There is a certain sense of security a movie theatre lures us into, one very rarely found in dark spaces. Strangely enough, it’s the very darkness in theatres that conjures this sense of safety. Safety from everyday scrutiny. Confined to a seat in the dark, we shed our own social performance to witness a commentary on culture. We direct our senses of reception and perception to the screen.
As much as the darkness deliberates the shutting of sensory distractions, it inadvertently gives us unhindered access to a range of emotions and triggers – heightened at times. In that, we permit ourselves to feel, quite impetuously; tension, joy, sorrow, suspense, agitation, frustration, anger, empathy, pain, grief, love, kindness, relief, fear, amusement, shame, outrage, discomfort, vulnerability, embarrassment, thrill, arousal, delight and catharsis. All of it and more.
Until the lights come back on.
As our eyes adjust to the light, we (re)adjust to the world, and our everyday social performance resumes. As the lights come back on, suddenly bathed in their luminosity, is our frighteningly familiar vulnerability, one we protect from scrutiny — our own and our surroundings’. And as we adjust to the lights, we find ourselves returning to our usual denial and cool stoicism.
The film’s title, Thappad, the Hindi word for slap, points towards domestic violence. In Hindi, the plural of thappad is also thappad. This movie, however, is indeed about a single, resounding slap that sends shock waves so strong that the next two hours are spent calming the turbulence.
One of the strongest narrative devices used in the film is the repetition of Amrita’s (played by Taapsee Pannu) domestic routine as a homemaker. It begins with her climbing into bed, in the arms of her already slumbering husband. She then wakes up to a beeping alarm clock – the sound of which her husband is blissfully ignorant to – picks up the newspaper from the porch, makes herself tea, waters her thriving terrace garden, takes a photograph of the sunrise and savours the quiet moments of solitude.
That is the extent of self indulgence in her routine, which is then thrown into a frenzy of chores for the household. After catering to the mother-in-law’s needs, she goes as far as to switch on the geyser in the bathroom for her husband to bathe. The film uses the depiction of this routine, the tempo of background music and Amrita’s smile as an indication of normalcy and willingness at first, and formidable fatigue post slap. It also places Amrita, like all homemakers, beautifully at the fulcrum of the routine, orchestrating it all whilst staying remarkably invisible – even to herself.
Movies confront truths, this one certainly intended to head on. Thappad set about with a tone of subtle commentary on the lives of most Indian women: unrewarded housework, emotional labour, unrelenting tenderness, quick wit, adjustment of ambitions, and an agreeable smile through it all. The subtlety of tone in the beginning established normalcy, how okay we are with all of it, and more importantly, how okay Amrita was with it – happy even.
The slap in the film is placed very consciously, right in the midst of the household being depicted as liberal; where Amrita, the daughter in law, uninhibitedly dances at a party as her family looks on indulgently. No judgement, censorship and orthodox suppression of the woman – upper class families in India often pride themselves on this.
The slap, or as various characters in the film repeatedly keep calling it, ‘just the slap’, is deafeningly loud, public, emancipating and brazenly unrepentant. It begins to dismantle characters, and through them a culture we are all guilty of nurturing. With the slap begins an unfurling of self realisation and actualisation of the ‘slapee’, and justifications and excuses by the slapper and his patriarchal paraphernalia.
By virtue of simple relentlessness and elegant understanding of what the slap implied, Amrita, over the course of the movie, wins hearts and the divorce. Taking us through an emotional voyage, riding waves of complacency and guilt, we all find an Amrita in us who wants just two things in life – happiness and respect. It distinguishes her husband’s blustering stubbornness from her heartfelt steadfastness. The film is one that resonates with all of us.
Until the lights come back on. The credits start to roll, juxtaposed against a series of aftermaths to the slap. Followed by the husband, who, through tearful apology, conceitedly declares he would win her back, every single man in the movie across ages and degrees of chauvinism, undergoes a transformation. Suddenly, they are all tender, expressive, respectful, humble, gracious, attentive, and have shed generations of patriarchal conditioning, just like that, with just a slap.
The lights in a theatre are the cue for us to exit, walking behind each other, slowly donning our everyday masks and costumes for the world. Some movies are written to ensure this process is easier. Thhappad was one such movie I wish had not done us that kindness.
It wrapped the men inside and outside of the movie in a warm, protective, defensive, embrace, cajoling them back into their former thoughtless and privileged existence. Even a film that set out to be critical of patriarchal societies, ensured that it kept the male ego at its forefront, caressing it, apologising for injuring it and then nursing it. The injury, a simple calling out of male privilege via a woman standing up to be treated with basic dignity and respect. There were no hard hitting dialogues, no cathartic moments, no aggression, no outward pronouncements of injustice, even when an audience ached for them, even when they would have been completely justified.
The movie was written simply, around a simple character, about our simple societies, steeped in a simple, oppressive, archaic, patriarchal culture that simply requires constructive disruption. The film disrupted, gently, and then seduced masculinities back into their guilt free zones, a.k.a everyday existence.
The lights come back on, and with that, the entirety of the film’s labour gets engulfed in darkness. The masculine ego is so fragile, so precious, so indispensable, that the filmmakers would rather undo their own film than inconvenience its existence.
Aastha D. is an architect and essayist currently finding her way to being a full time writer whilst traversing the realms of design and culture.