Widowed soon after her marriage, the protagonist of Pagglait, Sandhya (Sanya Malhotra) struggles to comprehend the loss of her husband of barely five months. The film starts out with Sandhya finding it difficult to reconcile with her loss and her own response to it, or it’s lack thereof. Against the background of mournful mothers — whose tears intruded into Sandhya’s dissonance — the improperness of her reticence shone bright! The tragic comedy of the absurdities of rituals of mourning notwithstanding, Sandhya’s composure revolted against the aphoristic account of tears as a necessary companion to grief. The film unravels the process of grief, as an open-ended closure — tracing it from the initial shock of denial, to the work of melancholic attachment to release from mourning.
Amidst the flurry of messages that poured into social media to express condolences, Sandhya was busy accounting for the number of likes as anyone would except on the occasion of the death of their husband. She nonchalantly lay on the bed, yawning away through a series of disingenuously “copy-pasted” RIP messages. At the outset it may appear that Pagglait presents to us in Sandhya, an unruly character, who unapologetically embodies a refusal to comply with the normative constructs of grief and rejects conforming to rituals of mourning. This unruliness necessarily contributes to the discomfort of the family — which finds the negation of widowhood-womanhood as dangerous. However, a closer look at Pagglait shows that Sandhya’s character touches upon something more existential and internally conflictual about the very formation of subject-hood.
Casually scrolling through RIP messages, as she tosses over, the tears simply refuse to fall, as if her whirlpool of emotions had dissolved into an ineffectuality. She was acutely aware of her lackadaisical response to her husband’s death. The possibility of making memories with Astik (her late husband) had been irrevocably interrupted by death. His absent presence loomed over the house, where the family believed that only on the 13th day — from the day of the death — does the soul take flight for heaven. The faceless absence of Astik hauntingly stings Sandhya, who feels betrayed by his sudden and untimely departure.
She could not evade the impactive scrutiny of her strange behaviour by family members, who at best thought her imperviousness to the loss to be caused by shock that had impaired her ability to adequately respond to death. “PTSD,” pathologized; said one relative! A “proper” response to death was being solicited of her and she was failing to deliver it.
Recompensing herself for a defeat of her own, she found herself married to a cheerful stoicism in the face of an existential betrayal. Left astounded by her own inability to discern her own emotions; she confesses to her friend Nazia that she had more acutely felt loss when her cat had died.
As Pagglait progresses, the audience is made aware of the lack of intimacy that animated Sandhya and Astik’s marriage. Sandhya had done her MA in English but her post-marriage life revolved around the scarcely loved world that her husband had created for her. She deployed her knowledge to educate her brother-in-law, as a marker of a compensatory flourish. Astik did not speak to Sandhya much; now, even the potential of mending relations with him stood permanently suspended. All that she was left with were memories and experiences that had never been actualised in his lifetime. The incompleteness of their marriage was forever lost to a non-existent potential of consummation. An enormous weight of unfulfilled desires animated her regime of grief.
The monstrosity of her inner void begins to distract her from the progressive disintegration of her lifeworld. She is hyper-aware of the inappropriateness of her bearings but is unable to confront the loss of all her own moorings. She experiences loss as a profound emptiness, which fails to find representation in language or expression. Instead, Sandhya finds herself craving Gol Gappas and Pepsi.
Her transgression of slipping out of her house to have Gol Gappas was visually intercut with scenes from the over-the-top rituals of last rites being performed on the Ghaat by her brother-in-law in Pagglait. In a distorted way, her failure to grieve becomes her expression of grief. She lifelessly indulges in consuming spurious substitutes that were available to her, as a source of potential excitation. This provided her a means of recovering from the initial shock and the damning lull in the house from Astik’s definitive absence. Although she tries; she could not simply swift past this unwelcome situation by failing to register that he had disappeared from his life, completely.
