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Kangana Ranaut plays Jaya Nigam, a former national kabaddi champion.

Fox Star Studios

  • Panga
  • Directed by: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari
  • Written by: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, Nikhil Mehrotra
  • Starring: Kangana Ranaut, Jassie Gill, Yagya Bhasin, Richa Chadha, Neena Gupta
  • Classification: G/Family
  • Length: 2 hours, 11 mins

rating

There’s a peculiarity about kabaddi, a contact sport popular in India. The raider from one team must go into the court of the opposing team, tag as many of their members as possible and return to their own side resisting being tackled – all in one breath. The raider repeats a word, usually “kabaddi,” to indicate the singular breath.

Panga focuses on Jaya Nigam (Kangana Ranaut), a former national kabaddi champion who gave up the sport that was once her first love for the sake of her family. At the age of 32, a time when other players are thinking of retiring, as Jaya’s mother (Neena Gupta) archly remarks at one point, Jaya wants to make a comeback.

“Phir se panga lene ka mann kar raha hai,” Jaya says to her best friend and former teammate, Meenu (Richa Chadha). Roughly translated: She wants to mess with life again. You wait with bated breath to see just how Jaya will manage. In the end, you’re left with a slight sigh over a missed opportunity. Although Panga hits all the marks of a pleasing family entertainer, you wish it could have truly lived up to the potential of its name.

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In recent years, working mothers have become more and more visible in Bollywood scripts, and the conflicts between home and office have been explored in movies such as Tumhari Sulu (2017). That story, however, relied on the chutzpah of a larger-than-life homemaker who gets a chance to become a radio host, and who has to battle her family to live her dreams.

Panga is different in the way it tries to articulate the frustrations of a mother who first has to battle herself, even as others – her son, husband and friends – remind her she was once destined for greater things.

Ranaut – here with Jassie Gill as her husband Prashant – brings a vulnerability to a character who is filled with self-doubt, understands the ways in which society characterizes a mother chasing her own ambitions as selfish and cruel, and knows her limits.

Fox Star Studios

On the face of it, Jaya is happily married. Her ever-beaming, helps-around-the-house type husband Prashant (Jassie Gill) and her smart-aleck son Adi (Yagya Bhasin) are the centre of her life. Her past as a kabaddi champion has landed her a fairly comfortable job at a railway counter in a small town in Bihar. Her only troubles come from her son’s weak immune system and a persnickety boss.

Occasionally, Jaya is reminded of her former life. But she simply smiles wistfully and moves on. When Adi, a ridiculously precocious kid, discovers his mother was once a famous athlete, he throws her a challenge: Make a comeback. If Serena Williams can do it, so can you. At first, Jaya does it on a whim, to please her son. But soon she rediscovers parts of herself that she had lost in motherhood.

It may take a village to bring up a child, but as Jaya discovers, it takes your family, neighbours and friends to make a comeback. Everyone rallies around to support Jaya’s goal, despite their initial reservations. But will she make India – and her son – proud?

Panga’s strength lies in its capable cast, which brings heart to a largely contrived script that tells more than it shows. As Jaya, Ranaut brings a vulnerability to a character who is filled with self-doubt, understands the ways in which society characterizes a mother chasing her own ambitions as selfish and cruel, and knows her limits. She is ably supported by Gupta as her acerbic mother, who declares candidly, “Don’t worry, I am not supporting you,” but then shows up when necessary, Chadha as that friend who tells you like it is, and even Gill and Bhasin, her consistent cheerleaders.

Panga opens across Canada on Jan. 24

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