April 1, 2021 6:20:20 pm
Umesh Bist’s Pagglait — a charming dramedy — opens with an acceptance of death. In a decaying house in Lucknow, teeming with people, the concerns are more urgent: the improper doorbell warrants a replacement, the over-priced mattresses need to be bargained for, sleeping arrangements of guests have to be figured out. More people are awaited. The men sit in the foyer to greet them and the women, when not dispensing duties, stay put to console each other. In a house shrouded with grief, rituals are in full swing. A young boy, all of 27, has passed away and his wife is nowhere in sight. Sandhya (Sanya Malhotra), the young widow is in her room occupying one corner of the bed. From afar her posture can be mistaken for curling like she is readying for a violent fit of crying but, as is soon revealed, she is idly scrolling through her phone reading the many ‘RIP messages’ for her husband. And yawning.
In India, death is not an incident but an event. The traditional narrative of life outlives mortal halt, making space for a prologue of existence. Many believe though bereft of the body, souls continue to survive making the 13 days post the passing — known as tehrvi — a preparation to absolve it of any sin; a learning to let go. The period is designed to remember the dead more intimately, to mourn with the rigour of mourning. Prompting a gathering of people to partake in the rituals, they also make for a fertile narrative ground– opening up ways to examine intricacies of relationships and politics of companionship.
Of late, films like Aise Hee and Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi have used this as the premise to unshackle the one left behind: the widowed wife; they moulded liberation for the protagonists using the crushing blow of loss. Pagglait is rooted in a similar trajectory but the texture of emancipation offered differs.
In both films, the women are married for long. Their husbands are not partners but a repository of their identities– Mrs Sharma (Aise Hee) and Amma (RKT) are markers of identification. The 13 days, allocated to remember the departed through ritualistic ceremonies remind them of themselves for they fear to have lost both. But the space opens up with absence and underlines their peripheral presence in the relationship, bringing in to focus how much they had to shrink to fit into the various roles. Grief then gives them clear-eyed perspectives; loss reminds them who they used to be before they gained the burden of responsibility. Lack of familiarity makes them pursue their unfamiliar selves. Who they become mirrors who they wanted to be. When Amma opens a music school, it is convenient to read it as a homage to her husband’s fondness for it. But the other implication could be that unknown to all, she liked music all along. Loss becomes a route to liberation when one can approximate what was truly lost.
When the 20-something Sandhya loses her husband, she appears cold. Married for five months, she had felt more miserable when her pet had died years ago. She is frequently hungry and mostly unfeeling like she is a spectator and not a participant in the crisis. Her stoicism is linked to numbness rendered by a trauma. But the truth is she hardly knew him. They seldom spoke. His death, an event for the rest, is an incident for her; his absence definitive for his grieving parents is an inconvenience for her. But she stands rooted in a lurch for neither does she know who to grieve for nor does she know who to become. If her husband was a stranger to her, her own self is equally distant. The eldest of three sisters, her marriage was arranged and her expectations from it tempered from the outset. She feels nothing for she does not know if she stood anything to lose.
Even though Bist crafts Pagglait as a tale of self-reckoning, he refrains from using personal loss as a pass to freedom from a possible self-erasing relationship. Instead, he employs it to free her from her own conditioned self which had already outlined a life with no space for herself. In this pursuit, he deftly subverts the trope of the other woman, locating jealousy as a more potent form of aspiration.
The only thing that evokes a reaction from Sandhya is the presence of a photograph of a woman from her husband’s cupboard, hinting at a possible affair. Anticipating fidelity if not love from the marriage, she is enraged. But her reaction is transfigured when she meets her. Akanksha (Sayani Gupta), with her high-paying job, a house of her own, and her ability to love, represents everything Sandhya is not. She literalises the possibilities Sandhya, having grown up sheltered, never considered, convinced they did not exist. In the 13 days, she gradually knows her husband better through Akanksha and inches closer to who she can be.
The ending of Pagglait could be deemed as a narrative escape, a reiteration of a woman being the provider even in her flight to freedom, or an instance of her gaining deliverance only through trading financial freedom. But it also could be the start of her own story and the audacity of her hope to write one. She doesn’t know who she will be. The only certainty is that it will not be who she was. Grief transmutes to joy only when one knows what gives them joy in the first place.
Pagglait is streaming on Netflix
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