Saturday, December 12, 2015

My dad was Darth Vader: a Star Wars confession

[Here's a piece I did for Mint Lounge's special on Star Wars]

If you’re a ten-year-old encountering a sword-and-sorcery epic, it is natural enough to root for the young hero whose journey from innocence to peril to self-realization lies at the story’s heart. But the only time I really identified with Luke Skywalker was when the poor thing discovered that his daddy was a monster in a black mask.

And that moment, as any Star Wars buff knows, came nearly two-thirds of the way through the original trilogy, in the famous, frisson-producing climax of The Empire Strikes Back.

“You killed my father!”

“No. I AM your father.”

Followed by Luke’s scream of anguish (a part of him knew the truth already, he just wasn’t letting himself believe it) and his refusal to clasp Pater Vader’s outstretched hand, choosing a bottomless abyss instead.

(He survives, of course. He has to save himself and win redemption for his dad. And he will do this, since he is the hero and this is a fantasy.)

Before that scene, I hadn’t been particularly interested in Luke, who was played by the likable but bland Mark Hamill. The other male lead, Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, was more personable; besides, by the mid-1980s when I first saw the trilogy (at one go), Ford was a big star and this affected one’s perceptions of the characters. But then, it didn’t take Indiana Jones to make Hamill look dull. Chewbacca and Jabba the Hutt had more personality than Luke too. So did C-3PO. Even the light sabres, arguably. Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan had personality AND gravitas. And there was Master Yoda – cute was he, and funny spoke he.

(Of course, all these ideas about gravitas and heroism came before one was exposed to the frat-boy jokes about the characters’ names. “Hand solo? Snigger.” “Obi-Wan Kenobi has ‘I wank’ in the middle of it. Hehhehheh.”)

So, young Skywalker was a cipher amidst many colourful characters. But those words – “I am your father” – and Luke’s response to them: how completely they turned things around, how much they resonated. They still swim in my head alongside other lines that belong to the same galactic system: “Mera baap chor hai”, “Mere paas ma hai”, all part of a childhood mythology where real life always seemed to be mashed up with popular cinema.

Because by age 10, I had some experience of what it was like to have a black-helmeted monster as a dad. My mother and I had recently left my father’s house, escaped a life of alcohol-fuelled violence. I knew she was a lot cooler than Nirupa Roy, but I didn’t think my dad was as cool as Darth Vader – he was a little scarier though.

You’re thinking – sure, it’s okay to feel that sort of connect with a cheesy fantasy film as a child, but people grow up and find echoes in more grown-up things: “serious” films, “serious” books. And yes, I did gravitate towards that kind of art as I got older. But the Star Wars influence remained, in a little box in a corner of my head that also contained the dramatic tropes of mainstream Hindi films and the visceral immediacy of low-budget Hollywood horror. These things may have lain dormant for a while, especially during the years when I was immersed in world cinema and high literature, but they were there all right, and I would return to them for emotional nourishment as well as meaning.

So it was that when watching the original trilogy again, sometime in my twenties, and on the big screen (this was a rerelease to celebrate the onset of the new, “prequel trilogy” in 1999), I was just as deeply sucked into the Luke-Darth Vader narrative as I had been before. And this time I found myself stirred by the eerie nightmare scene that takes place midway through The Empire Strikes Back, before the big reveal: Luke decapitates Vader during a duel… only to find his own face beneath the cold black mask.

Hamill was still an average actor, but by this point I was projecting my own feelings on him, and I felt I understood the great fear in Luke’s mind. I had recently begun to note aspects of my personality that were dangerously close to my father’s: a short temper, a continual sense of persecution, a tendency towards crippling melancholia and self-righteousness. And I was realising how important it was to not let those qualities become too dominant, how important it was not to turn into my dad.

