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Movie Review: 'Pagglait' Understands the Baffling Paradoxes of Indian Families

This is a film of moments. Moments that highlight the messy nature of grief; that revel in absurdist humour rooted in blatant contradictions.

Charlie Chaplin once said that, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” If Chaplin had attended an Indian funeral, he might have revised his quote. Because Indian joint families, marked by contradictions and absurdities, make even funerals comical. Even in close-ups – especially in close-ups.

Many Indian funerals transcend mere outpourings of sorrow, as the grieving parties also gossip and whine, snap and scheme – and anything else that reinforces the hierarchy of power. The Giris are one such family, the centrepiece of the Netflix release Pagglait, mourning the death of their eldest son, Astik. Trapped amid them is his wife, Sandhya (Sanya Malhotra) who, unable to shed a tear, is bothered by somber (yet hilarious) questions, such as, is it okay to drink Pepsi during the wake?

Sandhya and Astik were married for five months. She didn’t know much about him. They barely spoke. An MA graduate in English literature, Sandhya never fell in love. She didn’t do anything with her degree, either. She was a stay-at-home wife; Astik, a vice-president in a firm, earned more than enough for both of them. But a few days after his death, she discovers a photo of a woman in his closet. Now she’s upset, irritated, confused.

But Pagglait is not just her story – at least not at the start. Filmmaker Umesh Bist depicts the grand Indian family, comprising Astik’s parents, brothers, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandmother and Sandhya’s mother, and a friend, Nazia (Shruti Sharma).

“Nazia… Zaidi,” Tayaji (Raghubir Yadav) tells Astik’s father, Shivendra (Ashutosh Rana). These two words, and the deliberate pause between them, convey everything: It’s both a taunt and a reminder to maintain social order. The Giris segregate utensils for Nazia; a family member takes her out for meals. Tayaji, who reads a book called Atoot Bharat (Unbroken India), orders and berates the younger people of the family, especially Astik’s brother who sneaks a smoke on the terrace – a deviant behaviour during a wake. But Tayaji finds out about it only because he’s indulging in some deviancy himself: drinking alcohol.

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This is a film of moments. Moments that illuminate the families’ hypocrisies and greed, propriety and self-absorption. Moments that highlight the messy nature of grief; that revel in absurdist humour rooted in blatant contradictions. Bist, who has also written the story and dialogues, treats his screenplay as a masticating juicer. He often squeezes and crushes the moments for maximum impact, zooming in so hard that a scene says a thousand words – sometimes more.

Take, for instance, an early scene in the film, where Shivendra’s brother Tarun (Rajesh Tailang) and his family enter the house. Shivendra and Tarun have not spoken for a really long time. Three women stand near the edge of the courtyard, discussing his unemployed son (Nakul Roshan Sahdev). His restless daughter, Aditi (Ashlesha Thakur), wearing air pods, asks for the “washroom”. Shivendra directs her to a tin door guarding an “Indian style” toilet. She opens the door, but it’s locked. As the argument between Shivendra, Tarun and Tayaji escalates, Aditi continues banging the door with increasing intensity. We also get shots of women reacting to the quarrel. This scene runs for a little more than two minutes, but it tells three parallel stories – familial discord, class difference, petty condescension – using credible humour and drama.

Such sharp direction constantly informs the film. Revolving around the tehravi rituals – spanning 13 days of mourning – Pagglait doesn’t have the kind of conflicts that produce a racy plot. And yet the characters and their situations, aided by some excellent attention to detail, consistently manage to intrigue. When Sandhya meets Akanksha (Sayani Gupta), Astik’s affluent colleague and flame, at an upscale café, she’s visibly impressed by the place. Akanksha orders a cappuccino for herself. When the waiter asks Sandhya for her order, she says, “Same.” It’s a subtle way of depicting the power difference between the two women who once shared the “same” man.

The casting (by Anmol Ahuja) is as precise. A major part of the film pivots on a large ensemble, and most of them – including Malhotra, Yadav, Rana, Tailang, Sharma, Thakur, Sheeba Chaddha, Aasif Khan (and several others) – portray layered characters marked by fine shifts. These people often act in ways that contradict their perceived personas.

Shivendra, for example, may look more callous than Tarun, but unlike his brother, he follows a solid moral code. Almost everyone in this film is trying to fulfil their agendas, and the actors bring out their brute vanities in life-like ways. The editing (by Prerna Saigal) is always attuned to the film’s core, balancing a mélange of tones with poise. Sometimes, she slips in deft match cuts making a larger point. The scene of Sandhya and Nazia secretly enjoying golgappas are intercut with the mourning rituals. When the priest tells Astik’s brother to put his “hand forward”, it cuts to Sandhya picking a golgappa, smartly conveying ‘transgression’ trumping tradition.

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Which is why it’s difficult to process the film’s climax, for it transforms Pagglait from a film of moments to a film of statements. Its last 10 minutes are so rushed and abrupt, so fixated on echoing a progressive message, that they seem a product of a different filmmaking mind. It becomes explanatory, repetitive, predictable, diluting its own might – something that came from a literary eye for detail and admirable restraint. And yet, the rest of the film is so controlled and confident that the sloppy climax doesn’t blot its abiding power. Pagglait understands the baffling paradoxes of Indian families, where death can be more revealing than life.