In Ashwini Iyer Tiwari’s Panga, a film filled with several sparkling scenes, the one that stood out most was when Kangana Ranaut’s Jaya Nigam boards a train from Bhopal to another city. Her husband Prashant and son Adi come to see her off. She’s a bundle of nerves—she’ll be away for a year and isn’t sure whether her husband is up to the task of managing the house. When the train is about to leave, she comes to the door to see them off one final time and after hurriedly running through a checklist, she asks, “Dal kitni seeti mein pakti hai?”
It’s a nice, tender moment that singularly encapsulates male incompetence, often presented in movies as endearing but in reality a product of patriarchal conditioning. Yet, Panga doesn’t dwell on these moments or make it specifically about them. It’s a film that acknowledges the structural and cultural oppressions that come in the way when a married woman with a child chooses to pursue a career but mercifully resists the urge to make it an exploitative sob story out of it.
Jaya was, as a selector reminds us, a star kabaddi player who captained the Indian team. In the present, she’s an employee of the Indian railways, issuing passenger tickets, domestic responsibilities chipping away at her short-lived dreams. The confines of her dull office space stand in stark contrast to the kabbadi field: a liberating space filled with movement. She’s suffocated and seeks an identity outside of the one issued to her by the government.
This is what brings us to the crux of Panga. At 32, why can’t Jaya make a comeback? This idea is filtered through the innocuous heart of her 8-year-old son. This is key. The son is more crucial to the plot than is immediately apparent: he accelerates his mother’s awakening and is also a catalyst in making his father aware of his complicity in cutting short Jaya’s kabaddi career. It’s a clever creative choice as it conveys the idea that children don’t see gendered roles until they’re conditioned to do so. This is, primarily, a fairytale where a little boy liberates his mother from the confines of self-contained domestication.
And yet, as we know, that’s hardly ever enough. Here, Tiwari ensures that all the key characters that help Jaya fulfil her dreams are women. The mother, the friendly neighbour, the BFF, her teammate. The contribution of men? Well, at least they don’t oppress. And thankfully, the film doesn’t laud them for being, you know, decent human beings. But so deeply entrenched is the value system that in moments when Jaya snaps at her husband, I heard someone next to me say, “Why is she being such a bitch to him, ya.”
While the narrative setup keeps the plot easy-breezy ― the whole film has a quiet, warm glow about it ― it also robs the characters of complexities and the plot of any real conflict. The husband is nice to a fault. His resistance to Jaya fulfilling her dreams is, at best, passive. So in that sense, Panga almost imagines a “what if” scenario. What if all men ― like in the film ― were just nice? Tiwari dares to imagine a utopian world where the coach you expect to be creepy isn’t or the selector you think will be a misogynistic perv is, in fact, strategically thinking about the long-term benefits of having Jaya on the team. We’re so used to meeting these characters online and offline, so Panga’s narrative decisions almost catch you by surprise. ‘Oh wait, he’s actually a nice chap? Weird.’
Without going over-the-top with ‘flavour’ the writing by Tiwari and Nikhil Mehrotra, with additional dialogue/screenplay by Nitesh Tiwari (Dangal), is consistently sharp and loaded with the right amount of wit and humour. Richa Chadha, in scenes that appear improvised by the actor herself, is terrific while Jassie Gill as the husband, well, smiles through the job effortlessly. Kudos to the child—he’s sassy and spunky and occasionally dark in his humour—and Yagya Bhasin does a great job of making the character feel real and believable.
And then there’s Ranaut, who delivers a measured, restrained performance with occasional bursts of joy and anger, Ranaut anchors the film with a solid turn, her Jaya more reminiscent of Rani from Queen than any of the other parts she’s played.
It’s safe to say that January has started on a stellar note for Hindi films.
Panga is a quiet triumph, a film that gently explores the guilt women feel and are made to feel for pursuing their dreams and why they should do it nonetheless. It also emphasises the need to create a culture where those choices aren’t questioned but supported. Does it invisibilise the misogyny omnipresent in middle-class India? Nope. It dares to imagine what a world looks like without it.