Panga works despite itself. Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s third feature after Nil Battey Sannata and Bareilly Ki Barfi unfolds as a first draft of another, more layered, movie about a woman getting back to the workplace she abandoned for marriage and motherhood. Tucked deep inside this insistently feel-good and often shallow film about the liberating possibilities of kabaddi is a portrait of an idealised family, one in which the husband shoulders his share of child-rearing responsibilities while the wife goes off to pursue her dreams.
Oh, for a partner like Prashant! Prashant (Jassie Gill) has a solid sense of humour (always important) and the suggestion of endless romance smouldering inside the dad bod. His wife Jaya (Kangana Ranaut) has the habit of kicking him in her sleep – a throwback to her days as a kabaddi champion. But rather than making a scene, Prashant jokes that if Jaya’s leg makes contact with the wrong spot, they won’t be able to expand their family beyond their precocious son Adi (Yagya Bhasin).
Jaya has left her glory days behind but she hasn’t forgotten them. She is a former captain of the Indian kabaddi team, with trophies and international tournaments to her credit, but is now seemingly content with her husband and son and railway ticket seller job in Bhopal. A series of events, including an encounter with her old friend and kabaddi mate Meenu (Richa Chadha), causes a crimple on Jaya’s smooth forehead. One thing leads to another, and Jaya gets that old kabaddi itch again.
Prashant briefly loses his grin and predicts that “an earthquake is on its way”, but in keeping with the movie’s relentless buoyancy, Prashant teams up with Adi to convert Jaya’s hopes of representing India once again into reality.
There are times when the 129-minute movie is in a tight tackle with itself, in the same way that Jaya jostles with younger and fitter players as she gets back to the sport under Meenu’s watchful eye. Jaya’s journey manages to be both the stuff of fantasy as well as relatable. The screenplay, by Iyer Tiwari and Nikhil Mehrotra with inputs and dialogue by Nitesh Tiwari, finds many ways to place obstacles in Jaya’s path, only to yank them away in order to move on to the next inevitable triumph. Any personal demons Jaya might be battling are swiftly exorcised, and the closest thing the movie has to a villain is the heavy-hipped Smita (Smita Tambe), the captain of the Indian kabaddi team who resents Jaya’s inclusion in the squad.
The big moment comes as surely as Prashant’s ever-present smile. But it is the lighter strokes that stand out in this picture of feminist lite – the irresistible bond between Jaya and Prashant, Adi’s preternatural wisdom, the pleasures of railway colony life, Meenu’s tough love. Richa Chadha is superb as the pragmatic Meenu who has the best possible explanation for why she isn’t married – she is simply not interested.
Kangana Ranaut imbues her character with tenderness and sweetness. Though it’s hard to steal the show from Ranaut, Jassie Gill stages his own little personal coup in Panga. He is marvellous as the supportive, if one-note, spouse, and is especially sharp in the scenes with his son and mother-in-law (played by Neena Gupta).
Panga seems to be saying that behind every successful woman is a man telling her she is right. A less sentimental and more hard-headed movie might have allowed Jaya to go it alone. Her big win in the kabaddi tournament is a shared one – a nice touch in a sports movie – but we are never allowed to forget that Jaya’s victory off the pitch is actually split three ways.