Rebelling against the conventional social order, Umesh Bist’s Pagglait — unlike the stereotypical portrayal of widows in Bollywood — offers its central protagonist Sandhya Giri (played by the versatile Sanya Malhotra) the opportunity to own her voice.
The Giri household is traumatised by the untimely death of a young family member, Astik. Amid a swarm of relatives crying their hearts out, gossiping, indulging in petty politics and more — Malhotra finds herself divorced from reality. Unaffected by the tragic loss, she is unable to mourn her husband’s death and comprehend the end of their loveless marriage that lasted for a mere five months.
Against the background of mourning members, Malhotra finds herself counting the number of Facebook comments on a post announcing Astik’s death. In another scene, she leaves her mother-in-law and her parents stunned by asking if she could get Pepsi instead of tea during the wake? The film might appear ‘quirky’ and ‘unconventional’ in the first few scenes, but in no time will it dawn upon you that Pagglait is here to make some noise, the right noise. It seamlessly exposes the absurdities that have for generations been fortified within the Indian family system, and the social neglect and oppression of widows in India.
There’s a particular scene in the film that leaves a lasting impact — while Astik’s brother Alok scatters his ashes in the Ganges, Malhotra sneaks out of the house with her friend Nadia Zaidi (the Giri mansion displays shades of Islamophobia) on the pretext of a doctor visit to satiate her craving for golgappas. Instead of drowning in grief and suppressing her appetite much like most Bollywood widows, this scene drives a strong message that a widow is not meant to ‘suffer’ all the time. That she has her own identity, even if society expects her to always stay under the shadow of her husband (dead or alive).
What we also understand during the course of the film is that Malhotra isn’t a rebel; she is neither progressive nor conservative, but is unable to comprehend why she is consumed by a lack of emotions, even after losing her husband. The film that starts as a drama on the politics of death turns into a journey of rediscovery for Malhotra, who ‘liberates’ herself from the expectations of society by the end of her husband’s wake.
Reel and real-life widows
So, what is it about Bollywood’s widows that is repulsive and regressive? For one, they are always shown to lack any ‘colour’ in their lives after the demise of their husbands; as if their existence has lost meaning. Unfortunately, their portrayals haven’t served well for a society that has been trying hard to smash generations of patriarchy.
The reality is not so different from what’s shown on the big screen. In states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh, the sindoor — a marker of marriage — is wiped off the widow’s head. She is asked to remove all her jewellery and her glass bangles are smashed. Colour is absent from her attire, and she is expected to wear white or pale sarees.
The misery for India’s widows does not end there — some are branded as ‘witches’ or considered ‘evil’, if their husband dies at a young age. Fortunately, that does not happen in Pagglait, where Malhotra’s in-laws can be seen defending her non-manglik status. There’s no point in the film, where she is accused for her husband’s death, and that’s another victory for a film that challenges long-standing traditions in Indian families.
Another stellar film that didn’t resort to such stereotypes was Rituparno Ghosh’s Chokher Bali that released in 2003. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who played the role of a widow, showed her inclination towards a man who was not her husband. In Indian cinema and otherwise, widows are often disregarded for having any sexual interests; the societal notion is that they are ‘asexual’. Bachchan’s character unapologetically engages in a sexual and romantic relationship with another man, without being ridden with guilt.
Journey of revelation and rediscovery
What really strikes is how Bist effectively uses the plot to help Malhotra discover herself. An MA graduate in English Literature, she chose to give up her dreams and desires on the insistence of her parents, who wanted her to ‘settle’ with a ‘well-earning’ husband. All this while, she was financially dependent on her husband (not so much, emotionally) and had repressed her true feelings. This is until she meets Akanksha (played by Sayani Gupta), her husband’s paramour and colleague.
While searching for some documents, Malhotra discovers a photograph of Gupta in Astik’s closet, and that’s when grief strikes. She blames Gupta for the lack of love and companionship in her marriage, but all this while, there's more to it than meets the eye. Malhotra’s character is layered in many ways, and Gupta serves as the perfect catalyst to peel them off. That’s how true transformation happens!
Malhotra’s portrayal is real and relatable; but she must not be regarded as a ‘hero’. That’s because Pagglait ruffles a few feathers as it tries to normalise certain age-old customs that didn’t find a place in Indian society, both on and off cinema. While the film smashes several stereotypes, you are left to wonder why the director didn’t shed the spotlight on women questioning some of the patriarchal funeral practices that have a place only for men.
Pagglait is not perfect, and neither does it try to be! In a powerful scene, Malhotra’s character says, “Jab ladki logo ko akal ati hai na, toh sab unhe Pagglait hi kehte hai”! Well, who wouldn’t want to be a Pagglait, a non-conformist in a society that drives you mad with its stereotypes?
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)