“Pagglait” is a somewhat cheerful Indian dramedy about female empowerment set against the backdrop of a traditional Hindu funeral.
With its many characters, intrigues and generous servings of rituals and traditions, it could have been a “Monsoon Wedding” for funerals, offering the rest of the world insights into the culture and psyche of the people it is about.
But “Pagglait,” whose title translates as “follow your heart,” almost certainly will seem more “empowering” to Indian audiences. It’s tame and retrograde by Western standards, a meandering soap opera with most of its rough edges worn off. And it finishes with a sell-out that robs it of much of what its overt messaging purports to be.
An opening disclaimer chases off any hope that this will be a rude “Loved One,” or even “Darjeeling Limited” styled romp. “We respect all faiths, religions, communities and races,” the filmmaker (Umesh Bish) and producers want us to know. As if that excuses all that’s soft and mushy that follows.
A young Lucknow professional has died mere months into his marriage. His family throws together a funeral in haste, not bothering to invite or even inform everyone. That doesn’t keep others from showing up. When you have 13 days between cremation and that moment, by the River Ganges, when “the spirit sets off on its journey,” good luck keeping this “private.” Lots of opportunity for mischief.
Just getting anyone to focus on the deceased and on mourning proves to be a trial.
Younger brother Alok (Chetan Sharma) has his head shaved for the very specific duties he has over these two weeks, and he’s a bit put out.
The late Astik “is a nuisance, even after his death (in English, or in Hindi with English subtitles).”
His father (Ashutosh Rana) seems distraught, flipping out at their goofy doorbell chime, which is totally inappropriate for a somber occasion like this. But he’s not too upset to haggle over the price of rented mattresses for all the guests pouring into their house.
And the widow, Shandya (Sanya Malhotra)? Everybody can see there’s something not right with her. Is she in shock, in a deeper grief than anybody else?
Is THAT why she keeps asking for “Pepsi” and “snacks” when that simply isn’t done in a time like this?
Nope. It was an arranged marriage. She’s from a bigger city and never even got used to the old fashioned “Indian toilets” here. Thank heavens her Muslim pal Nazia (Shruti Sharma) shows up, someone she can complain to, an excuse for her to sneak out and get some real food and not this funerary “traditional” tasteless fare.
Over the course of those 13 days, family grudges will erupt, a tug of war over the widow sets up and hard feelings over an insurance policy beneficiary come to light as Sandhya struggles to get a handle on what she’s not feeling and what she wants to do next.
The chief complication for her? A photo that suggests that her loveless marriage had something to do with her husband’s true “sweetheart” (Sayani Gupta).
However Indian audiences take all this, what I’ve listed above are the classic ingredients of a funeral farce in Britain or the US. Being Indian, events are dragged out over two weeks when “Death at a Funeral,” either version, condensed them into a single over-the-top day.
A couple of emotional scenes add pathos. But much of what we’re shown — a mob of officiants, shouting and haggling, bazaar style, for the chance to run the family’s riverside ceremony and boat ride to spread ashes — is plainly meant to be funny, and doesn’t quite get there.
The acting is pretty good, even if there are too many characters for the script to adequately service. Malhotra, a top tier actress (“Photograph”), is solid as the lead. But much of what the script has her doing dilutes the performance and robs her character of impact. Shandhya’s outrage is muted, her hurt never quite makes it to the surface, her cunning — hiding her cards as she makes her decisions — underwhelming.
The third act twists and turns never throw us off the path that we know this story will take. Eventually.
So while the detail is utterly fascinating to an outsider and the tone is light, “Pagglait” not only feels like its cheated and shortchanged us, it’s also left out much of the heart we expect its “marry for love/not family finance” messaging to deliver.
MPA Rating: TV-14, adult themes
Cast: Sanya Malhotra, Sayani Gupta, Sheeba Chaddha, Ashutosh Rana, Chetan Sharma, Shruti Sharma
Credits: Scripted and directed by Umesh Bist. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:54