The story arc of Sunita, the domestic worker, normalises the idea that women from the lower classes lack agency.

Thappad A slap to patriarchy but not class inequality
Flix Opinion Thursday, March 05, 2020 - 14:42

Thappad, Anubhav Sinha’s recent film starring Taapsee Pannu in the lead, has opened to good reviews. The film revolves around Amrita/Amu (Taapsee), a homemaker by choice who has relegated her dreams to the backseat to prioritise her family after she gets married to Vikram (Pavail Gulati).

The narrative begins with Amrita waking up in the morning, picking up newspapers and milk bottles from the door, preparing tea, enjoying the morning view from the balcony, and then waking up her husband and taking care of her mother-in-law. She is a diligent homemaker who sends her husband off to office before she gets to other chores and pursuing her own interests, such as teaching dance to the neighbour’s daughter or meeting her parents.

The plot takes a turn after an unforeseen slap from her husband in front of several guests during a party thrown to celebrate his success in the professional front. Post the humiliation and her husband’s behaviour (he treats it as a small incident which took place as a repercussion of tension in the office), Amrita starts to reevaluate the relationship.

Thappad is undoubtedly successful in breaking the conventional and usual Bollywood storylines, especially coming as it does following the phenomenal success of Kabir Singh. It takes a dig at patriarchy, which is perpetuated in everyday life and manifests in several forms. The dialogues and conversations such as just a slap, but nahi maar sakta (Amrita with her lawyer); hota hai par people move on (Vikram with Amrita) strongly emphasise the normalisation of such events within the household.

However, the film could have had a more nuanced portrayal of class differences and the agency it gives to its female characters. The film has several parallel plots (different individuals and their respective struggles) which connect at different points. The narrative is centered on Amrita - a wife in a male-headed household, located in an elite neighborhood of the national capital region, New Delhi. The family resides in a duplex villa complex, with the husband working in a senior position at one of the top banking and finance companies and harbouring ambitions of moving to the UK. They also own an expensive car (all the characters, except the domestic worker Sunita, own cars such as Audi, Benz, and BMW).

Amrita is an urban upper middle class woman who is privileged to have the support and understanding of her family and social circles (at least from her father, brother’s girlfriend and neighbour). She also has access to one of the leading lawyers, Nethra (Maya Sarao), in the city. While the plot clearly is located within a privileged section of the society, there comes the question - do women from social classes lower than that of Amrita’s have the opportunity, familial or societal support to walk out of abusive marriages?

Sunita (Geetika Vidya), a domestic worker in Amrita’s house, is also shown to be facing violence and abuse in her marriage. She speaks about the abuse with Amrita early in the film but the latter does not respond to it and goes about her work as usual. Amirta’s family is aware of the abuse encountered by Sunita, yet they are unresponsive because they see domestic violence as normal in the lower classes. It is only when Amrita herself is slapped that she begins to view it differently.

Amrita then files for divorce, but Sunita continues to endure physical abuse on an everyday basis. While she does retaliate at the end of the movie and confronts her husband’s abusive behaviour, the director could have done better in portraying her story arc. All the women, except Sunita, are shown to take substantial steps in dealing with their unhappy relationships. Amrita goes in for a mutual divorce, Nethra separates from her husband and boyfriend to start a new life, Amrita's mother-in-law forgives her father-in-law and goes on to live with him, her brother changes his mindset and his girlfriend forgives him and stands by him. These women characters therefore have the prospect of happiness and contenment in their lives as they’ve either mended their relationship or have come out of it.

However, Sunita faces an uncertain future as her husband's character is not shown to have changed. While Amrita regains her self respect, Sunita is just seen celebrating her first move against her husband. She’s not shown with the ability to evaluate or think for herself. She’s denied the agency that the other women exhibit, and the conclusion to her story arc seems like temporary relief.

While the men of the upper class families are given an opportunity to express that they’ve realised their mistake in the end, Sunita’s husband is just shown as a one note abuser. The director could have shown Sunita’s husband too evolving in his character through even a simple gesture.

The plot can be cited as a perfect example of Louis Althusser’s (1971) ‘Ideological State Apparatus (ISA).’ In his book, Althusser explains ISA as realities that present themselves to the immediate observer in the form of specialised institutions (religion, media, caste, myths and so on). This has an immediate effect on society to maintain its ideology, be it regressive as well. The storyline of Thappad, when looked at from this perspective, normalises class inequalities by not showing us Sunita's options to get out of the abusive relationship. Instead, it shows her deriving her happiness without any conclusive assurance that she is not going to face the abuse again. 

By reiterating existing class inequalities through its visual depiction and solely emphasising the rich woman’s struggle for respect and happiness in her marriage, the story underplays the reality of physical abuse faced by lower class women. With a total of 1,04,165 women victims reporting cruelty by the husband or his relatives (NCRB, 2018), it would be appropriate to give a message to the audience that violence of any sort against women from all classes should be taken seriously and acted upon.

Agency is key to feminist discourse, and this must be taken into consideration while analysing the storyline. Just as women from privileged backgrounds deserve respect and happiness, so do women from lower classes – and the push can come from within no matter their social location.

Views expressed are authors' own.

Boddu Srujana is a PhD Research Scholar at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai. 

Sipoy Sarveswar is working as Assistant Professor (Ad-hoc) in the Department of Anthropology, University of Hyderabad.

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