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'Pagglait' review: Mourning and moving on

Umesh Bist's film, starring Sanya Malhotra as a recently widowed wife, subverts the notion of a mourning woman

Sanya Malhotra and (right) Shruti Sharma in 'Pagglait'
Sanya Malhotra and (right) Shruti Sharma in 'Pagglait'

The doorbell to this house is the tune of Ooh la la la from the movie The Dirty Picture. This would be funny (and maybe annoying for the residents if the doorbell rang multiple times in a day) at any other time, but not when the house is in mourning.

This Lucknow household is grieving the loss of a young man—a grandson, son, brother, nephew and husband. Astik had hardly been married five months when he died, leaving behind his widow, Sandhya (Sanya Malhotra). Even as people weep and dutifully follow the rituals over the 13 days, Sandhya is shown to be stoic, unable to follow decorum and surprisingly unmoved.

Five months is not long enough to be intimately acquainted with your husband through an arranged marriage. Sandhya, for example, does not even know Astik’s favourite colour. By all accounts, he was a responsible son, a good person, but one who also had some skeletons in his ridiculously neat cupboard. One drops out of a file. It’s a photograph of an attractive woman who becomes Sandhya’s conduit for getting to know her dead husband.

Gingerly tiptoeing around Sandhya are her conservative in-laws, parents, brother-in-law and other family members. Even as they worry about her, Sandhya is keeping tally of the number of condolence messages on Facebook. She confides in her friend Nazia (Shruti Sharma) that she’s constantly hungry and that she felt more pain when her pet cat died. She wants a cola rather than tea. Post traumatic stress disorder, suggests an Anglicized uncle.

In contrast, Astik’s parents—played tenderly by Sheeba Chaddha and Ashutosh Rana—are navigating the absolute grief of the death of their first-born while tolerating every relative’s unsolicited advice. Alongside, some teenagers are flirting with each other, a neighbour is wooing Sandhya’s friend Nazia, whose presence is exposing Astik’s uncle’s (Raghubir Yadav) deep-rooted prejudices. Aunts are gossiping; uncles are drinking.

Writer-director Umesh Bist takes this setting and the idea of second chances, rebirth and subverts the notion of the mourning woman incapable of taking charge of her future. Her grief is not to script: she bypasses the first two stages of grief and begins her process at stage three. Her coming to wisdom is looked upon as a kind of madness, pagglait. The bookending of her catharsis within 13 days of ritualistic mourning is an uncomplicated screenplay device.

As the parents who are trying to hold together a house full of relatives, a dwindling bank balance and a delicate relationship with a daughter-in-law they barely know and the profound pain of losing a child, Rana and Chaddha are the emotional soul of Pagglait.

Malhotra steadily travels Sandhya’s journey and studiously conveys her emotional ambivalence. By showing her as betrayed and bereft, the filmmaker pushes the audience towards sympathy for Sandhya, but investing in her attitude is not an easy ask.

There are undeniable similarities between the set up, location, timeline and family structure of the other death-in-the-family film Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi (2021). The difference is that Bist focuses on a young woman whose husband was a stranger in life, and who she is coming to know only after his death.

Pagglait is on Netflix

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