‘One person told me that she feels like suing the makers because it felt like it was her story,’ the actor told TNM.

Actor Taapsee Pannu in polka dotted shirt and carrying a white bag
Flix Interview Tuesday, May 12, 2020 - 16:00

Thappad released in theatres towards the end of February, but the discussions on the film have revived after it began streaming on Amazon Prime recently. Directed by Anubhav Sinha, Thappad revolves around the life of Amrita, an unassuming homemaker who decides to leave her marriage after her husband slaps her at a party.

But would a woman in real life take such a step? Actor Taapsee Pannu, who played Amrita, speaks to TNM on the responses that the film has received, and her interpretation of the characters.

“There have been discussions on the film from the time the trailer released,” Taapsee says with a laugh. Coming as it did close on the heels of Kabir Singh and its director Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s viral interview where he justified slapping as a form of love, the promo for Thappad managed to generate conversations even before the film hit the screens.

Have there been any responses that especially touched a chord with Taapsee?

“Oh there have been way too many that I’ve honestly started losing track of it. None of them feels more important than the other. Most of the stories come through a couple of journalists I know or from people who’ve seen it and have written to me on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. I’ve been getting emails too. These are real stories of the audience and that’s touched me a lot. One person told me that she feels like suing the makers because it felt like it was her story. There have been different women identifying with different characters too,” she says.

But, it’s not only women who’ve responded to Thappad.

“One man told me that he never thought he’d have to relook the way he’s been living, and that the film helped him become a better man in someone’s life. I found it overwhelming when men said that they thought they were being equal in their minds but that the film made them realise that this was not the case,” she says.

Some say that Amrita walking out of the marriage over a single slap was unrealistic. Taapsee, however, points out that her character actually does not do so.

“People have reduced the film to the fact that the slap happened and then the divorce happened. But there was so much more. First of all, it wasn’t Amrita who instigated the divorce. It was a notice from the husband asking her to come back home, and these were the only options according to the legal structure. So that is what pushed her to go there. It was the man’s authority that he could just send a notice to get her back as if she were a commodity. She’s human. She needs time to settle her mind and be at peace with herself. She said she was going to come back but he felt it was right to get her back when he wanted. That’s what made the divorce happen,” she says.

Taapsee adds that the lack of respect and support from her marital family also influenced Amrita’s decision.

“A lot of people have asked me what I would have done if I’d been in that situation. I feel Amrita gave way too much time for people to apologise. She was there for three days after the incident. Had I been in her position, I wouldn’t have had the patience to stay there for three days. She’s used to giving everyone a chance and she was waiting for someone to come to her. She gave everyone time,” she says.

Amrita’s father, played by Kumud Mishra, is a rare character in cinema. He’s extremely sensitive towards his daughter’s needs and is the first to stand by her, but he realises later that he’s been a patriarchal man towards his wife.

“It was the brilliance of Anubhav sir in writing that layer for the character. There are so many men who say they never stopped their wives from doing anything after marriage. But did they encourage them? That angle has never been seen. It’s always been the case that the man will allow the woman to work, and it is with his agreement that a woman’s life can continue after marriage. When a woman comes into a man’s family, she’s encouraging him to pursue his dreams because she’s handling everything else and he doesn’t have to think about it. He doesn’t ask her for permission for anything. But a woman needs permission from the man always. Men think they believe in equality and that they haven’t stopped women, but they don’t understand that it’s about being supportive of your partner. The patriarchy is so ingrained that we think it’s normal,” she says.

Taapsee goes on to say that Thappad also showed how patriarchy manifests in women, not only men. She notes that the film has layered characters and doesn’t assume someone’s beliefs because of their gender. Apart from the father who is presented in positive light, there’s the neighbour’s late husband too. Meanwhile, the mother and mother-in-law offer no support to Amrita.

Amrita sticks to her decision of filing for a divorce despite being a homemaker who discovers that she’s pregnant, a complicated situation that would have usually persuaded a woman to go back. Was that why the character was thrown into those circumstances?

Speaking about the choice, Taapsee says, “How I saw it was that pregnancy shouldn’t be a reason to curb your happiness yet another time. There was a friend who told me Amrita should have reconciled because of the child. But for how long? First because of her parents, she should go back, then because of her husband, then because of the kid... when should she live for herself? When will her happiness be a priority in her life? Tomorrow will that child grow up happy when the woman is there in the marriage just for the sake of it and feels disrespected? The child may feel guilty because the parents are together only for his or her sake.”

Though the film has largely won praise for its approach, there has been some criticism around the domestic worker Sunita’s story arc. While the upper class women evolve to be decisive, Sunita’s story ends with her confronting her husband and later dancing before the TV.

“You should always see a character from where they were to where they’ve reached. In Amrita’s head, she was in a very happy life and then she filed for divorce, a step that’s higher than what she was expected to take. In Sunita’s case, she was the person who was earning in the family and also getting beaten up. She tells her husband that if he wants the woman-man dynamics, like how it is in a patriarchal system, then he should be the one earning and she would sit at home. She shoves this into him, when earlier she never had the courage to stand up to him. This was a step up for her. Thappad wasn’t offering solutions to domestic violence, it was telling you to do something about the situation – in a way that makes sense to you. Don’t chuck it under the carpet, that’s all the film wants to say,” Taapsee explains.

Films like Chhapaak, Thappad and Game Over address the everyday realities of women but when it comes to the box-office, they find only a niche audience. They are therefore made on smaller budgets because the makers know in advance that recovery from theatres would be low.

“Women-led films in Indian cinema is more about word of mouth than opening numbers. We’re all responsible for this. We rush and book tickets for male-led films but when it comes to women’s films, we say let’s wait and see the reviews. That’s why most of these women-led films earn over a period of time if they’re good. They’re slow and steady. For the longest time, cinema in our country has been an escapist medium. It’s considered to be brain-dead entertainment. When there are films that challenge the norms, there are people who feel they don’t want to watch and feel sad about their lives. They don’t want films that make them uncomfortable – especially men,” she says.

On online streaming platforms, however, the audience is more discerning and isn’t only looking for escapist content, she adds.

Many women actors who’ve made their debut in the south, stop acting in these industries once they’ve made it big in Bollywood. Taapsee, however, continues to sign south films. Ask her why and she says, “I want to prove that perception wrong. I didn’t see south films as a stepping stone. It gave me the basic knowledge of cinema which I’m using now to choose the films I do and perform the way I do. I forever am grateful to the south for teaching me the basics right. I found an audience that liked me and it’s not like I entered Hindi cinema because they stopped liking me. That’s why I want to do at least one south film a year.”

Taapsee’s next Tamil film is directed by Ahmed and she’s co-starring with Jayam Ravi.

“We’re halfway through the film. But there’s a schedule abroad that we’re stuck with now. I have a couple more offers from the south but I want to say yes to a film which will be so impactful that it will stay in the minds of the audience for a year. It can’t be a blink-and-miss film,” she signs off.

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