Years later, reading Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom, I would identify with Pinto’s fear of being laid low by his genetic heritage and becoming like his schizophrenic mother one day. But long before I read that fine book, a lightsabre duel had awakened similar thoughts; I had been acquainted – through life and through Star Wars – with the cynical possibility that parents can be most useful as cautionary models for what not to be.

 (And now the internet is awash with rumours that the big twist in the new film is that Luke Skywalker – now an old man – has finally crossed over to the Dark Side himself. Please, for Yoda’s sake, no.)

This connection with the Star Wars narrative is one of many times, in my career as a pop-culture consumer, when something massy, even pulpy, became a route to self-understanding. Which is one reason why I dislike the kneejerk snobbery often directed at mainstream Hindi cinema. And why, despite being a big fan of Pauline Kael’s writing, I have always been less than impressed by her famous distinction between Art and Great Trash, with its implication that films belonging to the latter category can be enormous fun, terrific entertainment, but you must never – no! no! no!, said in a headmistress’s voice – make the mistake of taking them too seriously. Those of us who “get” popular cinema, understand how it can provide a catalyst for our deepest and most primal feelings, wouldn’t ever patronize it in such terms.

Anyway, the years rolled by, I continued growing up (or not) and then came 2005 and the release of Revenge of the Sith – billed as the darkest film in the prequel-trilogy, the one that would show the transformation of Luke’s dad Anakin from Jedi hero to Sith Lord. Watching it, I was riveted again by the elements of Shakespearean tragedy, the operatic final scenes, the striking intercutting shots where we see the birth of the twins who will grow up to be Luke and Leia (the “new hopes”, creating a bridge to the first film, which we had already watched decades earlier), but where we also see a ghastly rebirth, the wounded Anakin being locked into the black suit that will become his new identity.

Most of all, there was the scene where Darth Vader, learning that his wife Padme is dead, bursts out of his shackles, lurches about like the Frankenstein monster, and growls “Nooooo!!!!” in the best style of the “Nahhiiinnn!” in old Hindi movies.

Watching that scene, a part of me may have wished that my own father had had something of a similar reaction when my mom and I moved out; that in a rare moment of clarity and self-awareness, he may have understood what he had lost, and grieved for it.

But probably not. Real life isn’t like cheesy films. At least, not all of the time.


  1. Sorry about your dad. I myself lost my dad recently (its the 3-month anniversary of his passing tomorrow), and I realize that even though I feel too young to have lost him, I am ultimately uber-privileged to have a father who cared and wanted to provide for us and watch over us all his life. Not everyone has that. But then, I don't have your deftness when it comes to writing and ability to zip through and dig deep into tomes in a snap. I have been juggling so many books and often, I only managed to finish one and that too after months and even years of trying to keep reading it. My reading skill, unfortunately, is not where I'd like it to be. But I guess, the bottom line is to appreciate and be grateful for what we possess because nothing really lasts in this lifetime. Thanks for the fun read!

  2. I don't have your deftness when it comes to writing and ability to zip through and dig deep into tomes in a snap.

    Oh, I don't have that either! Takes me ages to finish a book at times, and even longer to write a proper review. Am definitely not a prolific reader these days - at least not compared to many others I know who read/write for a living.

  3. Thanks for sharing. It can't be easy sharing personal fears and insecurities on a public forum so thank you for this piece. Like Se V, I'm lucky to have a caring dad and often forget that not everyone has that privilege.

    1. Kaushik: thanks for the comment, but this was actually one of the easiest, most stress-free pieces I have written in a long while. I usually struggle much more with the long reviews (which can be personal and confessional too, often in a more complex way than this piece was).

  4. I know where you're coming from. My dad comes from a long line of people with anger issues. My mom's greatest fear was that my brother would inherit the temper. My sister and I did and I don't think she saw that coming. We deal with it though. My choices are not the same as his, and I am actually a loving, friendly, funny mother but there are times when my kids are being disobedient,noisy, boisterous or bratty - basically just kids, and I feel my temper rising and I have to remind myself to calm down. My greatest fear is that there may be times when I don't manage to catch myself. Oscar Wilde said in one of his plays (woman of no importance?) that we begin by loving our parents, later we judge them, rarely do we forgive them. I would add - till we become them. I just bought em and the big hoom!

