All In The Family:
In our movies, the death of a woman’s husband is treated with full bangle-breaking, sindoor-wiping, melodrama, accompanied by ear-splitting doleful background music. So how is a household full of mostly insincere mourners supposed to deal with a young widow, who does not shed tears—not because she is numb with shock, but because, as she tells her best friend, she feels less sorrow than she did when her childhood pet died.
Umesh Bist’s Pagglait (one of the better Indian offerings on Netflix), is similar to Seema Pahwa’s recent Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi, but focuses on the mixed emotions of Sandhya (Sanya Malhotra), whose husband, Astik, dies a few months after their marriage—a proper arranged one with horoscopes matched, so she is not accused of being ill-fated. His parents (Ashutosh Rana-Sheeba Chaddha) are understandably shattered. There is the unfathomable grief of losing a young son, but also financial crisis looming, as he was the sole earning member of the family, and there are loans to repay.
The relatives descend – the cheerful doorbell playing a Bollywood song is a running gag—and over the next thirteen days, till the end of the official mourning period, cracks in the clan start showing. The women bitch, the men sneak in cigarettes and booze on the terrace, teenage cousins canoodle; the one who resents the whole lengthy death ritual is the brother (Chetan Sharma), who has to shave his head, eat bland good and sleep on the floor.
The family find Sandhya’s grief deficiency baffling; her Muslim friend, Nazia (Shruti Sharma) arrives, much to the old uncle’s (Raghubir Yadav) displeasure. The young women smuggle in cola and chips, and a cousin flirts with Nazia (he is surprised to learn that she is a vegetarian, some subtle stereotype bashing here). The in-laws don’t insist on her wearing white or chopping her hair. When it suits them, they claim to be open-minded, but quietly segregate Nazia.
The marriage was loveless, the husband cold towards her, and Sandhya discovers why. The in-laws and her own parents try to push decisions on to her, but over the thirteen days, Sandhya figures out that being an obedient daughter and submissive daughter-in-law were not choices she made willingly.
Bist earnestly makes his point, and if the rather obvious message does not sound phony, it’s because he refrains from speechifying and gets terrific performances from his cast. Sanya Malhotra, Sayani Gupta as her unlikely friend, Ashutosh Rana and Sheeba Chadha lift up their otherwise ordinary characters. The only one who seems out of place is the silent granny, who is used as an unwilling confidante for the newly rebellious Sandhya, and also a symbol of female servility in an Indian home, where the women have to take on the work of caring for the elderly; her own sons barely look in on her.
The film can be accused of being too simplistic and pushing the right ‘woke’ buttons, but that may just be what appeals to its audience—if a passive young woman from a conservative family can pull herself out of the morass of middle-class hypocrisy, anyone can.