One Thappad is bad enough, the film keeps trying to remind us, yet it seems as though the filmmaker has worked very hard on creating the perfect – and impossible – victim that we could believe this for.
Amrita (Taapsee Pannu) is ever the good wife – buying groceries for the family even as she decides to leave the house, rushing back home to take care of her mother-in-law because the husband – while indispensable at work – is somehow incompetent when it comes to checking blood sugar levels or opening packaged items in the kitchen, obediently informing the husband of the pregnancy – the child, after all, has been seeded by him – and insisting on joint custody despite being threatened with having her child taken away from her by her husband, declaring that she wouldn’t “fight dirty” despite the false allegations levelled against her because doing so would be “wrong” and she must abide by the right path.
It is interesting to note what falls within the ambit of the right path for the film. Amrita must be amiable. She must be polite and bear the affront with a quiet dignified silence. Her responses must be measured, she’s allowed to want to leave her husband so long as her demeanour remains appropriately respectful (her husband, of course, is allowed multiple bursts of anger and aggression) and so long as she is reasonable in her demands (she must have the child, of course, and she must agree to joint custody – anything else is unthinkable, not in keeping with the behavioural standards expected of a good woman, and therefore undefendable).
A good woman is at most allowed to be upset, but never angry because god forbid a woman actually have emotions or be a complex person. Anything less than a deified flawless woman and we can’t see a reason to muster any respect for her.
We already live in a world where women are constantly negotiating the boundaries of propriety in order to be able to call out the injustice meted out to them. The film, by adding yet another narrative of the impossibly good girl that toes the line despite the odds, only adds to the prevailing unfair expectations we have of women.
It’s also interesting to note what the film thinks is playing dirty – it’s slapping the husband with assault and domestic violence charges, factually true, and asking for alimony for the unpaid labour that the wife has done in the house which has contributed to the husband being able to meet his work and life goals. Amrita, and the film, takes the lofty – and rather convenient – view that this labour shouldn’t be accounted for since she chose to do it out of love making an incredibly dangerous and flawed statement regarding the legitimacy of the unpaid labour that women often do at home – labour which keeps the formal economy running.
The film does nothing to challenge patriarchal norms but rather neatly works within them, and that’s one of the reasons for the film’s success. It doesn’t require us to look within and change anything, but it reinforces already held beliefs and, at most, asks for minor readjustments to allow the audience to applaud their ability to learn and revel in their liberal and progressive world-views. We’ve learnt so much. Let’s not slap the good self-sacrificing woman, shall we?
The husband Vikram (Pavail Gulati), on the other hand, has been crafted with seemingly no redeeming qualities. From the get-go he is entitled and dismissive of his wife’s contributions, progressively getting worse through the film, to provide enough reasons for the audience to not sympathise with him. A thappad to the wife, after all, can’t be the only reason we dislike the man.
For all its insistence on the slap being reason enough for Amrita’s decision to leave, the film provides us with a near constant series of bad behaviour on Vikram’s part just in case the slap didn’t quite cut it for us. Amrita acknowledges this in as many words when she finally tells him “if I’d seen this side of you before, I would never have fallen in love with you”.
The film works so hard to create the perfect woman, and therefore the perfect victim, that I’m not sure if it’s trying to tell me that domestic violence is bad or that domestic violence of good, sanskari and affluent women is bad.
This is abundantly clear when Amrita’s story is contrasted with that of the house help Sunita (Geetika Vidya). It is absurd that a film seemingly attempting to denunciate domestic violence is also seen trivialising it. The violence Sunita faces at home is constantly , and very comfortably, normalised by the film (Amrita laughingly calling her dramatic when she’s describing what seems to be a routine episode of domestic violence at home or the mother-in-law casually remarking that Sunita couldn’t make it to work because her husband beat her particularly severely the previous night as she continues to stir her tea and the son provides a cursory nod before moving on to more important matters such as is it not puja time?), when it is not being used for comic relief (Sunita’s grotesque, and immature, fighting with her mother-in-law or the drunken man stupidly slurring as he takes a swing at her). Given that the film makes no attempt to flesh out Vikram’s character, perhaps it’s foolishly optimistic to expect Sunita’s husband to be anything more than the caricatured poor stupid drunk that routinely beats his wife. Because, of course, that’s how it is in lower-income households. What more is there to show?
Sunita’s story ends with her beating up her husband in return, a most unlikely scenario if Sunita wishes to stay alive. Is the filmmaker saying women aren’t doing enough to stop domestic violence? That the answer that evaded us all was beating up the male partner? It is unclear what epiphanies the filmmaker is attempting to evoke by contrasting these two narratives.
The film neatly divides its characters into good women, bad men and then there’s a section of people from lower income households that it doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with. The father in the film is the token decent feminist man (I dare you to find another decent male character), but it begs the question – where was he when Amrita was being indoctrinated in the ways of womanhood?
The film places an inordinate amount of responsibility on mothers for the normalization of gender roles and domestic violence. Yes, internalised misogyny exists and women are part of the problem, but to treat it as though that were the source of the problem and not a symptom – the result of a patriarchal system – and to place the onus of perpetuating the patriarchy on women whilst simultaneously absolving men of any responsibility (Where was the father during this process? How was the daughter being taught to be subservient and “compromise” by the mother without any interference from, or even knowledge of, on the part of the father? Conveniently, it seems as though the film has taken for granted that raising children is the mother’s responsibility) is to further perpetuate existing inequalities. Treating internalised misogyny as though it exists in a vacuum and placing the blame for gender-based violence on women (in this case, “other” women – the mother/the mother-in-law) is not just ignorant but downright dangerous. Too many of us already believe that mothers ought to be primary caregivers, and are ultimately responsible for all their children’s behaviour – particularly the bad – and the film does no good by adding to that narrative.
The women in the film are also, of course, constantly doing the emotional labour for men (the sister-in-law painstakingly explaining to Amrita’s brother why being slapped by someone can cause an individual pain) and the men get off with the bare minimum work (the brother tearily admitting to his fiance that she deserves better and that she was there for Amrita when he wasn’t) to qualify as good and decent.
The film we need is one that is able to acknowledge that domestic violence, of any kind, is unacceptable irrespective of whether it’s a good woman (or person, really, but I’m going with the binary the film has assumed here) at its receiving end because what we need now is to be able to understand that women, and marginalised communities in general, needn’t adhere to the ideas of those in power of what is acceptable and good in order to command equality and respect. Instead, we have this film.
There are several problems with the film, but its central issue remains that the filmmaker seems unconvinced by what he claims is his premise. What the film seems to truly be saying is this – one slap is bad enough, conditions apply