There’s a great scene in Suresh Triveni’s Tumhari Sulu, where Vidya Balan’s Sulu wakes up in a fit of panic. Having returned from her new job as a late-night radio host, Sulu frantically looks for her husband and son, who need help with their morning chores before they leave for work and school respectively. Balan is terrific in that scene that touches upon an innate guilt that Indian women are conditioned to feel, each time they choose themselves over their domestic duties. Going for a similar ‘message’, Ashwini Iyer-Tiwari’s Panga never seems to dig beyond the obvious. A love letter to a housewife’s repressed ambitions, each time Panga needs to choose between finding its own genuine voice or resorting to dialoguebaazi as a crutch, it often chooses the latter.
Jaya Nigam (a solid Kangana Ranaut) is a former India Kabaddi captain-turned-railway clerk, who sentenced herself to domesticity. The film never fleshes out Jaya’s motivation behind marriage at the peak of her career as an athlete, nor is it willing to dwell on the difficult conversation at home, because of an unplanned pregnancy. Even though Jaya and her husband, Prashant (a charming but one-note, Jassie Gill) are shown to be supportive towards each other, we’re never made privy to a full-blown confrontation. It’s a tiny thing that chips away at the authenticity of the film. There’s no real conflict barring Jaya’s own patriarchal conditioning of being the family’s primary care-giver.
The closest Panga comes to emulating Tumhari Sulu‘s disarming sincerity, is when Jaya is asked to move to Kolkata after being selected for the Eastern Railways. Almost instinctively ready with a I-can’t-leave-my-husband-and-son-behind response, she confesses to her friend, Meenu (played by Richa Chadha), that the only reason she came for the try-out was to rediscover her hadh (limit). You get a sense that the dialogue, in true Hindi film fashion, will reverberate during the film’s final portions on a Kabaddi mat with a literal ‘line’ to be crossed. And yet, this is the only moment when Panga gives us the illusion of possessing its own voice.
Unlike Iyer-Tiwari’s earlier free-flowing films like Nil Battey Sannata and Bareilly Ki Barfi, the filmmaking in Panga seems to be at fault. Something that reflects in minor moments like when a coach (Rajesh Tailang, looking eerily similar to Girish Kulkarni from Dangal) is trying to make a case of Jaya’s inclusion in the Indian team. “Her ‘comeback story’ can get us more of an audience, consider it a future investment for the sport of Kabaddi,” Tailang’s character says to the selection committee, and this cynical scene is accompanied with an uplifting score. The screenplay, co-written by Nikhil Mehrotra and Iyer-Tiwari, springs up one contrivance after another to remove hurdles from the conclusion of Jaya’s comeback story.
Jaya’s return to the sport is based on a wafer-thin logic. Her seven-year-old son, Adi (Yagya Bhasin), suggests that his mother should go back to what she loves doing. Adi finds out about his mother’s glorious past only because his father fills him up on her sacrifices, AFTER he says something nasty to her. Mind you, the boy’s nasty remark and its repercussion, is not touched upon thereafter. It is used only to trigger the flashback episode. These are little things because of which an intensely-invested audience member might just snap out. On her return, the universe conspires to transport Jaya from a ticket counter in Bhopal to stadiums across the country. An unwritten rule about underdog sports dramas, is that odds have to seem insurmountable for the climax to work. The conflicts in Panga are all resolved within a minute or two.
Panga is so predictable that when we see Jaya trying to do an impossible maneuver in one scene, we already know about its place in the film’s final moments. Unlike Dangal, where the maneuver is buried under so much information, that the flashback earns the applause. There are also dialogues force-fitting the film’s title in them, where Ranaut’s character says out of the blue Panga lena hai yaar to which Chadha responds with Panga lena hai…? and a few minutes later follows it up with Panga lena hai ladki ko…
Not to nitpick, but couldn’t this term be more seamlessly fit into the conversation?
Eventually, Panga feels like one of those films cashing in on Kangana Ranaut’s ‘you-go-girl’ image, something that’s not aged well in the past year. The milieu is unsurprisingly middle-class, and even though Iyer-Tiwari goes about building it with sincerity, there’s something amiss about it. Speaking about an Indian housewife’s ambition, Panga says very little about the Indian woman’s psyche that we don’t already know about. It also never shows the courage to fully dissect the pre-imposed gender roles in a marriage.
Fully embracing one of mainstream Bollywood’s biggest faults, Panga is too much of a star-vehicle to make us care for Jaya Nigam’s gold medal. Unlike Sulochana Dubey’s tiffin service, that was a fully realised victory in the hands of Vidya Balan.