Like all her films, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Panga is laden with humour and reconciliation. But it does get unbearably dark for a moment. A son shouts at his mother. Jaya Nigam (Kangana Ranaut) has missed her son’s annual sports meet, which has gravely upset the 7-year-old. So far, we’ve only known the kid as an incessant motormouth, his jokes precocious but benign. But now, as he sits across his mother that night, his response gets especially pointed. He tells her that she is just a booking clerk, that all she does is ‘cut tickets’. His voice, raised above normal, isn’t of childish resentment — there’s the slightest tinge of violence that rings all too real.
Panga comes alive in moments like this. The film is inspiring and uplifting, but isn’t afraid to tackle hard truths. It’s a sports film building out of the confines of an average Indian home. It unfurls, slowly but surely, the many dictates of family, and what it means to truly ‘support’ someone. Themed around kabaddi, the film offers minimal on-court action. This isn’t a subversion per say: Panga is, as promised by the title, very much a brawl. It’s just that the scuffling happens elsewhere, not against a ticking clock but in the daily grind of ordinary life.
Working with screenwriter Nikhil Mehrohtra, Ashwiny aces the setting of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. Jaya used to be a celebrated national-level kabaddi player. At her peak, she got married and had a child — a perceived setback worsened by the boy’s congenital sickness. She quit sports and turned to mothering, stepping down from the Railway team for a spot on the ticket counter. Years passed and Jaya became a thumbnail on a Whatsapp group. Her dreams persisted though, and it took a casual suggestion from her husband Prashanth (Jassie Gill) for Jaya to attempt a comeback. She begins half-heartedly, just to please her repentant son Adi (Yagya Bhasin). But then the laps begin to add up, the air feels fresh, and Jaya is soon raiding for her lost spark.
The film is a visual treat. Production designer Sandeep Meher meticulously matches sweaters with pillowcases. The cinematography is by Jay Patel, who also worked on Mukkabaaz and Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota. The dominant motif is footwear: bright red Excidos, lots of sneakers, canvas shoes dripping on a clothesline. Has Jaya hung up her boots as well? Not yet. There’s another motif, less apparent, of trains in a workshop. Prashanth is a railway engineer, and all his epiphanies seem to happen in the trainyard, amid the clatter and clank of parts being dismantled or welded back. Later on, we get an actual train scene, a delicate few seconds that toy with the notion of filmy separation.
All through, Ashwiny both upends and follows sports movie convention. Jaya isn’t charged up until she’s insulted by a younger player. Though she makes it to the Indian team, she’s indefinitely put on the bench, a diplomatic decision meant to cash in on the media frenzy around a 32-year-old mother returning to court. The focus, though, remains on the family: Jaya berating Adi over the phone, Prashanth spooning oil out of a takeout dinner. “I’m a selfish mother,” Jaya tells her best friend Meenu (Richa Chadha), who immediately deflates her guilt with a tease.
Richa is a riot, gamely adopting the role of a wry mentor and mixing it up with Pankaj Tripathi-ish offhand humour. Neena Gupta gets a delightful turn as Jaya’s mother. Kangana, clearly up for a challenge, sets aside her screen-grabbing exuberance for flashes of stirring doubt. Like most sports films, Panga saddles her with a hero’s arc, culminating in a satisfying third act. Yet, her best bit comes around midway, when she breaks down in her kitchen, a frayed green shawl wrapped around her being. A stalwart reduced to sniffles, striving to be rebuilt.
Director: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari
Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Jassi Gill, Richa Chadha, Neena Gupta, Yagna Bhasin