Director: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari
Panga, which is titled after the Hindi word for seeking out a confrontation, opens with a scene that – if this were real life and not a film – might have led to exactly that. In the middle of the night a woman kicks her husband repeatedly in her sleep. Her good-natured mister makes a throwaway joke the next morning, and quietly tucks a hot-water bag under his bum at the breakfast table. No arguments, no confrontation. He understands that his wife may have given up kabaddi, but kabaddi isn’t quite out of her system.
On the surface Panga is the inspiring story of a woman who returns to the sport she abandoned in exchange for domestic bliss. You only have to look closer to recognise that it’s actually a charming, feel-good film about unconditional love and the true meaning of family.
Directed by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, this thoughtful film asks us to celebrate not only those resilient women who refuse to be restricted by marriage and motherhood in the pursuit of their dreams, but also the supportive husbands and children that are the wind beneath their wings.
32-year-old Jaya Nigam once a national level athlete, seems content with an adoring husband, a cheeky but affectionate son, and a job as a ticket clerk at Bhopal Railway Station. Aside from the nightly ‘kicking’ ritual, and the occasional nostalgia, kabaddi seems firmly in her past as she commits her energies to home and hearth.
Kangana Ranaut is extraordinary as Jaya. There isn’t one false note in her beautiful, lived-in portrayal of a selfless wife and mother. She loves her family more than anything, but knowing that she could have achieved more haunts her ever so often, and Kangana conveys that feeling astutely, mostly without words. When Jaya’s seven-year-old son Adi learns about the sacrifice she made for their family he recruits his father’s help in convincing her to attempt a comeback. Overcoming her initial reluctance Jaya throws herself into the challenge.
Above everything else the writing in Panga is powered by humour and positivity. This is an endlessly optimistic film with generally kind-spirited characters that enable and empower Jaya to pursue her goal and to realise her potential. Her greatest cheerleader is her husband Prashant, played by an impossibly charming Jassie Gill, who encourages her to fly, steps up to shoulder her domestic duties, and does it all with a smile. Prashant is the partner every Indian woman dreams of, and the partner every Indian man will be measured against henceforth.
Her other allies include her precious son Adi, played by Yagya Bhasin, who gets some of the best lines and walks away with every scene that he’s in. Richa Chadha is terrific as Jaya’s best friend and old teammate Meenu whose droll humour and tough love yields some of the film’s funniest moments. A scene in which she draws parallels between specific kabaddi moves and responding to a marriage proposal had me in splits.
A word also for the lovely Neena Gupta who, in only a handful of scenes, makes her presence count. I had a lump in my throat watching the scene in which she asks Jaya to make sure she mentions her in interviews.
Director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, who has co-written the film with Nikhil Mehrotra and Nitesh Tiwari, creates an entirely believable world – from the rhythms of life in a small town, to the flesh-and-blood characters playing the tiniest roles. Even in its cheery optimism, and the entirely predictable arc of its sports portions, Panga seldom feels contrived. It does feel overlong in its second hour as the screenplay goes through all the usual sporting clichés, rivalries, and underdog tropes. You know exactly how things will pan out.
Having said that, you’re as invested in Jaya’s journey as her family that’s cheering from the stands. This is a result of the mostly smart writing, and a winning performance from the film’s leading lady. Kangana imbues Jaya with both vulnerability and determination. She conveys the guilt that mothers frequently feel over nursing a personal dream, but she also drives home the message that it’s 2020 and we can’t still be debating whether marriage and motherhood must signal a full stop to a woman’s goals.
The film’s big success is in delivering its message without making a big noise about it. Panga is all about its little moments. It’s a film about love disguised as a sports-movie. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five. It fills you with hope and warmth. We could all do with that in these times.
Rating: 3.5 / 5