Scenes from this marriage: the newspaper is delivered. The morning alarm rings. Bed tea is served. Breakfast is laid out. The man of the house is packed off to work. The mother-in-law’s blood sugar levels are monitored. The neighbour’s daughter is given dance lessons. Amrita (Taapsee Pannu) slips into bed at night, and the next day is comfortingly the same.

It’s set to change for the better – Amrita’s husband Vikram (Pavail Gulati) is up for a promotion and a posting in London. A party is thrown to celebrate Vikram’s imminent departure, but a phone call reveals that the London move has been canned. Amrita tries to calm down an incensed Vikram and for her efforts gets slapped in full public view.

What follows is clarifying for Amrita but not always clear for the viewer, who is exhorted to accept that one incident of violence is solid enough ground to end a marriage. A montage reveals the reactions of Amrita (stunned and pained), her mother-in-law (mildly disturbed), her parents (shocked and saddened). Does Amrita return to face the guests, as her mother-in-law recommends? Does Vikram carry on drinking and dancing? Do the parents lurk in a corner, swallowing their shame and hurt? The fragmented sequence, which splices together reactions without giving a linear picture of Amrita’s long night of humiliation, is the first indication that Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad is going to take a complicated route towards liberation.

Co-written by Sinha and Mrunmayee Lagoo Waikul, Thappad uses Amrita’s treatment as a springboard to dive into the gender wars between men and women. Rather than apologising or attempting to understand Amrita’s altered state of mind, Vikram bangs on about his lost opportunity. Her mother-in-law (Tanvi Azmi) and mother (Ratna Pathak Shah) suggest that she cave in – after all, that is what women do. Even the lawyer Nethra (Maya Sarao), who physically resembles the Supreme Court advocate Menaka Guruswamy, initially suggests that Amrita sue for peace.

Thappad (2020).

Is the slap a storm in a tea-cup, as Vikram believes? Why can’t Amrita forgive and forget? Thappad is strongest when it suggests that the first instance of violence may not be the last, male entitlement must be challenged, and women must stop selling themselves short, whatever the situation. However, the anticipation that the screenplay will reveal just how rotten the marriage was to begin with is not always met. Like Anubhav Sinha’s most recent films Mulk (2018) and Article 15 (2019), Thappad revolves around a single event that proves to be both cataclysm and catalyst. Mulk tackled Islamophobia and Article 15 examined caste discrimination, but the faultlines that mark marriage and family are often not easily traced by isolated incidents.

Ingmar Bergman revealed just how difficult it is for spouses to consciously uncouple in his landmark television series Scenes from a Marriage (1973). Closer home, Mahesh Bhatt’s film Arth (1982) took a simpler route in following a union that implodes because of infidelity.

The couple from Thappad is far too young to suggest the strains and cracks of a well-worn relationship. Amrita’s bitter lesson about Vikram’s true self – egoistic, insensitive, mendacious and aggressive to the point of violence – emerges in bits and pieces, and often through verbal exposition. The status of their sex life, which must surely have been affected by the slap, is never discussed.

The movie has other tails and tales to chase. The older women are burdened with their own frustrations, whose revelation is as clunky as the track about Nethra’s own troubled marriage to a creepy gent (Manav Kaul). A sub-plot about Amrita’s neighbour Shivani (Dia Mirza) doesn’t fit in and goes nowhere.

Thappad unfolds amidst an affluent set of well-meaning and well-clad people, and it’s left to the toiling classes to provide a full measure of what sustained violence can do to women. Vikram’s domestic help (Geetika Vidya) is a victim of beatings that even forces her to skip work on occasion.

Ek Tukda Dhoop, Thappad (2020).

In a movie about female empowerment, the men have the most memorable parts. Taapsee Pannu works hard to portray the newly awakened “world’s best housewife”, but Pavail Gulati, who is excellent as the chauvinistic husband, and Kumud Mishra, equally good as Amrita’s sensitive father, emerge as the standout characters.

The bloated runtime of 141 minutes packs in many necessary truths, especially about the pernicious nature of patriarchy and the manner in which women enable discrimination. The overall message, of heeding the conscience even if it pricked just once, survives the needless wandering.

Like Mulk and Article 15, Thappad recommends that knowing your place in the social hierarchy is stultifying rather than empowering. Amrita’s rattling of the cage is never loud, which is a relief, but it also never quite resonates, which is a problem for a movie with big ambitions of dissecting the very foundation of marriage and family. The slap stings Amrita, but also jolts her in ways that will be familiar to women stuck in relationships marked by indifference, condescension and the lurking threat of a hand swinging in the wrong direction.