‘Pagglait’ review: a beautiful, soft-touch look at the logistics and politics of grieving

Death is an irreversible operation, a cellular extinguishing of a person and a presence, a permanent blackout of existence, and for those left behind, an ironically life-bending inflection. Ostensibly not for Sandhya in Pagglait (Crazy) who’s lost her husband of five months, Astik, suddenly and her in-laws’ place is swarming with relatives to attend the 13-day ritual that follows the crematory milestone.

Sandhya, played with sweet-spicy sauciness by Sanya Malhotra, yawns while scrolling through the perfunctory social media “OMG! RIP!” messages on her timeline, detached as if watching a maudlin drama on an OTT platform. As Sandhya’s parents (Bhupesh Pandya and a superb Natasha Rastogi) join the army of mourners in the old by-lane residence in Lucknow, it is the mother who breaks down on her hugging her widowed daughter. Sandhya, on the other hand, on the first floor in her room that’s now her assigned Coventry of mourning, yearns for a Pepsi. That’s when writer-director Umesh Bist introduces, via Sandhya’s mother, the expected template of appropriate grieving for a woman. 

Raghubir Yadav: his usual fabulous self.

Why Sandhya behaves this way is a mystery for all, including Astik’s parents, Shivendra and Usha Giri, played with devastating low-volume power by Sheeba Chaddha and Ashutosh Rana. If Chaddha’s mother can afford a weary smile while observing her husband’s struggles with his emotions and the finances—all this while managed by their deceased son—Rana’s choked voice and frame dispense pieces of his character’s broken heart in every line he delivers. Bist slowly unpeels Sandhya’s behavior and the abyssal emotions that roil her subconscious, interposing the 13-day rituals that are designed to liberate the soul who’s trapped between the earthly tug and the infernal or heavenly abode that awaits without. It’s also Sandhya’s only chance to unfetter herself. That takes place in a symphonic final act where Arijit Singh’s music is as cathartic as the scene movement. 

Sanya Malhotra is saucy and terrific.

Meanwhile, Sandhya’s BFF Nazia (Shruti Sharma) arrives to support her, and Bist observes via Shivendra’s elder brother Tayyaji (a terrific as usual Raghubir Yadav) the religious lines drawn for Nazia; as also the bias that the neighborhood grocer Parchun (Aasif Khan in a mischievous, twinkling turn) and friend to Astik and younger sibling Alok (Chetan Sharma) displays towards Nazia: he positively recoils when he learns that she doesn’t eat meat. Alok has his own sorrow and anger that bursts like an unexpected cracker, his unspoken grievance towards all the special treatment his parents showered on his elder brother, all the while neglecting his needs. Tayyaji meanwhile forbids all forms of alcoholic and tobacco-induced relief to ensure Astik’s journey isn’t waylaid by these earthly sins. And then proceeds to libate on the terrace every evening. 

Raghubir Yadav, Chetan Sharma, Ashutosh Rana: on the steps of salvation.

While Sandhya’s expected to mourn, there’s other politics that bubble to the surface, as Shivendra’s younger brother Tarun and his wife Rashmi (Rajesh Tailang and Ananya Khare, excellent) arrive with their children. It’s an amazing human trait that when grief is supposed to unite families is also when egos and past differences rise up like unwanted GERD, leaving a bad taste all around. It’s also almost wondrous how no matter who’s passed, bitchy gossip looms immortal over every tragedy. The familial pow-wows involve finances as well, and a sudden pivot amongst all concerned as an insurance policy comes to fore via Sharib Hashmi’s cameo. The ensemble cast delivers in each scene, every character etching their tiny space in the cluster of shared washrooms and bedrooms: Yamini Singh, Jameel Khan, Meghna Malik, Nakul Roshan Sahdev, Ashlesha Thakur, and Sachin Chaudhary among others, uplift Pagglait to the nuances it sets out to sketch. 

The superb ensemble of Pagglait.

Back to Sandhya, for at the heart of Bist’s soft-touch, heart-breaking and heart-warming movie, it is she. Her seemingly detached demeanor cracks with the arrival of Aakansha Roy (played effectively by Sayani Gupta, as her turmoil collides with Sandhya’s), Astik’s colleague. As Sandhya discovers the life she always wanted vicariously through Aakansha’s—and also what was missing in the five months she was with Astik but truly never was, the injustice of it all breaks like a breached dam. It’s a draining whirlpool of jealousy and of feeling cheated that works like a liberating force for her. Director Bist keeps Astik at bay—we never see him or his photograph—and we feel as Sandhya does because of this technique. In a scene where Sandhya’s going through Astik’s wardrobe, we get a peek at how organized the man was. What do those neatly lined shelves tell us? What secrets and stories do those clothes hold? What skin did they conceal and what will they reveal? It’s a stunning sequence, almost breathless, the most intimate that Sandhya’ll ever get with her husband. 

Pagglait works at every level quietly, not very busy, but observing via a chuckle here, a pained frown there, but never getting in the way. It’s the logistics of the aftermath for the parents. It’s the politics of grieving for Sandhya, punished to forego spices, salt, garlic, and turmeric for 13 days. Call her crazy if you will but she knows that when the chips are down, all you need to get through is a bag of salty and crunchy potato chips. And Pepsi. 

Pagglait (2021) on IMDb Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.

Pagglait  is streaming on Netflix and rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) for a bereavement theme.

Director Umesh Bist Time 1h 54min
Writer Umesh Bist
Stars Sanya Malhotra, Sayani Gupta, Sheeba Chaddha, Ashutosh Rana, Raghubir Yadav, Rajesh Tailang
Genres Comedy, Drama