In Pursuit of Lost Desire
Without a visible sign of grimace, she torments herself by perceiving the ‘strangeness’ of her own situation from the outside. She is gripped by a paranoiac fixation with the loss of coordinates of her reality. All throughout, Sandhya is consumed by anxiety, an anxiety that is both greater than and irreducible to her incapacity to grieve and/or feel jealous.
Overwhelmed by the sudden flatness of her world, a vague antipathy and contempt towards her husband starts to develop in her. There were no memories to remember her late husband from: No flashbacks, no old conversations, nothing to make her retrace his movement to reverse the process of him going away. Beating herself over how little she knew of Astik, she begins to realise she had known, not much at all!
As the entire household indulged in the rituals of mourning, Sandhya, in her anger and desperation, is unsparingly resolute in her decision to withhold her forgiveness. The accident of death fell upon her before the accident of love could, she felt the urge to be combative with her lost partner.
Yearning for an apology, she spunkily refused Astik forgiveness. She playfully condemns her late husband’s soul, “Tanga rahega ulta ped mein!” (Let him hang by the tree!) Zizek would identify Sandhya’s disposition in Pagglait to be reflective of a quintessential melancholic, whose mistake does not lie in her assertion of “resistance of the symbolic sublation but rather to locate this resistance in a positively existing, although lost, object.” (Zizek 2000: 659)
In Pagglait, drawn by the incapacity to mourn her partner’s death, Sandhya wanted to hold him responsible for her lack of grief; resulting from his own misgivings. She actually holds Astik responsible for all her woes and refuses to let go of him. She continued to hold onto Astik by refusing to release him from the relation, which was ridden with incomplete gestures — lack of conversation, sexual frustration, abstinence of love. These partial gestures produced an irritation that defeated grief’s agony. Stemming from emotional distress of “not knowing” one’s partner, she found it difficult to leap over her misery.
The overwhelming presence of desire but the absence of its expression had burdened her capacity to truly grieve and even, experience love. It is only when her desire is displaced and gets manifested in other couples, that she is able to recognise her attachment with her late husband was indeed a melancholic one. Her subjective excess coincides with the objective lack of libidinal engagement between them. Along with him, went all the memories that they could have made together and his eventual departure conveyed to her, a sense of her failure at being able to smoothen the strain that kept him physically and emotionally distant. Unable to reckon with her own loss of self, from time to time, she broke into expressions of irony, scowl and sarcasm.
‘Normal’ heterosexuality is painfully constructed and to be disoriented from within it by death, entails a struggle to re-appropriate life. Springing back up from her careless repose was not going to be an easy task.
Sandhya then preoccupied herself with the “other woman” in the life of her husband to deflect her attention from a growing pull of ‘madness’ which was splitting her away from the delicate stability of imbalance of madness that crafts normality. Unable to grieve the loss of her husband, she was rather unconsciously performing the burial of her own dreams that died with him, surcharged with the fear of staleness of her youthful eagerness to love. She feared his death would also lead to a death of her desire and social life.
She therefore, redoubles the deception of not knowing what her husband was upto all the while that he did not bother to care about her through the course of their marriage, this fantasy support — of his apparent extra-marital affair — then lends the cushion for acceptance. It allows her to reconcile the “nothing” in her with something. The “nothing” in her is the void itself which terrifies the spirit. (Zizek 2013: 45)
It is in this paradoxically painful turmoil of excessive jouissance that she encounters pleasure – by filling his absent memories with Akanksha’s. It is her subjective excess, the act of reading into Astik’s love life with Akanksha — which renews her desire to live.
Re-writing Non-Existent Memories
Caught between a taste for moribund longing and a radical confusion; it is not until she finds the photo of Akanksha in her late husband’s cupboard that she begins to feel ‘something’ in relation to his death. Akanksha’s presence becomes a fertile ground for reconstruction of an impossible ideal — a past that she could not possess. It is by accident that Sandhya stumbles upon a photo of Akanksha (his ex-lover) while gleaning through Astik’s office files. Yet, one can say that Akanksha’s photo finds Sandhya at an opportune time. She starts looping on Akanksha’s relationship with Astik.
