Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari made her debut with Nil Battey Sannata in 2016, directed its Tamil remake Amma Kanakku the same year, and helmed the comedy Bareilly Ki Barfi in 2017. Iyer Tiwari’s latest movie is Panga, starring Kangana Ranaut as kabaddi player Jaya Nigam, who has quit the game after marriage and motherhood. Jaya returns to the field with the support of her husband (Jassie Gill), her son (Yagya Bhasin), and her friend (Richa Chadha). The cast of the January 24 release includes Neena Gupta as Jaya’s mother-in-law.

The films all revolve around underdogs and share a small-town setting. Iyer Tiwari worked in advertising before embarking on a filmmaking career, and has been inspired by the “unhurried and simple” ways of living that exist beyond India’s metropolises. Panga, which Iyer Tiwari has written along with Nikhil Mehrotra, is also a tribute to women who balance their domestic duties with their ambitions, the 40-year-old director told

‘Panga’ comes at a time when Sania Mirza returned to professional tennis after a two-year maternity break and won a doubles title.
Both Mirza and Serena Williams are inspiring in how they returned to the tennis court and showed that women don’t lose their strength and agility after having a child. But not everyone, in India especially, is lucky to have a husband and in-laws who will help a woman raise her child. In this generation of co-parenting, this still doesn’t happen in most of the country. I read a survey last year that said 42% Indian women quit working after their first child.

Panga (2020).

Why kabaddi?
Because of the Pro Kabaddi league, interest around the sport has grown. It’s a sport that’s not expensive. You don’t need much gear and you can play it wearing a sari.

While I wanted to make a film about kabaddi, I also wanted to explore what happens to a woman who quits her job after marriage. I know so many MBA graduates and gold medallists among my friends. They thought the sabbatical from work was temporary, but then it became permanent, because of their own guilt or unsupportive family and in-laws.

What was it like directing three strong-willed women – Kangana Ranaut, Richa Chadha and Neena Gupta?
Kangana is extremely truthful and has her own point of view, which is also the case with Richa. Both are strong-headed but have good hearts. Neena is an inspiration in the way she made such a wild decision 30 years ago of raising a child single-handedly while continuing to work in film and television.

It was a joy to see them practising their lines and playing off each other. None of them is a trained method actor. They just feel the characters. You never know what expression they will give. You discover something new in their performance each time.

Jassie Gill, as the husband, is an interesting casting choice.
The casting of Jassie was based on pure gut. I had seen only one Punjabi film of his before. Jassie grew up with strong women himself – three sisters and a mother. He loves kids. That good energy of his translated to the character.

Kriti Sanon once told me that you need only one person to trust you about your hidden capabilities. I feel it’s a director’s job to find and define an actor’s possibilities.

When I cast Pankaj Tripathi in a comic role in Nil Battey Sannata, Nitesh [Tiwari, her husband] couldn’t believe it. Pankaj, in fact, said he would not come to work the day before the shoot. I had to drag him to the sets. In Bareilly ki Barfi, Ayushmann, who is the nicest human being, had to play a tongue-in-cheek aggressive character. Rajkummar, who had done dark, serious roles so far became meek.

Dil Ne Kaha, Panga (2020).

You were born and raised in Mumbai, but you make films about North Indian middle-class families.
Though Panga is about a family in Bhopal, it has also been shot in Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai and features kabaddi players from all over the country and outside, which makes it my largest film in terms of scope.

What attracts me to small-town middle-class households is that when I was in advertising, I would have to visit such households for research in different parts of the country. Their eccentricities, lifestyles and daily schedule were such that it seemed that they existed completely outside the urban life seen in big cities like Mumbai. They wouldn’t have much around them or be aware of what was happening in the world, but they’d be happy in that small space. If I put them in Mumbai, they’d be lost.

Every year at the advertising festivals in Goa, I’d see foreign ad films from countries like Thailand. At that time our films and ad films were heavily inspired by or were being set in the West. These international ad films were totally rooted in their culture and were funny, wacky, and comfortable laughing at themselves. I immediately decided I would make such films.

When Nil Battey Sannata happened, it was about a woman living in a slum in Agra behind the Taj Mahal. It was based on an actual slum, where half the people were yet to visit the Taj Mahal right in front of them. The small-town films are the norm now, but at that time, Nil Battey Sannata was a recipe for disaster.

Then after Bareilly Ki Barfi, I got responses from people working in MNCs and living abroad, about how the film reminded them of their lives in their hometowns, unhurried and simple. For a while, the Indian aspiration had been to get onto flights, live or work outside, shop from H&M and Zara, shop online and get pizza delivered home at the click of a button. Then they got bored of it. Now they want dal chawal. They are looking inwards.

With each film of mine, I am exploring the ethnography and values of a place. Chinese and Korean films are so unapologetically about their own countries. Why can’t we be unapologetic as well? Why can’t we show India’s colours, fabric and texture in our films?

Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017).

What does the rise of the small-town film and the disappearance of the NRI movie tell us about India today?
Javed Akhtar, who has written the songs in Panga and did the voice-over in Bareilly Ki Barfi, was addressing the crowd at a university abroad. When he was asked what this new India means, he gave the example of Bareilly Ki Barfi.

The parents of our parents managed to just give their children a decent education. These children stayed in India, pursued government jobs and stayed in India. For example, Nitesh’s family into which I was married. Before that, I did not know that a world outside my Mumbai bubble existed. You see a lot of that in Panga.

That was one generation. Then once banks began giving student loans in the mid-’90s, our generation began studying and working outside. This generation wanted to travel the world, and they did. But to become that global citizen, they had to shed their Indianness and behave in a certain, standardised manner.

What’s happening now is that Indians have accepted themselves and they are not hiding their innate nature anymore. They don’t believe in putting on a face and behaving a certain way. Earlier, Indians behaved like Romans in Rome. But now, when in Rome, do as the Indians do.

What is living and working with another writer-director like?
We keep discussing each other’s scripts. After Nikhil Mehrotra, who wrote Dangal with Nitesh, and I finished the script of Panga, Nitesh gave his suggestions, which is why he’s also credited in the film.

Our approach towards life is similar. We live a non-egoistic and simplistic life, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. We both love our craft. Our filmmaking approach is the same, but I’d say I am more impulsive. I will plan the film to the last detail, but in the end, I might do as I please. Also, I feel I am more in touch with women’s emotions in my films, and Nitesh gravitates more towards the manly side.

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari.