After her husband passes, a young woman finds herself inexplicably out of grief. You can imagine any number of comic scenarios springing from that line. There is, however, one hitch. In a country where loss is sanctified, where death is holy, the jokes can only stretch so far. Even the bravest of films must tiptoe around the topic, or risk brickbats.
Umesh Bist’s Pagglait begins with a grieving family in Lucknow before homing in on its central character. Sandhya (Sanya Malhotra) was only married for five months when her husband, Astik, suddenly died. While her in-laws mourn, we see a bored Sandhya in bed, sleepily thumbing through copy-paste condolence messages on Facebook. She doesn’t shed a tear when her parents arrive for the 13-day wake. “You can’t stay here,” she tells them. “The toilet’s Indian.” It’s clear from the start that Sandhya is unable to share in the gloom. The film is about her realising why.
Like Ram Prasad Ki Tehrvi, Pagglait observes a large middle-class family in the aftermath of a death. Ashutosh Rana is wonderfully brittle as Sandhya’s father-in-law, and there are strong spots for Sheeba Chaddha, Raghubir Yadav, Chetan Sharma and Jameel Khan. The focus, though, always remains on Sandhya. She snaps at her mother for raising her meek and hesitant — “Kuch kami hai hum mein (is something wrong with me)?” she asks in one scene. That her self-confidence is in tatters is made plain with the advances of a suitor. Sandhya, far from shrinking away, feels flattered almost, a feeling she likely never experienced before.
The most resonant arc, likewise, involves an outsider. Sandhya comes across a picture inside Astik’s drawer. The woman, Akansha (Sayani Gupta), turns up at the funeral. She reveals to Sandhya that they had dated for long, but stopped after his marriage. Sandhya is initially keen on details, which pains Akansha to share. But as they meet again and become friends, the film settles into an uplifting mood.
Pagglait is littered with the small inconveniences and jealousies that crop up during a funeral. There are some funny details here: the calling bell that blares an inappropriate tune, a hunt for toothpaste, or a packet of chips. Umesh shows a great economy of words and visuals. Astik, for one, is kept hidden from view — a detail reminiscent of Yasujirō Ozu’s Late Spring, where we never see the man Setsuko Hara is meant to marry.
Elsewhere, though, the dramatic high points are underlined with a song, which tends to soften the blow. Dil Udd Jaa Re and Thode Kam Ajnabee are smartly deployed from Arijit Singh’s expansive soundtrack. The rest don’t mesh as well, especially in a film that could go on just fine.
Another problem, if we are being picky, is the pat emotion scheme Umesh settles for in the end. It’s too clean and predictable, even if Sanya — one of the most understated mainstream actors around — gives it her best. She’s brilliant in an earlier scene, where Sandhya, leaning in a chair, offers to edit Astik’s obituary. She replaces ‘heavy’ with ‘profound’; ‘death’ with ‘demise’; ‘respected’ with ‘beloved’. It shows how versed we are in the language of grief, and how far from its meaning.
Cast: Sanya Malhotra, Shruti Sharma, Sayani Gupta, Ashutosh Rana, Rajesh Tailang
Director: Umesh Bist
Streaming on: Netflix