India (2020) Dir. Anubhav Sinha

Patriarchal India has some very unsavoury attitudes towards women that would cause western societies likes ours to implode with rage at the very idea it is considered socially acceptable for a man to hit his wife. Since women have no agency, clearly something needs to change.

Vikram (Pavail Gulati) and Amarita (Taapsee Pannu) are happily married and settled into their roles of him the breadwinner and her the homemaker. Vikram gets a promotion which means a move to London and Amarita throws a celebration party. However, during the party, Vikram gets a call from his boss informing him the job is going to someone else but he can have a lower position although he won’t be in charge.

Learning his superior knew about this, Vikram starts a blazing row which Amarita tries to break up. In front of everyone, Vikram slaps Amarita and storms off, leaving her hurt and humiliated. Everyone tries to rationalise this as normal and tell Amarita to forget it and move on, but she can’t, eventually moving back home with her parents and filing for divorce.

Thappad translates into English as slap – possibly onomatopoeic – whilst this film is said to resemble an Australian TV drama of the same name, although that was about a man slapping someone else’s child. However, there are much higher stakes in applying this premise to a situation that has long been swept under the carpet of misguided cultural traditions.

Bollywood is aware of the need for change, as we have seen a rise in “message” films to bring about a new perspective for a film industry known primarily for gaudy musicals. Director Anubhav Sinha has form in appeasing this side of Bollywood but in recent years has developed a social conscience and has stepped up to address pressing issues and provoke discussion for change in modern attitudes.

Whilst the idea cinema can make a difference is a stretch, if it can instigate changing just one mind and get people talking that is something. Thappad might be a little heavy handed in its final act but prior to this, Sinha and script co-writer Mrunmayee Lagoo present a legit and compelling argument for this motion.    

Opening with a montage to introduce the main cast, mostly couples with seemingly unified ideas about love, except for Amarita and Vikram’s neighbour Shivani (Dia Mirza) is a successful single-mother to teenage daughter Sania (Gracy Goswami) and is happy this way. Then there is Sunita (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan), Amarita and Vikram’s home help, regularly slapped about by her abusive husband.

Amarita’s parents Sachin (Kumud Mishra) and Sandhya (Ratna Pathak Shah) prove to be progressive thinkers, with Sachin openly aghast at the archaic responses to the slapping by his fellow men. Most feel Amarita should get over it and stop being silly, including her own brother Karan (Ankur Rathee), causing a rift with his fiancée Swati (Naila Grewal).

Meanwhile, the older women say the wife’s job is to make the men happy, arguing this will hurt Vikram’s reputation; but as Swati points out Vikram can remarry with impunity yet Amarita will always have the divorcee label to her name. A lot to unpack there from this one simple act of self-preservation of dignity by Amarita, which gets more complex when Amarita learns she is pregnant.

Naturally, Vikram’s lawyer plans to fight dirty, denying there was a slap, that Amarita was the aggressor with people willing to testify as such, and she is an alcoholic, manic-depressive unfit to be a mother. Fortunately, Swati works for formidable female lawyer Netra Jaisingh (Maya Sarao), happy to take on the case to challenge the law’s attitude towards women, undergoing her own gender role related epiphany as a result.

It is infuriating to see a depiction of a society where domestic violence is all but justified as “normal” and dismissed as right by the patriarchy. Indian law is not so dense that it isn’t considered a crime; Amarita didn’t want anything from Vikram, just her freedom, hence she didn’t file that complaint, but as the roles of a husband and wife are defined by outdated criteria, men could get away with anything by virtue of their gender.

Sinha knows he has to galvanise his audience as this is not just about domestic abuse but about how women are perceived in Indian society, the lack of respect and voice they have. It is also an entreaty to the older generation to look at how global attitudes are changing and understand a need for equality is not rebellion but a step forward for social and cultural progress.

Handsomely shot with a typically glamorous cast but not so overwhelming they detract from the impact of the story, the lack of “usual” Bollywood traits gives this a chance to appeal to wider audiences. However, the reaction to it will be very different – western viewers will become increasingly enraged as everyone take Vikram’s side; some native (male) audiences may be angry with Sinha for this pejorative depiction of their culture.

Regarding Bollywood habits, it has to be said this film did not need to be 142-minutes long. It takes 30 minutes to get going, and whilst the story remains the focus, some fat could have been trimmed long the way. The final act is a tad mawkish but efficient as an ending; instead a sentimental coda extending the film by some 10 minutes could have been covered with a two-minute montage.

Fortunately a strong cast has been assembled to make this epic journey a lot more bearable, led by Taapsee Pannu in personifying strength and dignity in the face of unfair expectation in a commanding performance as Amarita. This is also Pavail Gulati’s debut so kudos to him for a strong opening of his acting account.

Thappad may ramble on occasion but sticks the knife into toxic patriarchal attitudes and its shameful ignorance towards domestic abuse, twisting it with enough force to make anyone listen. Effective and urgent statement cinema.