In Henrik Ibsen’s classic, A Doll’s House, the female lead, Nora, leaves her ‘perfect’ home, by slamming the door shut behind her. This final scene, so shocking for its audience in 1879, was described by playwright George Bernard Shaw as a “door slam heard round the world”. Forgive the naiveté, but it does feel rather unfortunate, that even though this literature and its message of equality, has had a fair amount of breathing time, 141 years later, the story does not seem even a little dated. Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad is no Doll’s House, but it does borrow its essence from it.
Sinha’s film is the story of a couple whose life, and lifestyle, is right out of the coverpage of a FabIndia catalogue. A desi ‘marriage story’, with a dutiful wife taking care of her household, her perfect-on-paper husband and his mother. Everything in the house revolves around the routine of the husband, Vikram (Pavail Gulati), whose work takes precedence over everyone else’s lives. He wakes up, is fed by his wife (Taapsee Pannu), with help from his mother (Tanvi Azmi) and their househelp (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan), goes to work, has mini meltdowns when things don’t go his way, and comes back home seeking comfort and reassurance of his worth… from the women in his life. Nothing radical. Just an everyday guy being his everyday self.
His stay-at-home wife never wavers from her routine: making tea, breakfast for her mother-in-law, making small talk as she takes her diabetes blood test, admonishing her gently for not taking better care, watering the house plants, taking a photo everyday of the perfect view from her perfect terrace, a reminder for keeps of her ‘perfect’ life. A slap from her husband, in the middle of a party, jolts her out of that fantasy.
Thappad’s story is so remarkably common, that it’s somewhat bewildering to watch the everyday life of the privileged laid bare in its mundane ordinariness onscreen. By withholding the comfort of the usual cinematic tropes of the evil in-laws or a cheating husband, the director doesn’t give the audience any one villain to blame. The aggressor, those who tried to justify the violence or tried to trivialise it (‘aurton ko adjust kar lena chahiye’), the director is pointing fingers at everyone.
Written by Anubhav Sinha and Mrunmayee Lagoo, the film does a fair job of laying down why not even a slap can or should be tolerated, but regrettably does not succeed in explaining Taapsee’s discontent otherwise. In a scene at her lawyer’s (Maya Sarao) office, Taapsee tells her how that slap woke her up to all the unfair incidents she had been ignoring. The audience must imagine what these grievances are, for we’re never told. Despite Taapsee’s chameleon-like ability to get into the skin of any character she plays, here, the often disjointed screenplay lets her down.
Pavail Gulati, as Taapsee’s husband, is terrific as an entitled man-child consumed by his own needs, wants and feelings, who ticks all the boxes parents look for in a damaad, but falls just short of being an adult. Kumud Mishra as Taapsee’s supportive father and Ratna Pathak Shah as her mom, who ‘adjusted’ because her mother asked her to and is now baffled that her daughter won’t, are, per usual, exceptional. If in Soni, Geetika made you cheer for her fierceness, in this, her resilience in the face of abject misery, will make you ache for her. Divorce, after all, is still a luxury not afforded those living hand-to-mouth in this country. As Geetika’s character says of her abusive husband, ‘if someday he decides to lock her out of the house, where would she go?’
Thappad is just as flawed as the central characters it wants to portray, with several female storylines introduced (Dia Mirza, Geetika, and Naila Grewal), only to have nowhere to go. In the second half of the film, the director chooses to hastily tie up the loose ends of their lives in ways real life rarely does. Despite all the ingredients of a tear-jerker, the dialogues and the emotions the director is trying to draw out of the characters can at times feel too contrived.
And yet, even though the film can feel like a checklist of all the woke points one could find off Twitter, it gets a pass, and a thumbs up for bringing domestic violence — yes, even if it is *just* a slap — into the drawing rooms of well-meaning desi families, raised on an unhealthy and steady diet of ‘pati-patni ke beech toh ye sab hota hai’, it would be worth it.