The latest entry in Bollywood movies empowering women through sports (including Aamir Khan’s 2016 Dangal, where he coaches his daughter to a wrestling championship, and Priyanka Chopra’s 2014 Mary Kom, where she portrays the Indian Olympics boxing medalist), Panga (“to mess with”) involves the popular South Asian contact team sport of kabaddi.
Directed by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari (India’s Filmfare Award winner for Best Director for the 2017 comedy Bareilly Ki Barfi) and released in the U.S. Friday, it stars multiple Filmfare award winner Kangana Ranaut as Jaya, a former top women’s kabaddi star, who gave up the game seven years earlier to marry and raise young son Adi, born prematurely with a defective immunity system.
By leaving the game early, however, Jaya never got kabaddi out of her system. In fact, her husband Prashant (played by singer-actor Jassi Gill, who also appears on the Panga soundtrack) bears numerous bruises from being unconsciously kicked in bed by his wife in her sleep.
Her repressed kabaddi frustration only mounts when her boss at her railway ticketing job no longer lets her get away with tardiness for having to take her boy to doctor appointments--her sports celebrity having long since worn off. But after she visits friend and former teammate Meenu (award-winner Richa Chadha)—who is still active—she is convinced, with the support of her family, to attempt a comeback.
Of course, much has changed in the years since she was competitive. Her boss no longer respects her, but the new generation of kabaddi players don’t even know her: After working hard to get back in fighting form and managing to get selected to the national team, her new roommate, who doesn’t recognize her, understandably surmises that she’s too old to be a player, too young to be a coach.
In fact, Jaya is too old to compete with the youngsters on their terms, her agility having atrophied with age. But she learns to make up for it with strength and smarts, and, of course, heart.
Yes, it’s a feel-good flick, buoyed by songs from the renowned Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy composing trio (one song early on perfectly accompanies flashback footage encapsulating Jaya’s and Prashant’s meeting, courtship and marriage), and during games, driving drum parts. And while the family squabbling seems forced and the predictable ending rushed to the detriment of full emotional impact, Panga is affecting, much thanks to Ranaut and the theme of overcoming traditional women’s roles--not to mention the pain of having to give up one’s dream, and the triumph of rolling back the years in retrieving it.
As for kabaddi, a quick explanation of the scoring goes by too fast for anyone who doesn’t already know the sport—though it doesn’t get in the way of appreciating it or the athleticism involved. And in a timely side note, Ranaut yesterday received the Padma Shri award—India’s fourth highest civilian honor—for excellence in the field of performing arts.
“I thank my country for this recognition,” she said, “and I dedicate this to every woman who dares to dream--to every daughter, to every mother, and to the dreams of women who will shape the future of our country.”
The award, incidentally, was given the day before India’s Republic Day commemorating the date that the Constitution of India came into effect—January 26, 1950.