Akanksha and Astik held onto their shared memories of love, while abstaining from further contact post his marriage. Sandhya finds herself as an intimate stranger to her husband against the figure of his former lover, Akanksha who could resolve the mystery of the failure of Sandhya’s marriage. Akanksha was to Sandhya the missing piece in the puzzle, the obstruction that disabled their communion.
In Pagglait, in order for her to be able to mourn him, she needed to relive his life through the voice of another, Akanksha as if it was her own. It is here where the beginning of her melancholic desire can be traced. Freud’s idea of a melancholic is that they “know whom (s/)he has lost but not what (s/)he has lost in him.” (Freud 1917). In order to be able to grieve his death; Sandhya had to exalt Astik to an idealised impossible essence of her desire.
To fuel her own desire to desire again, Sandhya would rather imagine her husband cheating than accept the truth of their love-less marriage. She had to stage her loss in order for her to apprehend what she had lost and found. When she has found what she has lost, she would be able to grieve it. She finds herself actively pursuing Akanksha, scavenging for details about her relationship with Astik. Eventually, Sandhya demands a retelling and recounting of the memories that Akanksha Roy shared with her late partner, Astik. Sandhya plunges into the pleasure of reminiscing the days that never existed for herself by voyeuristically reliving Akanksha and Astik’s love life. She starts visiting his office, goes to places that the two visited on dates. Sandhya embodies Astik’s relationship with Akanksha.
Through Akanksha, Sandhya begins to reconstruct a past instead of merely reliving it. She was rather rendering Akanksha’s past as an equivalent for what she had wanted from her own relationship. All she had were memories of him and Akanksha to vicariously experience to compensate for her own lack of memories. As Akanksha relives her memories, Sandhya rewrites hers.
From hereon, even the faintest sight of love was met by her with a hearty amusement. It was as if Sandhya was cradling herself back to being open to the titillations of the world. Loving herself in third person, she was able to experience the tranquility of pleasure. Even the mere sighting of couples stimulated her jaded nerves. Blushing at the beauty of perceiving love around her, her meeting with Akanksha had aroused in her a new curiosity and passion for the world.
Ontological Tension In Pagglait: Between Void and Meaning, Madness and Normalcy
One day Sandhya finds herself casting aspersions on Akanksha, wrongly accusing her of sleeping with her husband through the course of her marriage — a claim Akanksha vehemently refutes. Sandhya enters the domain of the forbidden/impossible jouissance; where the relationship between Astik and Akanksha has been elevated to a level of an impossible lost Thing which she could never have. If it wasn’t for Akanksha, why did Astik condemn her to the cruelty of his death? Guided by a search for a rhetorical question, “What does Astik want from me now that he has left me alone?” Sandhya forcefully breaks ties with Akanksha.
This confrontation was necessary for her to separate her renewed zeal for the world from the repressed memories of Astik, that Akanksha enabled her to access. It is in that moment that she verbalised the lack of sexual engagement in her own marriage and was able to get that weight off of her chest. Sandhya finally breaks from her fetishistic attachment with Akanksha and is finally overcome by grief. Next day, she pronounces Astik guilt-less and announces to her friend that she forgave him. She finally melts into tears on the 13th day, when Astik’s remains were to be removed from the house as a metaphor for dissolution of the soul into air. It is here that she begins to see things for what they are.
