Breathless In Bhopal:
Rating: Three stars
Ashwini Iyer Tiwari’s Panga may be about women following their dreams (the phrase is a cliché now), but it is actually an ode to the New Man (a little late to arrive in small town India), who never lets his smile slip even when he is being kicked in bed by his wife; she may have left her kabaddi playing days behind, but obviously has latent rage issues.
The most important scene in the film is not the woman’s successful comeback to sports, but her seven-year-old son, on discovering that his mother quit kabaddi for his sake, asks his father why he could not have looked after a child? Prashant (Jassie Gill) is admired as a supportive husband, but has always taken for granted that his wife Jaya (Kangana Ranaut) will cook, keep house and care for the son Adi (Yagya Bhasin), who has low immunity problems. Funnily enough, the biggest crisis that arises in Jaya’s absence, is that Prashant cannot cook; as if to say a woman’s biggest role in the family is to feed the men, and once a solution to that is found, she is free to fly! (It never occurs to Prashant to hire help?)
Jaya gave up playing kabaddi when Adi was born prematurely and needed extra care. Seven years after the end of her glory days, she works as a ticket seller at Bhopal station, and has an unvarying routine, till her former teammate and friend Meenu (Richa Chada) arrives to coach girls in her city. Jaya looks on wistfully as the girls practice, aware that at 32, she is out of the game forever.
But her son throws Serena Williams at her, and sees to it that she gets out and trains. Prashant tells Jaya to pretend to make a comeback to please the son, but when there is an opportunity to actually return to the game, she cannot let it go.
Panga is pleasant enough while it captures Jaya’s ordinary but non-abrasive family life in Bhopal. But it lacks any real drama or conflict, and surrounds Jaya with a cast of encouraging angels—husband, kid, neighbour, mother (Neena Gupta), friends, colleagues, roommate (Megha Burman), the sports establishment (there is only one meanie, the team’s captain). There are no difficult in-laws, Prashant does not guilt trip her when she needs to move to another city. The choice between pursuing a career or saving her marriage is never forced on Jaya, like it would be on many middle-class Indian women. (Hark back to Jabbar Patel’s 1982 film Subah, in which the woman had to choose, and did.)
Despite the director’s leg-up for female empowerment, and several little perceptive moments, Panga is rather bland, and, quite frankly, kabaddi is not a very exciting spectator sport, so the endless matches are tedious to watch. Kangana Ranaut is in turn earnest and fiery as required by the script, but Jassie Gill excels in the more complex part, Richa Chadha gets the best lines, and Yagya Bhasin as a wise and incipient feminist steals the show.