Pagglait is not without hitches, but it is all heart with substance to match.
Funerals have long been a popular site for cinema. Filmmakers see the excruciating beauty in grief. They know the regressive, patriarchal and (in India’s case) casteist customs and beliefs involved in last rites. They are also aware of the goings-on beyond the mourning among surviving kin: gossip, financial wranglings and personal tensions, all while camouflaging awkward memories of the ‘dear’ departed. Pagglait packs all these elements into one story, but distinguishes itself within the genre with its focus on a family’s proprietorial attitude to a newly widowed woman.
Writer-director Umesh Bist’s heroine Sandhya Giri (Sanya Malhotra) loses her husband Astik soon after their marriage. His relatives do not condemn her in the way Hindu society often does in such circumstances. “No, she is not Manglik. Their horoscopes were matched,” one of them (Meghna Malik) tells someone in the film’s opening moments. That brief exchange sums up the Giris and their extended family: they are not the worst among conservatives, but they are not progressive either.
Sandhya herself is neither liberal nor terribly illiberal. She has so far gone along with choices made on her behalf, down a path everyone takes. Her MA degree earned her a husband with a salary that impressed her middle-class parents. She got married because they told her to do so, to the man they found for her. And now that he is prematurely gone, she is struggling to figure out why she feels no sadness.
Pagglait covers the period between Astik’s cremation and tehrvi, the concluding ceremonies on the 13th day after his passing. The title comes from the word “paagal”, which is Hindi for “crazy”, “mad”, sometimes “foolish”. It indicates the churning in Sandhya’s mind and in her life during this decisive phase that leads her to unleash the “crazy” within her.
Bist maintains a deceptively equanimous tone throughout Pagglait, although it kicks off with a tragedy and what subsequently occurs with Sandhya is also dramatic.
This calm narrative style is a strength. It is matched by the shades of grey in all the characters: none of them are all-out evil, but they are no saints either, and when they err in the most human of ways, the film does not reject them.
The only break in Pagglait’s tone comes with the song ‘Phire Faqeera’ playing in the background at one point. The film has made news because it marks singer Arijit Singh’s debut as a composer. ‘Phire Faqeera’ feels over-crowded and noisy, and suffers from an AR Rahman hangover, without the perfect harmony that is Rahman’s signature. The title track is generic, but ‘Dil Udd Ja Re’ and ‘Thode Kam Ajnabi’ are pleasantly pensive albeit too similar sounding to each other.
The most commendable aspect of the album is that Singh has filled it with female singers, which is unusual even for women-centred Bollywood films. Neeti Mohan is lovely, and I love the buttery-voiced Himani Kapoor who sings ‘Thode Kam Ajnabi.’
Pagglait then is not without hitches, but it is all heart with substance to match. The spotlight remains on Sandhya throughout, but the sidelights too are rich in detail, from observations about forbidden love and sexually curious teens in a traditional family, to that gorgeous Lucknowi home, and an unlikely bond forming between women who would have been pitted against each other by a writer prone to stereotyping.
In an India currently ridden with Islamophobia in the public discourse, in a film set in a pointedly religious, upper-caste Hindu milieu, it is almost an emotional experience to hear the call of a muezzin laid over the opening aerial shot of the city from where Rafey Mahmood’s camera travels all the way to Shanti Kunj in which Sandhya lives, as if to subtly remind a deeply divided India that the azaan is as much a part of Uttar Pradesh’s architecture and soundscape as its familiar skylines.
The title appearing in Hindi, English and Urdu was once the norm in Bollywood, and like a handful of others in recent years, Pagglait too revives the old practice. The film takes its commentary about sectarianism further, via the insulting discrimination faced by a significant Muslim character. (Spoiler ahead in this paragraph) While I love the fact that she exists in the script and that more than one Hindu character is appalled at the treatment meted out to her, I do wish the sole act of rebellion against it had come from her and not from the heroine. There is a touch of a minority-saviour complex in their equation, well-meant though it is, which is ironic in its lack of self-awareness considering that Sandhya takes a swipe at the Giris for their narrow thinking though they boasted about being “open-minded” earlier in Pagglait. (Spoiler alert ends)
In a film that raises tough questions, it is disappointing that the irrational beliefs surrounding death are not questioned at all, nor are patriarchal funeral practices such as a man, not a woman, lighting the pyre, and a man, not a woman, immersing the dead person’s ashes in the holy river.
Hindi films, even progressive ones, have down the decades depicted widows as tragic figures. There is nothing miserable or schmaltzy about the portrayal of Sandhya. Not that she is a Joan of Arc or Rani Laxmibai either. She’s a regular woman leading a regular life of conformism who has an awakening in the midst of a tragedy. Pagglait’s big win is that it spots the potential for extraordinariness within apparent ordinariness.
Malhotra is a fitting choice for Sandhya’s role. She is a solid actor who does “regular” well, yet has the ability to emit sparks when required, as we have seen in her short career, most especially in (2016) and (2018).
Barring the protagonist’s Muslim friend, the ensemble of characters surrounding her are all well-rounded. They are further made memorable by some of the best character actors – established and emerging – in the industry. It is a joy to see Raghubir Yadav in two substantial roles within a fortnight, last week in and here in Pagglait as a bossy Tayaji. Sheeba Chadha and Ashutosh Rana are immaculate as Sandhya’s heart-broken, morally conflicted in-laws.
Pagglait could perhaps have done without spelling out its messaging in the end, but that messaging is so important and the journey until then so engaging, that all is forgiven. Funeral films have over the years ranged from the outrageously hilarious (like the British comedy Death At A Funeral), to brilliant social satire (example, from Mollywood) to the sombre and observant (such as the recent Bollywood film ). Pagglait is a cousin of the latter, though more distinctive. Sad, sweet and funny by turns, it is a special film about a woman redefining happily-ever-after and about a death breathing life into the one left behind.
Pagglait is streaming on Netflix India.
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