A lot of us might be under the impression that things have changed for widows since colonial times, at least in urban or “cosmopolitan” spaces. In contemporary times, there is no longer an expectation that a woman must be burnt at the pyre, or tonsure her head, or wear white clothes post her husband’s death. Educated women of my generation would definitely scoff at the imposition of such expectations upon them. However, the recently released film Pagglait (Crazy) on Netflix throws light upon how even if things seem to have moved forward for widows, the modern Indian widow, especially a Hindu, upper-caste widow, still has to navigate a fair share of challenges in reclaiming agency post-widowhood.
Pagglait is the story of Sandhya (Sanya Malhotra), a topper in M.A. who was compelled into an arranged marriage with Astik Giri by her parents. Unfortunately Astik dies only 5 months into the marriage, before any Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam style romance of convenience could blossom between them. Sandhya behaves just like any rational educated woman would in her circumstance, even if her reactions look odd to her narrow-minded family members and her concerned best friend Nazia (Shruti Sharma).
She retains a voracious appetite for spicy food, refuses to cry buckets, unabashedly demands Pepsi instead of tea from her mother-in-law, and steadily resists wearing a white saree except at the funeral. This is not to suggest that women cannot grieve after losing a significant other, but how can this expectation be imposed in respect of someone you barely knew? Through these small acts of rebellion, Sandhya bravely challenges the notion that a woman’s life is “destroyed” if she does not have the benefit of the patriarchal protection and guardianship of her husband.
On the other hand, the hesitance of both Sandhya’s parents and her in-laws to take responsibility for her future, until they discover that there is monetary benefit involved, is a telling commentary on how things haven’t changed much for Indian widows. The first solution that comes to everyone’s mind regarding Sandhya’s post-widowhood prospects is remarriage. This harkens back to colonial widow remarriage acts, which were enacted on the assumption that a woman’s life could be “improved” by substituting one patriarchal influence for another, provided she forfeits her marital property.
What makes the remarriage solution even more insidious is that it is designed to ensure that Sandhya’s inheritance from her husband remains within the family, instead of being used by her for her own benefit. This form of “levirate marriage” is common across cultures for the purpose of depriving women of their inheritance rights (for a discussion on this in the context of Punjab and Haryana, see Chowdhry, Prem (1993), ‘Conjugality, Law and State: Inheritance Rights as Pivot of Control in Northern India’ in National Law School Journal: Special Issue 1993 on Feminism and Law; 95-116).
Therefore, even in 2021, the attitudes of Indian families when it comes to the subject of widows are still as regressive as they were in the 19th century. The assumption that a widow is a “burden” to be cast off to another man, and another matrimonial home continues to prevail. In fact, many families consider themselves to be “broad-minded” and “generous” for being open to the idea of their widowed daughters/daughters-in-law remarrying instead of straight up sending her to an ashram as their ancestors would have.
If a widow has the audacity to demand her own share of the matrimonial property, she is readily perceived as a gold-digger or a vulture who devoured her husband for money. This is evident from the scene where Sandhya’s female in-laws draw mean spirited comparisons between her and Sonam Kapoor’s thieving bride character in Dolly ki Doli.
Pagglait also generally questions the societal convention of compulsorily, and loudly grieving for someone, no matter how close or affectionate you actually were, merely by virtue of having shared a certain relationship with them. The scenes where the various family members use the funeral rituals as an excuse to engage in salacious gossip might appear familiar to anyone who has had the pleasure of attending such a prayer ceremony in real life. It exposes how hollow and meaningless overdramatic condolences offered by people who don’t really mean it can be. Whereas the ones who are actually in distress-like Sandhya or Astik’s parents are often the ones who are the quietest.
It may be said that in spite of these layered symbolisms, Pagglait is not a perfect film. Its major letdown is the screenplay, which fails to adequately engage you in the first half. A plot point that seemed particularly weak at first was Sandhya’s budding friendship with Astik’s ex-girlfriend Akanksha (Sayani Gupta). I was initially confused as to what purpose this served in the overall storyline. However, if you dig deeper you understand that the point of introducing Akanksha is not really a ‘befriending the other woman’ arc, but to show Sandhya a potential of what she could be outside of an identity as Astik’s widow. Though Sandhya is intensely jealous of the bond that Akanksha shared with Astik, she is also captivated by the life that the latter leads as an independent career-woman with her own car, her own house, and her own passions. This is contrary to Sandhya’s own life as a woman who obediently followed her parents’ dictats and never had the courage to explore a career or a pre-marital relationship.
It is this realization of the difference between their lives that clears Sandhya’s confusion as to what she wants to do with her future. The path that she consequently adopts in the climax shows viewers what widow empowerment could actually looks like. It may be argued that by not completely cutting off ties with her in-laws (in spite of the cracks in their relations), Sandhya took a somewhat “sanskaari bahu” approach. Nevertheless by asserting her right to be a breadwinner, Sandhya transcends stereotypes of widows as being damsels in distress who need remarriage or a second love story to save them (as showcased in earlier films like Baabul).
The treatment of caste and religion in the film is also something that I found debatable. The film satirizes the hypocrisy of Raghubir Yadav’s character Roshan in forcing Astik’s younger brother Alok (Chetan Sharma) to shave his head and abstain from any indulgent activities, while he himself enjoys alcohol multiple times during the 13 day wake period. It also critiques the segregation practiced towards Nazia by Sandhya’s family, something which Sandhya daringly subverts in the climax of the film. However, the film also seems to be proudly assertive of the characters’ Brahmin identity in some sequences, as displayed through Alok’s character transformation over the course of participating in various religious rituals.
The last quibble that I had with the film was the mystery surrounding the character of Astik. He is never shown on-screen, not even through a photo or a faceless shot. Everything we know about him is through what other people say about him. Therefore the viewer is unable to make up their mind as to who Astik really was, or his motives for leaving behind a large sum of money only to Sandhya. Was he a selfish son who left his elderly parents in the lurch? Did he secretly love Sandhya, or did he still pine for Akanksha? Not knowing who he was restricts our ability to fully understand Sandhya’s motivations. While it is clear that she never loved him, she also resents not having the opportunity to be loved by him, and ultimately does feel some sorrow over losing that opportunity. It also reduces the viewer’s ability to empathize with the plight of his parents, who are visibly shaken by his death.
However, overall the ensemble cast consisting of both veterans (Raghubir Yadav, Ashutosh Rana, Sheeba Chaddha, Rajesh Tailang, Meghna Malik, Jameel Khan) as well as the younger cast (Aasif Khan, Chetan Sharma, Shruti Sharma and of course Sayani Gupta) have done a marvellous job. And of course, Sanya Malhotra shines as Sandhya. Though the pacing of the film may be a deterrent initially, this is certainly worth a one-time watch for its nuanced commentary on widowhood, female agency and the toxic nature of Indian family dynamics.
Featured Image Source: Pagglait’s official poster