Sense was knocked into us with the sheer force of the slap in Thappad that Vikram (Pavail Gulati) deposited on Amrita’s (Taapsee Pannu) cheek. There was a slight ringing to our ears and a sudden blurriness to our vision. When the movie ended and the cloud lifted, we were able to see clearly. Perhaps, even more clearly than before.
Sometimes, it takes a movie to show us the truth. When women in our transitional society were repeatedly called sluts over “changing boyfriends”, it took the fictional character of Dr. Jehangir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) in Dear Zindagi to tell us otherwise. When we are a society of people (of all genders), where it is “normal” to blame women for everything, including rape, where the consent of a woman is trivialised even in a mutual affair, where every little bit of her can be suspected of throwing hints, it took Deepak Sehgal (Amitabh Bachchan) in Pink to educate us on what the word NO means, irrespective of the context or how far along they had gone before it was uttered.
Amrita’s dialogue in Thappad, “Just a slap par nahi mar sakta,” has been spreading like wildfire this lockdown - what with the movie streaming online during a time when people are cooped up at home and increased domestic violence has been recorded across the globe. Another equally hard-hitting dialogue from the movie is delivered by Amrita’s mother-in-law, played by Tanvi Azmi. She says, “It’s your mother’s fault, she told you to stay silent.”
In the Indian cinematic world (which for sure can be deemed as a small representation of reality as far as patriarchy is concerned), the count of mothers who hush up their daughters, even in the face of sexual harassment, is not less. For example, the character of Veera Tripati in Imtiaz Ali’s Highway, whose sexual abuse in the hands of her uncle was shushed up by her mother.
In the skillfully made Thappad, women have been stationed in various roles, like a game of chess. Their moves, their positions and their powers, all maneuvered in the square columns of black and white of the chessboard with the agenda of drawing the checkmate after a smart game, on a hard hitting message. The film thus shows how women too contribute to propagating patriarchy.
After the slap, while Amrita is keenly waiting for an apology or solidarity, consolation or a delicate enquiry about her state from her mother-in-law, all she receives is, “Did Vikram sleep well?” When she goes to her parents’ house, it is her mother, Sandyaki (Ratna Pathak Shah) who says during a small argument with her husband, “Women have to learn tolerance to keep the family together. One has to suppress her feelings.” And ‘one’, is of course, women, always. Vikram can apparently ‘express’ his feelings by slapping his wife. “I took my anger out on you,” he confesses.
Strictly note where the advice of a woman’s role, responsibilities and duties come from. “My mother said a home is more important. Her mother taught her home is more important,” says Sandhyaki. From women, or more specifically, mothers. It seems that this culture of suffering in silence is being handed down through generations, only to keep things in order and easy for the patriarch to keep propagating patriarchy. From somewhere floats in the wise voice of Dr. Jung: “Still suffering silently?”
And in the case of Sunita, the domestic worker, her mother-in-law also encourages her son’s violence towards his wife.
For patriarchy to function and flourish, both the sexes have to abide by the rules and propagate it, filling in on their separate and unique parts. If it wasn’t so, wouldn’t we all be looking at a case of domestic non-cooperation or disobedience? Independence would already have been won surely?
With a clean dialogue which doesn’t hide the truth behind dramatic silences or feigned “respect”, Anubhav Sinha, the director, clapped his own hand to all our faces to plaster some serious sense by portraying this side to patriarchy very subtly and yet very impactfully. “It’s not entirely his fault, it’s mine too. I let it happen. It’s also my mother’s fault for bringing me up this way. Vikram’s mother is to blame too,” says Amrita.
We also see Shivani (Dia Mirza), the “new woman” - resolute, determined and kind. Although her screen time is not that long, with her simple yet powerful dialogues, she represents an embodiment of both valour and grace: “I would like to believe men are wonderful people. So I prefer to pretend I didn’t hear what you just said” and “I’m happy as I am.”
On the other side, we also see Netra, a fierce and bold lawyer, winning cases and advocating women’s rights. What comes as a shock is how those same rules fail to apply with her partner and how it is ironic that one of the first things she tells Amrita is: “Every relation is flawed. One has to mend it.” What she doesn’t explicitly say is who she means by “one” and what she means by “mend”.
It is the brilliance of the screenplay by Mrunmayee Lagoo that above all, planned and crafted this masterful story. One of the laudable aspects about the film is the explanations that Vikram offers in his defence; it can as easily be thrown back at him, by replacing just a few words: “I’ve slogged for three years. That’s a lot of time. Forget the hard work. There’s the emotional investment too. I used to think of this company as my own. Then I realised no one values me.”
The relationship between the in-laws of Amrita and Netra are also interesting. In the case of Amrita and Netra, while the couples have split on ground of ‘irreconcilable differences’, they firmly remain in contact with their in-laws. Amrita specifically tells her mother- in-law that the fight is only between herself and Vikram. Netra continues visiting her father-in-law and showing her affections towards him.
Feminism is sometimes misunderstood to mean dominance over men. Thappad, with its unflinching story, declares that the fight is indeed for an egalitarian society where everyone is respected.