One of the issues that has been much discussed over the last few months is that of the rise in domestic violence due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Since the beginning of the pandemic in late February 2020, concerns were raised that domestic violence will see an uptick as more people will be confined inside their homes with their oppressor, and vulnerable individuals, especially women and girls, will bear the biggest brunt of it. Research has now confirmed these fears. However, one needs to be aware that domestic and intimate partner violence is an ongoing epidemic, one that we need to continuously shed light on. The film, Thappad (2020), tries to raise voice against intimate partner violence especially within the institution of marriage in India.
Produced and directed by Anubhav Sinha, Thappad challenges the issue of domestic violence through intersecting stories of four women – a lawyer, a businesswoman, a housewife, and a housemaid. Highlighting male chauvinism and questioning the acceptance of casual violence, both physical and psychological, in the institution of marriage, the film raises some pertinent questions: Should women put up with abuse in a marital relationship? Is one slap (thappad) enough of a ground for a woman to seek divorce? Thappad underscores the pervasiveness of domestic violence across class divides and women’s struggles for freedom from the patriarchal holds that confine them.
In the film, the protagonist Amrita/Amu (Taapsee Pannu), a trained Kathak dancer, is a housewife whose daily routine begins with making tea, and comprises of watering plants, waking up her husband, Vikram (Pavail Gulati), and helping him get ready for work while cooking and packing lunch for him, checking her diabetic mother-in-law’s (Tanvi Azmi) sugar levels, providing Indian classical dance lessons to her neighbour’s daughter, supervising the housemaid, Sunita (Vidya Ohlyan), and generally managing the household. Her focus is on taking care of Vikram and nurturing his ambitions for a high-profile corporate career and looking after his ailing mother.
She is happy in her routine, or so she thinks, until her life turns over when her husband slaps her in front of a number of guests at a house party to celebrate his professional success. Amu is shocked, shattered, and confused. Vikram’s act should not have come as a surprise to Amu, though. His day-to-day casual sexism is apparent many times: when he wonders why women need to drive cars; when he wonders what his single-mother neighbour who is a business woman does to afford a new car; when he advises Amu to first be a better cook before learning to drive; and so on and so forth. These microaggressions, which were strewn throughout her marital life, go mostly unnoticed by Amu until the moment when Vikram slaps her. Until this event which pushes her to think about her role in the marriage, and the sacrifices she has made to fit the social definitions of a good wife and daughter-in-law, Amu had taken Vikram’s behaviour for granted. She had been trained by other women in her life, especially her mother (Ratna Pathak Shah), to prioritize her husband’s needs and wants over hers.
As Amrita looks back at her married life, she realizes that Vikram has been so pre-occupied with himself and his career that he has never noticed how his actions hurt her. Even after the party, he is more concerned about what people are going to think about him rather than how he has hurt Amu and scarred her forever. When she is expecting him to apologize, he tries to make up by bringing expensive jewellery for her. He is completely naive about how his actions are reflective of a society which takes violence against women for granted and does not understand how his single act in a fit of rage could push his wife to seek divorce. The irony is that Vikram is very much a reflection of many a privileged man in our society who remain ignorant of the state of women in their own homes.
The lawyer that Amrita hires, Naina (Maya Sarao), is living her own struggles. Although she is one of the top lawyers in the city, she is told by her husband that her success is to be attributed to his and his now retired lawyer father’s reputation. Naina wins a breakthrough case in a sexual assault case, but struggles to fend off her husband’s unwanted advances. Ultimately, she finds inspiration from Amrita’s case and decides to set up her independent practice. Then, there is Amu’s maid, Sunita, who deals with an abusive alcoholic husband and has simply learned to live with her situation. Lastly, there is Amrita’s neighbour (Dia Mirza), a widowed businesswoman who chooses to live a life of her own with her teen daughter and is a witness to Amrita’s quickly collapsing marriage.
The reality of situations in the movie is so uncanny that it may draw a strong emotional response from the audience. Needless to say, the slap in the film is symbolic of deep-rooted problems of gendered violence—physical, sexual, emotional—within intimate relationships. The film also reminds us that patriarchy is not carried forward by men only. Women internalize their dictated lower role in the hierarchy of the household and often act as agents of patriarchy. Amu’s mother is one of those women who worry about the social stigma of having a divorcee daughter at home and advises her to forget the incident and go back to her husband. Amrita’s mother-in-law, although generally supportive of her, does not see her son’s actions as improper until it is too late. Even Naina is surprised that Amrita wants a divorce simply because of ‘one slap.’ Amu’s good fortune is in the fact her father is supportive, and her brother is willing to unlearn patriarchy. But that is not the reality for numerous women, especially in the Indian society which the film showcases. Unlike Amu, who stands up against her husband and has support and legal help, many women in the country do not have anywhere to turn to.
Domestic violence is rampant in our society. According to the United Nations, globally, 35% of women have experienced physical and sexual violence. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the UN reports that in some countries, calls to helplines have increased five-fold. Women are the most affected group and gender-based violence is a health emergency as it not only affects women and girls physically, emotionally, and psychologically, but it can also prove to be fatal for some. Clearly, the issue needs more attention and discussion. Cinema can be one medium through which gender-based violence can be brought into the open. Films such as Thappad help start a dialogue on this topic that is usually hidden under the rug.
Dr Asma Sayed is the Canada Research Chair in South Asian Literary and Cultural Studies in the Department of English at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, BC, Canada.