A great moment in Umesh Bist’s Pagglait has the protagonist enjoying golgappas in slow motion intercut with her in-laws preparing to scatter her recently deceased husband’s ashes in the Ganga. Why is Sandhya (Sanya Malhotra) enjoying while the rest of her family is grieving? The answer becomes slowly apparent as Sandhya ceases to be a confusing enigma and becomes a sensitive portrayal of a lost woman searching for herself. It’s a pity that the rest of the movie fails to embody her soul and is instead a comedy of manners out of sync with the film’s core concern.
The Netflix Hindi film, set in the sort of small town ubiquitous in contemporary Bollywood dramedies, follows Sandhya’s transformational journey after the death of her husband Astik. It spans the 13 days of mourning by Astik’s family as per Hindu rites. During these two weeks, Sandhya figures what had been wrong with her life all along and makes a dash for freedom in the final reel.
What seems like a superb character arc on paper is, however, unable to power the entire movie, because Bist feels compelled to accommodate his huge ensemble cast which plays Sandhya’s gaggle of in-laws. Their insensitive machinations, demonstrated through unfunny dialogue, turn the film facetious whenever Sandhya’s angst seems to take off and drive Pagglait in promising directions.
Sandhya is a complicated cookie. Despite having an MA degree in English literature, Sandhya chose to skip career or plans for further studies, and got married to Astik, abiding by her parents’ wishes. Theirs was a loveless marriage. Sandhya, growing up in a conservative, insular town, had never experienced love before. And living with Astik and his parents, she went through the motions in a comatose state.
Astik, on his part, never expressed love. But when Sandhya discovers that Astik used to be a closet romantic, something snaps in her. She initially appeared unfazed about his death. But it is this revelation that breaks her. The song that kicks in goes, “Lamha yoon dukhta kyun (Why does this moment hurt so much?)”, and for the longest time, the film doesn’t explain why. Later, Sandhya delivers one of the film’s saddest lines. She meets Astik’s college sweetheart and tells her, “I always felt, perhaps, Astik also did not understand how to love, just like me, but having met you, I realise what a romantic he was.”
Sandhya slowly understands that she had been living a lie all her life. This realisation drives her to rediscover herself, which manifests in the form of her leaving for a job interview in a different city.
Pagglait, meaning crazy, turns out to be a title the film never gets to earn. Sandhya’s turmoil is severely internal. But the title, and the screenplay, frequently reminds us that she is being weird. While most of her family pretends to mourn, she wolfs down chips and cold drinks, and the sugar rush keeps her going in her quest to understand who exactly her opaque husband was. Surely, discovering that her husband, whom she had assumed to be a robot during their five-month marriage, was actually capable of love is reason enough to make her start questioning her foundations and assumptions.
Pagglait, meaning crazy, turns out to be a title the film never gets to earn.
The real pagglait are her in-laws, who conspire to swindle her out of the lump sum amount she gets through her late husband’s insurance policy. Equally insane is her mother who is neck deep in superstitious mumbo-jumbo.
In contrast, Sandhya’s attitude of being lost in a daze is understandable for someone who cannot quite comprehend the need to mourn after the death of her husband, a man she barely knew and understood. While the heroine quietly grapples with an existential funk, the surrounding characters seem to be trapped in Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah. This conflict of tone makes Pagglait a much lesser film than what it could have been had Bist abandoned all these caricatures and just followed Sandhya’s off-kilter journey.
Among the film’s nice touches is a blue pallor clinging to the frames right from the opening credits. An hour into the film, Sandhya, and the audience, get to know that Astik’s favourite colour was blue. Astik is never seen, but he is constantly felt. By the end of the film, he comes across as a saint. Definitely, if Astik had been shown, there was a chance this spell could have been broken.
What also helps is the superb background score by Arijit Singh. A mournful drone of synths, with a pensive flute on top, helps lift several mediocre scenes featuring Sandhya’s family on both sides. Only Astik’s parents, played superbly by Ashutosh Rana and Sheeba Chaddha, appear to be actually grieving. Their tears indeed make it seem like a tragedy is ongoing. The baggage of a home loan the screenplay saddles them with feels like a legitimate problem. The rest simply drag the film down.
Pagglait could have been a genuinely sombre, emotional, and sensitive movie, that did justice to the fantastic lead performance by Sanya Malhotra. Hers is a soft face, with tense eyes, which suggest brimming tension. Malhotra consistently uses this to great effect. It’s a pity that this character and this performance finds this film to be in.