Unhinged and Unaccountable

There is something about films that tug at the heartstrings of being somewhat real and somewhat believable. While I’m a big fan of suspension of disbelief and hot cinematic sex (a la his highness the Duke of Hastings), I also find myself enjoying cinematic moments which are nothing but painfully raw and real. If I had a Bombay cinema fantasy league team, it would include the waiter from Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008) serving young Lucky on a date at New Amar (“apni apni capacity hoti hai”) to Ramadheer Singh from Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) serving cinema in style (“Jab tak iss desh main sanima hai, tab tak log chutiye bante rahenge”), it would also include a character (or two) from Umesh Bist’s Pagglait.

Perhaps, this is why the universe of Pagglait (2021) and the insurmountable grief it carries particularly withholds the viewer in me for more. It’s made of astute observation and a keen sense of understanding. The grieving family does not wear an all-white ensemble as though they’re out to play Bollywood Holi or getting to a Bollywood cremation. They’re in fawns, greys, and muted pastels, in everyday attire but somber. The grief is palpable, even when the bell rings to an obnoxious Bollywood number. You can feel the heaviness in the air, the mood is clearly right, the production design is right, acting is on point and everything is subtle. The grief and its representation are real and powerful. It is not always perfect with people crying in unison and digging out pure white crisp kurta pyjama. It’s made of imperfection and details, which is what this film does right. Grief is not continuous or linear, it hits us in spurts and moments, it hits in varying intensity to different people and the response to grief is never the same for two people. Pagglait gets it right, it sets the rituals in the way they are, not taking or adding anything extra. It gets death right.

Pagglait is also made of tiny moments. Middle-aged uncles coming to terms with technology (Google Maps) and using it in their day to day with conversations set across them; relatives who can’t seem to catch a break, despite weddings or funerals, bringing in some sense of animosity even as they prepare to show up late for a solemn situation such as family grieving the loss of a young member; the widow counting the number of comments on the demise announcement post on Facebook, followed by asking for Pepsi and Masala chips (always trust people who like Blue Lays, always); these are really sprinkled all over the film and it’s delightful to see the extension of details coming together to aid the screenplay. All too real and in your face bold.

It’s a shame then, despite all the things that work for Pagglait, the screenplay itself doesn’t do much. Based out of Lucknow, Sandhya (Sanya Malhotra in banging form), MA English, is unable to grieve the loss of her husband, Aastik Giri. The families, much like any dysfunctional joint conservative Indian unit, have rituals set out for one and all— from the kids who are uninterested in mourning for 13 days to the adults who can’t hold back on their vices. Navigating and attempting to feel sad about the situations in the midst of the world of traditions and customs, Sandhya stumbles upon Akanksha’s photograph, tucked carefully in her dear departed husband’s closet. Who’s Akanksha, you ask? Sandhya figures that after some investigative thinking, a plate of gol gappe, some Pepsi, and chips. It’s her late husband’s secret not-so-ex-girlfriend (Sayani Gupta who looks ethereal) who he was in love with, prior to their arranged marriage. The family has no idea about this secret and is in oblivion about this big fact reveal to Sandhya.

Good? Great? That’s the thing. The plot works till just about here. The problem at bay is the script after the secret girlfriend is revealed. Sandhya’s husband is talked about as a dutiful son and a half-decent nephew, effectively implying, he’s been a fairly responsible adult who seems to be well-placed and “settled”, thus, a secret girlfriend is out of the question for anyone to imagine. What could have been the central situation around which the narrative continues, is reduced to a thinking point for Sandhya about her life. The film then takes a turn into problematizing the grief in three strains of ideas. The secret girlfriend becomes one strain of idea, the unhinged widow another, and her future in their family the third. As a viewer, these need to come together, but in the script, it fails.

The big, big issue with Pagglait is the perfect red ribbon wrapped resolution of problems in the end. What starts off just as promising as an Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! with its details and characters who are tuned to be real and dysfunctional turn into one big damp squib, especially once the secret (ex) girlfriend issue is resolved by Sandhya, at least in her mind. A relative explains her actions (unknown to them that she’s on a quest to search for this girl), she is suffering from PTSD. By the end, she’s figured her home-life situation and walked out of the expectations everyone sets forth on her to navigate her own damn life. Which is good, great for Sandhya but as a viewer you’re like, um, life isn’t that fair or easy honey.

Now, this is where my grouse is. You set up a perfectly great story and lead it well till the appearance of the girlfriend at home. Why must you make this into an SJW girl boss story with monologues as letters and her doing right by everyone, including the bitchy relatives who she was testing for the sake of real love?

Come on, man. Come on. You don’t need an Arijit Singh to sing her misery and despondency into a background number. You don’t need to write and speak out loud that a woman unhinged is a woman in charge of her life. The title says it all.

Sigh.

Pagglait is a Schrodinger’s cat watch, it is equally beautiful and frustrating at the same time. It’s just that by the end of the film, you’ll be pissed for ruining a perfectly good setup into driving it down the formulaic Bollywood route. The only thing missing in this film from making it a total Bollywood Tier 2 city cinema experience was Ayushmann Khurrana playing her deceased beau. Rest, they did it to themselves.

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Anisha Saigal

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Pop-culture omnivore. Survived publishing, academia, film school. Struggling with the pandemic.