  5. Commenting as Anonymous (ok, Anon 2 who is different from the Anonymous above) to say that your personal experience and fears resonated with me. Like the Anon who commented before me, I was scared too about inheriting my mother's temper or rather, reaching that stage when anger and irritation blurs all else and leads me to destroy things, people, memories. I wanted to be like my gentle-tempered father, not realizing that my partner has anger management issues. It is weird how we choose our partners - it just seems like we have reversed roles and I often blame myself for making him angry, maybe by that nagging that is so commonly associated with women. And inciting alcohol-induced violence.
    Someday things might be normal. Or maybe someday I will think of a life without him. Till then, I am just trying to be a good mother to a toddler and not lose my control over my temper.
    Which is why any movie or book with domestic violence tears me out, makes me feel very helpless. I try avoiding them.
    And this: "a part of me may have wished that my own father had had something of a similar reaction when my mom and I moved out; that in a rare moment of clarity and self-awareness, he may have understood what he had lost, and grieved for it"
    - I wish that happens, and sometimes it does. But alcoholism is so destructive, that unlike a lot of Hindi movies, a presence of a loving wife or an innocent child is not strong enough to bring a person back from the abyss. And even if he does come back, there is always the fear of that abyss lurking nearby, waiting to suck him back in.

    1. I honestly don't think anyone can incite alcohol induced violence. I wish you all the best and do sincerely hope that things are normal soon for you and your child.

  6. I have not seen any Star Wars film. I am about to start watching them as soon as I finish writing this, because god knows I need my force to awaken.I read this piece because the title intrigued me and I relegiously read almost anything you write. That when I might have something of a 'Reader's block', given the ardous amount of time it takes me to read.
    I don't have a Darth Vader for father, not in the quintessential sense. I wouldn't call him a monster, either. I have often wondered why does he react the way he does. He's a holier than thou, self righteous Hindu Brahmin. I've realized, he doesn't need an excuse like alcohol to unleash his wrath. I am almost certain his problem must be that he loves too much, and hence that love we recieve in several bio degradable forms like slaps, abuses etc. When I read Em and The Big Hoom, a book which shaped a lot of my understanding of people and made me go see a psychiatrist about my problems, I still remember gaping for air at one of the musings where Pinto fears turning into his mother. Because, by that time I had reached a conclusion that I am a lot similar like my father. Severely obsessive compulsive, paranoid and exhibiting fits of rage. I've since been severely conscious in curbing these factors, by way of apologizing to anybody who's been affected by my behaviousand seeking medication. That is also a reason for a humongous pile of guilt that had been inside me, ever since I gained a conscience. But what really is similar between us is our treatment of my mother. I have several regrets in life, one of them being not understanding my mother for a long time. Father being a patriarchal hindu brahmin, you know what such people think and do. Since the realization has creeped in, I have often cried at nights remembering my mother when she is sleeping in the room next to me.
    It was over a month back when my father, in another one of his "discussions", asked me a rhetorical question he asks regularly, in an angry dismissing tone- "tumne apne baap se kuch seekha bhi hai?".
    I avoid answering his questions, but that day I remember answering - "Haan, seekha hai na. How not to lead life, how not to treat your wife, children, zindagi me kya nahin karna hai ye aapne sikhaya mujhe papa". Parents indeed are cautionary models. It is really difficult to point out a problem in a morally uptight person, given the stereotyoes of the society. But the reality of the situation is no less grim.
    Thanj you so much for writing this. You gave better framed sentences to whatever I've wanted to express.

    PS: Was always repulsed by Pauline Kael's smugness in her treatment of mainstream films. I've been touched by Hum saath Saath Hain and Boyhood alike. A lesser film should never undermine whatever you take away from it.