.
He’s been around for close to two decades. After exploring traditional themes, Sinha has found his true mettle in telling socially relevant tales. With the last three films, Sinha has shown great maturity and sensitivity at handling tricky subjects. A strong message is sent but in a civil tone. Where was this aspect to Sinha before? Maybe, it is the ‘anubhav’ (experience) of life that has led to Sinha telling great humane stories.
There’d be those who’d feel Amrita has overreacted to a solitary thappad, but no honorable human being should compromise over his/her dignity. If you are not cool with that, then may be you are a Gandhian who believes in showing the other side of your face after a taking thappad before. Sinha’s Thappad  though chooses to give a dignified response to perpetrators of patriarchy and matriarchy.