Cast: Sanya Malhotra, Shruti Sharma, Sayani Gupta, Ashutosh Rana
Director: Umesh Bist
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
An untimely death, a bereaved woman, a couple of life-altering flashpoints and intimations of a new lease of life combine to fuel Pagglait, a Netflix original film scripted and directed by Umesh Bist. Its ambition is mid-size, but the execution is deft enough to offset its limited scope. The drama centres on a young widow who feels no sorrow. Her demeanour confounds her relatives. Amid the post-funeral rituals, she has other things on her mind and those around her cannot fathom what is going in.
The heroine, portrayed with unswerving focus by Sanya Malhotra, grapples with conflicting impulses as she seeks to wrest control of her life. Backed by steady writing and stellar acting all around, this unfussy take on a woman's quest for freedom not only gets its arc and tone right, it also cleverly steers clear of the cliches of the genre.
The woman stumbles upon a secret about her departed husband even as the family is gathered in their ancestral home to mourn the man's passing. She reassesses her past and rethinks her future in the light of the discovery. Another disclosure a little later leaves a few some of the relatives dismayed. But she goes on regardless.
As she waits to move on with her interrupted life a troubling truth pops out of the closet of her late husband, a twenty-something corporate executive Astik Giri (who is never shown, not even in a photograph). She realises she barely knew the man. More importantly, she begins to see herself - an educated woman in an arranged marriage, a dutiful daughter-in-law in a conservative household, and a girl with suppressed yearnings of her own - in a new light.
The film's title refers to 'the streak of madness' that her relatives believe Sandhya Giri (Malhotra) has. The impression is strengthened when her best friend, Nazia Zaidi (Shruti Sharma), responding to a social media post by one of Sandhya's two younger sisters, lands up in her marital home - Shanti Kunj, Lucknow - and helps the widow shake things up, gently and one move at a time.
Sandhya tells Nazia about the time when her pet cat was run over by a car and she was so distraught that she cried and cried and could not eat a morsel for three days. I do not feel like crying now, she confesses. She also admits to being hungry all the time. She craves Pepsi, potato wafers and golgappas. Not for her the bland fare that she is supposed to be content with over the next 13 days. She pretends to be unwell and slips out of the house with Nazia.
Nazia is an outsider in every sense of the term. Her arrival is viewed with not a little alarm by Astik's family, especially by his tayaji (Raghubir Yadav), his mother Usha Giri (Sheeba Chaddha) and the busybody maternal aunt Tulika (Meghna Malik). A separate teacup is earmarked for the guest - its colour is red so that there are no slip-ups - and she is required to eat out.
Parchun (Aasif Khan), a young neighbour always at hand to help Astik's father Shivendra Giri (Ashutosh Rana) as he struggles to overcome the shock of losing his eldest son, is given the responsibility of escorting Nazia around.
Nazia breaks a stereotype on day one. Parchun offers to treat her to mutton biryani. I am vegetarian, she says. Sensing Parchun's surprise, Nazia retorts: not every Sachin is a Tendulkar. But every... Pagglait leaves that, and much else, unsaid, enhancing the force of its unverbalised commentary on our prejudices and presumptions.
Astik's younger brother Alok (Chetan Sharma), having performed the last rites, is in the same jam as his sister-in-law. He is confined to his room and served unpalatable meals. Parchun, who runs a convenience store, is the saviour here too.
Shivendra Giri is a reasonable man by all accounts but his younger brother, Tarun (Rajesh Tailang), who arrives late with his wife and two children, and their sister Janaki (Yamini Singh) are not as straightforward. As the 13th and final day of mourning approaches, matters turn increasingly complicated. Sandhya has to reckon with demands made on her not only by her in-laws but also by her own parents, Alka (Natasha Rastogi) and Girish Pandey (Bhupesh Pandya).
The mild-mannered girl, already flustered by the tangled repercussions of the revelations about her husband's past, has to dig deep to keep her wits about her. She realises that she's got to make hard decisions as the men around her begin to impose their will on her on the pretext of helping her.
The Giris are an orthodox family. But they lose no opportunity to insist that they are open-minded. It takes one sequence to make the gender dynamic clear: the men sit on the floor at mealtime; the women serve them.
Not that the women have no voice at all in this family. Janaki talks up her husband Ghanshyam (Jameel Khan), a bank officer who quotes Shakespeare and attributes Sandhya's strange behaviour to PTSD. Tarun's wife Rashmi (Ananya Khare) keeps an eye on every little thing that transpires in the household.
Sandhya's mother-in-law wonders how on earth her husband will ever repay the house loan that Astik took for a new apartment now that the son's substantial corporate salary is out of the equation. And her bed-ridden mother-in-law (Saroj Singh), with whom Sandhya shares a special bond, looks on in bafflement. No matter how much the women talk, it is the men whose writ runs here.
Daadi, Usha and Sandhya are three generations of women who are charged with keeping the family traditions alive. The husband's death presents Sandhya with a second chance. But can she, given the constraints she faces, cash in on the tidings of liberation that the tragedy has brought?
A word on the musical score, which marks singer Arijit Singh's debut as a film composer: the songs are neatly dovetailed into the narrative in the tradition of the great music directors of Hindi cinema's golden era. The numbers, unobtrusive and easy on the ears, subserve the film, and not the other way around.
Pagglait is enlivened by a bunch of great performances. Sanya Malhotra takes to the layered role like a fish to water. Ashutosh Rana is brilliantly subtle with his voice modulations. The phenomenally malleable Sheeba Chaddha sails through a gamut of emotions.
The rest of the supporting cast is great too, not the least among whom are Raghubir Yadav, Shruti Sharma, Natasha Rastogi, Meghna Malik, Aasif Khan and Chetan Sharma. Sayani Gupta and Sharib Hashmi put in special appearances. The impression they make goes way beyond the length of their roles.
There is nothing manic about Pagglait. It goes about its business with refreshing - and telling - calmness and makes its point clearly and unpretentiously.