THERE ARE FEW films in Indian cinema that make you think about yourself; your choices, your morality, your sense of identity and your overall approach towards life and relationships. These films compel you to look within, and answer some simple, relevant and even uncomfortable questions. The question in Thappad, Anubhav Sinha’s latest film, is about how an act of insolence gets normalised. Is it okay for a husband to slap his wife, the film asks. Obviously, it is not. Why then has this act not been condemned in Indian families for generations? The slap in Sinha’s film is of course symbolic of countless other undercurrents in a man-woman relationship in a traditional patriarchal setup. In India, in many cases the woman cows down to oppressions and loses herself in the process. Thappad is about those choices. It’s about how a woman so often discriminates against herself, and how a man behaves as though he’s entitled to act a certain way.
“When someone slaps you, it’s an act of power. It’s a show of hierarchy in that moment, in that relationship. And if there’s hierarchy, the relationship cannot be equal,” says Sinha who is busy responding to the numerous congratulatory messages that he’s received since his film hit theatres. Thappad brings to light an issue that is often considered too insignificant to mull over. “How many women around us would take a stand on something like this? Probably none,” he says. “Thappad is a story of that parallel world, where someone decides to take a stand. She decides that respect is bigger than a relationship,” he adds.
When Sinha and co-writer Mrunmayee Lagoo were conceptualising this film, for many it seemed too small and non-dramatic to explore, even as a subject. After all, Hindi films for decades have advocated the thappad. A slap is more often than not used merely as a dramatic motif.
“In real life, we deal with these moments in our silences. It remains under the surface and eventually we become bitter,” says Sinha who has a knack for looking at relationships and issues with an artist’s probing eye. The film examines a particular conflict from the perspective of a rebellious house-help, a resolute housewife, a traditional mother, an honest doting father, an ignorant husband, an empathetic single mother, a silent mother-in-law, an empowered woman’s rights activist and a loving brother. It builds a scenario that is so relatable, that you feel the cracks in the relationships on screen and it might force you to examine your own relationships as well.
Sinha is a filmmaker who portrays the truth without alienating his audience. While he has been making films for close to three decades, his movies in the last few years have set him apart. With Mulk (2018), Article 15 (2019) and now Thappad, he has created cinema about real conflicts. Within the larger issue, be it religion, caste, or relationships, he explores human vulnerabilities, and reminds us of the need for a more balanced, compassionate society. There are no heroes in his film, only humans. He’s never been one to stick to a genre, but he confesses to have finally found a voice as a filmmaker. “The first time I saw and felt discrimination between a girl and a boy was in my own house. I have two sisters and a hundred cousins and every time there was a wedding in the family, I saw the boys in the house were served first by the girls. My mother was a lot more patriarchal than my father was and she had forgotten to live her life in the process. She was living for her husband and children. I saw all of this but I also went with it, because it was also convenient for me. Half of patriarchy is for convenience. Nobody questions it. What a film can do is it can just place it before you, in your face. If you are a person who doesn’t want to change you will just look at it and go on. If not, you will address it and make amends,” he says.
AN ENGINEERING graduate who gave up an offer to join the Air Force for films, Sinha often saw himself as a misfit among the cinema aspirants he often hung out with in his early years in Mumbai. Filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap, Sudhir Mishra, Tigmanshu Dhulia were his confidants in those days and they’d get together and discuss everything from art to politics. “Everyone I hung out with had something to do with literature, art or theatre. I was the only one who had quit a mechanical engineering job and was in Mumbai trying to do this. I had opinions even then, but I wasn’t known for them. Maybe I was still finding myself. My initial (television) work like Sea Hawks (1997), Shikast (1993) and even my first film Tum Bin (2001) are more honest, but then it became about the business. Bigger films, bigger status and all of that. That guided my trajectory until I figured that I did not exist in my own films. I wasn’t there in my own work. I couldn’t hear myself,” he says.
Thappad is a story where someone takes a stand. The protagonist decides that respect is bigger than a relationship, says Anubhav Sinha
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He made a slew of action-dramas like Dus (2005), Cash (2007), Ra.One (2011) but none of these works really broke new ground. They were entertainers that were fun and left no mark. “I was making the money. All the actors wanted to work with me because I was making ‘cool’ films and they’d get to fly cars and shoot guns. But I knew something wasn’t right and that’s when I thought ‘why am I doing this’. It took me a fair amount of time to figure why we make films, but I did,” he says.
Sinha took a few steps back, started practicing Tai Chi, went back to books and answered questions that he believed he had buried. Seven years after Ra.One (a film that didn’t do too well), Sinha emerged with Mulk. “I was scared of criticism, I was hiding from so many people including myself. But I changed that with Mulk. Now my script goes to 20 people to read. My first cut gets ready, it’s an open house. I listen to them, I consider it and then I do whatever I have to. I am not obsessed with my own judgement anymore. I have found a good balance with that,” he says.
Mulk spoke about religious prejudices and subtly communicated our own biases to us. It was an honest and bold film, and earned accolades for its remarkably realistic and humane portrayal of the Hindu-Muslim conflict in the country. It was the first time Sinha politically expressed himself, and today he’s a vocal critic of the current government. “It saddens me that if Mulk released today, it would be as relevant. If we take away our diversity, what will be left? There’s so much hate, uncertainty, a complete lack of empathy in the environment that I feel paranoid by it. I’m terrified to even imagine what more could go wrong. All I can do is pour all of this into the films I make. Which is why I feel now I will never be able to make a film that says nothing.”
More than showing what’s wrong with the world, Sinha reveals to the audience how we have become slaves of a mindset. With Article 15—a film that reminds us of an article in the Constitution that prohibits anyone from being discriminated on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth—he did exactly that. The protagonist in Article 15 finds himself at a loss when he tries to catch those responsible for the murder and rape of two girls from a lower-caste community. “I honestly don’t think films can change society at large. And I am nobody to instigate change. I am a filmmaker, not a changemaker. But I do think films can transform one individual at a time. When you watch something and start looking within, that is change. We have so much communalism ingrained inside of us, we don’t even realise that we are discriminating. It could be something as small as not drinking tea from the same cup as your house-help. It starts that small, and it starts in our own homes.”
Today, he knows he won’t make a film without hope. He says this not out of arrogance, but from a place of finding oneself after being lost for a long time. “Today I am more peaceful. I find it empowering to see people react, cry, laugh to a scene that I’ve written. As a filmmaker, you can make someone sit in a room for two hours, switch off the lights and let them experience something beautiful. If I’m not able to make that happen, I won’t make the film.”