She was not only guarding herself from facing the truth of his death but was trying to protect their non-existent intimacy from degenerating into absolute nothing. The fact that her love ran its course and she had nothing to hold onto, created in her a mutual feeling of abandonment. In her attempt at regaining the lost innocence of her first and inhibited marriage which failed to translate into love, she held her lost husband tied to task of redemption — of redeeming her afterlife from the lasting shadow of his death. By rewriting her memories with Akanksha’s, Sandhya is able to achieve a new equilibrium within a given relation to the real, thus transforming the fantasised relation into a real one. (Lacan 1975: 14)
The moment she allowed herself to exhaust her desire for Astik by encircling around the fantasy of him cheating on her, she was able to reconcile with his lack of desire in their marriage in Pagglait. She needed a new fantasy to stabilise her in the world, a fantasy to self-sustain herself and found her answer in aiming to provide for his family like her own.
If it wasn’t for the unbearable surplus enjoyment that she derived from reconstructing Akanksha and Astik’s relationship, she would probably not have found the desire to desire again. She realises that the meaning of her apparent strangeness lay in the strangeness of the fate that had befallen upon her! This shocking turn of events in her life that risked to come dangerously close to immobilising and destabilising her. She had not chosen this life, it simply fell upon her, as an unavoidable moment that propelled her to harmonise the oppositional force of loss of desire with desire to live itself.
Sandhya displaces the eroticism from her marriage and locates it in the pursuit of a job. Sandhya’s character helps us undertake an exposition of the process of subject-formation in a social world. The subject does not exist except as a locus on the matrix of the social-symbolic order. Her madness reflected a madness in the heart of the system and she recognises the sublimity of her own loss of belongingness in her own subjective universe, imposed by an external accident! It was in fact the nothingness of our collective being that got reflected in the nothingness of Sandhya’s inanimate response to an intimate loss. Astik’s disappearance opened up a void that is at the heart of her subjective as well as objective reality.
There is no hidden meaning behind the cause of his death that she could have discovered by excavating her husband’s past love affair nor could she produce from the depths of her interiority.
Nothing culminates in the logic of death, nothing is reflected in death but the fragility of life itself. Just like that, one’s life ends and others’ gets altered dramatically, shaped by the imprint of the loss of shared space. It is only after tarrying with the negative force of death’s utter dismemberment, it’s absolute meaninglessness that Sandhya is able to ground herself again. She does not discover the meaning of the past but constructs it retroactively from the movement of its trace, through a ‘flawed’ response to trauma. It is precisely through the failure of recognising the true character of her suffering and by undertaking the journey of reconstructing Astik’s life with Akanksha that Sandhya is finally able to move beyond the initial traumatic attachment to a fetish.
Sandhya was not inspired to construct a dreamlike illusion of building herself and starting her life anew in order to escape her insupportable reality. In fact, she is an anti-hero who had fallen from the virtuous path and instead pulsated around some fantasy-construction which served her as a life-support or “goal” to reorient a “reality” within which she could reintegrate herself. For her to be free and uninhibited again, she had to be unencumbered by the act of loss, work of mourning as well as the melancholic attachment with her husband’s abstinence.
At the end of Pagglait, she doesn’t merely assert her choice by embracing a life of struggle for financial independence but re-centres her life by opening herself to greater risks and challenges. Through this, she overcomes the terrifying confrontation with a total loss of self-image owing to a near-total symbolic breakdown. In refusing to surrender herself to the mercy of her parents and in-laws, she regained her self-confidence. She fights the temptation to hold onto her husband’s loss as a crutch which would become a lifelong alibi for her miserable state. She realises her own desires independent of him as a way to re-inscribe herself within the hegemonic logic of the world of meaningful existence, from which she had been de-centred.
Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” On the History of Psychoanalytic Movement: Papers on Metapsychology, The Hogarth Press, 1917, pp. 243–258.
Lacan, Jacques. Book 1: Freud’s Paper on Technique 1953–1954. Edited by Jacques Alain Miller, W.W. Norton & Company, 1975.
Zizek, Slavoj. Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism. Verso, 2014.
Zizek, Slavoj. Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Verso, 2001.
Zizek, Slavoj. Melancholy and Act. Critical Inquiry. 2000.
Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. Navayana, 2013.
Featured image source: Desimartini
All inserted images as provided by the author.