‘Pagglait’ review: Netflix film on a ‘merry widow’ is interesting but glib

Directed by Umesh Bist, ‘Pagglait’ takes the greatest tragedy that can befall a woman in Indian society and turns it into her salvation.
Sanya Malhotra dressed in a salwar with a grey shawl around her shoulders in Pagglait
Sanya Malhotra dressed in a salwar with a grey shawl around her shoulders in Pagglait
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Pagglait, now streaming on Netflix, begins with a funeral. A young man, Astik, is dead. As his immediate family mourns him and relatives stream into the sprawling, ancient haveli in a small town, his widow is lying on bed... and checking Facebook.

Directed by Umesh Bist, Pagglait takes the greatest tragedy that can befall a woman in Indian society and turns it into her salvation. A woman in India is considered blessed if she dies when still a ‘sumangali’; stripped of its sentimentality, it simply means a woman is better off dead when she’s still married than live the life of a widow. While sati is outlawed and practices like shaving a widow’s head and forcing her to wear white all her life are not as common or widespread as they were a few decades ago, a widow is still considered to be ‘inauspicious’ and a burden. Especially if she’s young.

Pagglait in that sense is a disruptive film. Just like Queen gave us a heroine who discovers that her wedding being called off (another great tragedy for a woman in Indian society) is the best thing to have happened to her, Sandhya (Sanya Malhotra) of Pagglait discovers the adventure that life could be.

Sandhya had been married to Astik for only a few months and theirs was a loveless marriage. She finds herself unable to mourn him, growing bored of the rituals and restrictions around her. Sanya plays Sandhya straight, and without the attitude of a rebel. But I still felt that the character itself was too glib; it may be that Sandhya cannot bring herself to grieve for a man who did not care for her, but would she be so untouched by what had happened? When she asks Astik’s grieving mother if she can have Pepsi instead of chai, the writer-director ends up showing his cards too plainly. The desire to surprise the audience overrides what would perhaps have been more natural for the character to do in such a situation.

Like Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Ee.Ma.Yau, which is centred around the drama surrounding a funeral, Pagglait also gives us interesting and often amusing characters. The banker uncle (Jameel Khan) who quotes Shakespeare randomly and is an expert on everything is especially a scream. There is Astik’s grandmother, an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s, who smiles at everyone and repeatedly calls for Usha (Astik’s mother, played by Sheeba Chaddha); the women relatives who gossip about each other’s families; Tayyaji (Raghubir Yadav), the patriarch, who is conservative only when it suits him; Astik’s other uncle Tarun (Rajesh Tailang) who makes the funeral all about him; Nazia (Shruti Sharma), a vegetarian Muslim who is Sandhya’s close friend; the kids who are bored out of their heads and escape into their phones, and so on.

The writing shines in the barbs that the relatives throw at each other, in the petty politics that unfolds over the nitty-gritties of the everyday. In the middle of all this, Sandhya discovers a secret about her husband that explains why he never warmed up to her. It’s a territory that hasn’t been explored much in our cinema in this particular way, but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that it felt too — here’s the word again — glib.

Sayani Gupta plays Aakanksha Roy, a sophisticated and independent woman, who pretty much inspires Sandhya to break free of shackles and lead her own life. But considering Aakanksha herself couldn’t make a very important choice in her life because she had to listen to her parents, I wondered how much further the less equipped Sandhya could go.

Which is why the ending left me sceptical. All through the film, Umesh is keen to impress upon us that Astik’s parents are good-hearted, kind people. Ashutosh Rana and Sheeba Chaddha are both terrific as father and mother respectively, trying to look at the practical details while still mourning their loss. Even when they are pushed to be manipulative, we see that their heart is not in it. This leads us to believe that the ending — when Sandhya walks away from what is rightfully hers — is the correct one. It’s similar to the choice that Amrita in Thappad makes, deciding she doesn’t want alimony.

On the surface, these choices look emancipatory. After all, why must an able-bodied, educated woman be financially dependent on a man? Why can’t she simply make her own money just like a man? But one must also acknowledge the fact that while a man is expected to be independent and a provider, a woman has to swim against the tide to become so. Apart from breaking her own mental conditioning that marriage must be her end goal, a girl child has to get past several, very real constraints and restrictions to have a successful career. It is this journey that such films oversimplify and are unwilling to explore in their eagerness to portray liberated women characters.

Another interesting question to ask is how the financial burden on a man’s family and a woman’s family are considered. While in Astik’s case, we are meant to laud Sandhya’s gesture towards her in-laws who have a heavy loan to pay off [which was Astik’s responsibility], we don’t know how much Sandhya’s parents had to spend to get her married to Astik. We only know that her mother is worried about her two younger sisters who are waiting to be married off next, suggesting that the arranged marriage between Astik and Sandhya must have taken place in a conventional fashion, involving the great Indian traditions of dowry and other bridal expenses. Apart from her husband’s laptop, Sandhya doesn’t lay claim to anything else that she must have brought from her parental home. She’s the ‘merry widow’ from Hollywood films minus the moolah that made them merry — thereby winning the acceptable stamp.

Pagglait is a well-intended and mostly entertaining film; it’s head and shoulders above the average Bollywood fantasy that we’re sold, but it stops short of really immersing itself into the premise and asking the difficult questions that women have to confront in everyday life.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.

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