Talk about gross misrepresentation! My first impression of Pagglait, the Sanya Malhotra-starrer streaming at the top of Netflix’s chart, wasn’t from the trailer. Rather it was from a Netflix India’s YouTube community pic (the picture stories you see popping up on the site these days).
The text headlining the image cited: kaun kaun serious situations mein hasta hai? [Who amongst you laughs in serious situations?] Right below this quote is a picture that says “Signs you are Sandhya (Malhotra’s character) from Pagglait”, followed by four inexplicable indicators: one, that you laugh in serious situations; two, gol gappay equals life; three, that your best friend is always there for you; and four, that your mum thinks you are a pagglait (pagglait means weird girl, by the way).
The thing is, Pagglait is not about any of these things — in fact, these factors are, at best, negligible slivers in the story of a young woman whose husband died six months into their marriage, and who, in a state of inexpressible shock, comes to terms with her life from this moment onwards.
Contradictory to its publicity, Pagglait is not a comedy — but that’s not to say that the film isn’t chuckle-worthy in parts. Since Sandhya isn’t able to process the grief, one of her in-laws’ relatives sagely deduces that she is in a state of PTSD. If only that particular brand of humour made it into the campaign.
Pagglait is a delicate and sensitive film about grief filled wonderfully with small, unshowy moments
One bit of publicity on YouTube has Sandhya searching the web for ways to make her cry (in the film, she’s in no hurry to shed her tears). Searching videos, she clicks on a woman in red, claiming it to be her “time of the month”, who reminds her of the pains of menstrual cycles in a bid to make her cry. Aghast, Sandhya turns to the next video, which has a poor man’s Shah Rukh Khan showing her melodramatic scenes from Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham in an effort to trigger her emotions.
In a last-ditch attempt, the two avatars, now magically standing in front of her, trying desperately to trick her tear ducts into welling up, give her onions to chop and a green pepper to eat.
Publicity like this makes me wonder about the state of representation of female-centric stories in Bollywood. Often they are over-sexualised caricatures in stories where women’s lib equates to strong-willed, goal-oriented, relationship-confused women putting absurd crass male stereotypes in their places. In Pagglait’s case, where there is a worthwhile original story in place, we see rash decisions to market the film as something it’s not, for fear of the film’s failure if audiences were given a more truthful explanation of the story.
Umesh Bist, who wrote and directed the film, has had an unenticing career as the writer of Hero (2015) and the director of O Teri (2014). Here, he all but obliterates every preconception one may have associated with him. From his first slow track-in on Sandhya, who lies in bed with her back to the camera, allegedly grieving (she is checking the routine RIP messages she’s getting from social media), we see that Bist’s narrative is deliberately solemn and lethargic.
Even scenes that are written as sarcastic jabs hardly display caustic temperament. For once we have a film that pricks sensibilities with a well-timed message, and moves onward without making a fuss.
Set in Lucknow — a city with contrasting mix of new and old India — we land smack on the first of a 13-day grief ritual. As uninvited, inhospitable relatives become a chore to handle for the grieving household, we see brief bits of human ugliness at play here and there. People — save for her in-laws, played by an excellent, if under-utilised, Ashutosh Rana and Sheeba Chaddha — show a synthetic, burdened concern for Sandhya.
Despite the grief and the pressures of the ritual, the household doesn’t hold on to arcane customs. Sandhya is allowed to go out to see the doctor with her best friend — a Muslim girl named Nazia Zaidi (Shruti Sharma), a vegetarian whose arrival and stay raises eyebrows in the house. For the young widow, the trip outside becomes a brief escape to eat some comfort food and breathe a little.
There are no big events in the film. The two reveals that could potentially turn the film into an angry sob-fest slide in and out of the story without manic theatrics. Everything is subtle, save for a somewhat brusque left turn before the climax, which also, miraculously, balances itself as the film ends on a delicate and sensitive note.
Yes, Sandhya does cry in the end, but it’s a small moment in a wonderful film filled with small moments.
Produced by Balaji Motion Pictures, Pagglait, rated suitable for ages of 13+, is streaming now on Netflix
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, April 11th, 2021