Rating: 2.75 (out of 5 stars)
She was the captain of the Indian kabaddi team with an international career awaiting her before the birth of a premature baby prompted her to turn her back on the game she loves. Jaya Nigam did not have in-laws pressuring her or a husband bullying her: she simply did what she did because it did not occur to her that there was an option and, as her son later points out, it did not occur to her husband to share her load.
Seven years later, which is when we first meet her, Jaya is running a ticket counter for the Indian Railways in Bhopal, micromanaging her child's life and constantly stressed out. She adores her family and they adore her right back, but a dissatisfaction gnaws at her that she finally confronts during a minor quarrel at home. So begins her journey to return to the country's kabaddi scene.
Kangana Ranaut plays Jaya, a woman like a million others whose professional dreams remain unfulfilled because she did not treat them as a priority. The film does not judge her nor does it particularly advocate the choice she makes: it is what it is and we are simply being told that this is what she did. This non-judgemental but non-idolising view of Jaya is the selling point of Panga.
In Ashwiny Iyer Tiwary's directorial debut, the sleeper hit Nil Battey Sannata, a poor mother goes back to school to spark ambition in her daughter who, till then, had a "well, a housemaid's daughter will obviously grow up to be a housemaid" approach to life. Chanda in that lovely film had to cross several external hurdles and handle her troubled relationship with her child. In Panga, Iyer Tiwary has Jaya battling almost entirely with herself. We are surrounded by women like her: women who are so entrenched in home management that they are convinced their families are incapable of handling the job and their families therefore never give it a shot. Again, Panga neither judges Jaya's attitude nor idolises it - it is what it is and she is who is.
The first half of Panga is thoroughly engaging as it portrays Jaya's blissful domestic existence and quietly simmering discontent in a charming, understated fashion. It is only in the second half that it gradually becomes evident that, heartwarming though the film's positivity is, it also ends up giving us a sanitised view of middle-class India and women's struggles.
Apart from her own choices, there is almost nil conflict in Jaya's life. Her husband is loving and angelic to the point of being near perfect. Her mother is near perfect. Her son may say a couple of hurtful things to his parents but he too is a darling. Her neighbour is ever willing to chip in. Her friend, a professional coach played by Richa Chadha, drops everything at the drop of a hat to move to another city for her. Her colleagues are fond of her. If her boss is hard on her, it is because she is late to work. And she encounters no gender prejudice from men in the personal or professional sphere. None. In fact, so intent is the film on reminding us that family did not stand in Jaya's way, that having made the point convincingly through the narrative in the first half, it gets her to say so in so many words to a TV journalist in the second half, as if in a bid to ensure that conservative audiences got the point.
In fact, the ONLY opposition she faces while working towards her career goals comes from women: her mother's mild admonition is overshadowed by the mean female team captain, and a fleeting glimpse of mothers at her son's school indicates that they are a nasty lot. Men - her coach when she was younger, her husband, the coaches she encounters during her second innings, the son whose goading is responsible for getting her back in sports - are all unequivocally supportive. The thing is, individually each of these characters is believable. Collectively viewed though, the overall niceness scrubs out the reality of women's struggles in a middle-class India steeped as it is in misogyny, sexism and discrimination. And the unstated point that women are the only ones who stand in the way of other women is offensive (though saleable to the masses of course) because it is far removed from the truth - no doubt plenty of women play along with patriarchy, but men helm and benefit from it, so why are we pretending otherwise?
The film's play-it-safe nature is seen in other ways. Like in Sultan before it, when an ambitious woman gets pregnant, the A-word is not even mentioned. I am not suggesting that all ambitious women would consider abortion in such circumstances, but that it is unrealistic to portray a scenario in which not a single person brings up the possibility.
Elsewhere, although Panga appears to be cool around Chadha's character, the ending suggests that the team of this film - like Chhapaak before it - just cannot fathom being single as a possible 'happy ending' for a woman. In this matter it reveals the innate conservatism closeted even in most liberals.
To be honest, it hurts to make these points about Panga, because Iyer Tiwari gives her film a pleasant tone at all times, the rhythm of the narrative never lets up, the ending is gripping and it is a film I liked at many levels. The charismatic Ranaut's sedate performance anchors the narrative and she never wavers even when her character's stress reaches fever pitch. Jassie Gill is wonderful in the role of her husband, making him an Everyman that every woman would perhaps want to marry. The supporting cast is dotted with likeable actors. And the very confident Yagya Bhasin as the lead couple's son never allows his character's maturity to cross a line into precocious acting.
Panga is charming and in the first half very credible, but its charm also camouflages the warts in the world women face every day.