Starring Taapsee Pannu, Pavail Gulati, Maya Sarao, Geetika Vidya, Kumud Mishra, Ratna Pathak Shah, Tanve Azmi, Naila Grewal

Directed by Anubhav Sinha

Rating: ***** (5 stars)

Let’s face it. Damaged humanism, fractured emotions and flawed relationships are the crux of Great Cinema. If there was no Auschwitz there would be no Schindler’s List. If Madhubala had not died so young would we still think her as being so unattainable? And if Romeo and Juliet had lived happily ever after would Shakespeare’s play have become a timeless classic?

Thappad is a flawless film on a fractured marriage. It is one of the most important Indian films in recent times. Like director Anubhav Sinha’s last two monumental works Mulk and Article 15, Thappad tears at the hypocrisy of the middleclass to show how pathetically short we fall as a collective nation when it comes to basic human rights even within the four walls of private homes.

The issue in Thappad is ostensibly solvable. A well-settled housewife Amrita (Taapsee Pannu, in her best yet) from a upper middleclass Delhi family takes a slap from her husband very personally. The husband, poor guy, is bewildered by what he sees as her over-reaction.

“Ek thappad hi to ttha!” Amrita’s husband Vikram keeps mumbling in rote, driving in the point of how monstrously organically entitled we men in our country have become. Driven by the dearth of reality checks, the rules that regulate and normalize male dominance have become acceptable behaviour in even the more enlightened sections of our creaky social set-up.

Anubhav Sinha has a problem with that. Layer by layer, he peels off the veneer of decency that glues a majority of marriages together, finally putting the men in the plot in a no-win situation. Even the sole seemingly liberal husband, played by the ever-dependable Kumud Mishra, has to sit in wide-eyed astonishment as his wife (Ratna Pathak Shah, slightly over-the-top) reminds him that she sacrificed her singing career for the sake of the family.

Who knows, we lost another Lata Mangeshkar?

In spite of the screenplay’s mischievous tendency to put all the men in the dock (even the lovely Dia Mirza’s husband is made to feel guilty from the grave), Thappad is an unflinchingly hard-hitting look at the lives of diverse women who are allotted portions of dignity as dictated by their spouses. She can be a high-profile high-flying lawyer as played by the imposingly impressive Maya Sarao. Or an economically challenged house-help, played with smashing persuasiveness by Geetika Vidya whose drunken husband slaps her around for drunken entertainment… Each woman in Anubhav Sinha’s scheme of creativity is a masterly study of grace under pressure.

While every actor, male or female , sinks into character with intuitive dedication, special mention must be made of Pavail Gulati as the slapper-husband who brings a great deal of relatable conflict to his part, imbuing his unplanned dirty deed with a kind of strange inevitability. Other male actors who make the best of a thankless job are Kumud Mishra and Ram Kumar who incidentally is the only male without spousal guilt (though I am sure he has a wounded wife somewhere away from this Sinha’s scintillating script’s penetrating gaze).

Make no mistake about it. Thappad belongs to the ladies: Geetika Vidya, Maya Sarao (her husband’s ill-etched role is a minor aberration), Tanve Azmi and above all Taapsee Pannu who brings to her hurt wife’s role a heroic dignity and a distant poignancy that distil themselves in a performance of screaming silences. I dare any other contemporary actress to equal the sheer persuasive power of Taapsee’s performance. Her lengthy monologue with her screen-Saas (Tanve Azmi) where she confesses to why she feels like a failure as woman wife and individual, will be played at awards functions in the nominations show-reel.

The triumph of Thappad is also the triumph of tonal perfection. Soumik Mukerjee’s cinematography as well as Mangesh Dhakde’s background score create a distinct mood for each of the women and their episodic excursion from Victim to Survivor to Hero. The distant banshee of the shehanai in the background serves as a mocking reminder of the marital vows and their subversion in contemporary times.

Thappad can either be seen as a powerful parable of women’s empowerment or a scathing ironic indictment of the way that empowerment is subverted. The writing is so sharp it cuts open our collective perception of what cinema about marital imbalance should be. This is Anubhav Sinha’s third masterpiece in a row, and the best yet. I can’t wait to see where he goes next.