Friday, April 08, 2016

Unhappy in other ways: how Hindi-film families changed (or did they?)

[Did this piece for Open magazine. I’m not usually a fan of the medium-sized essay that tries to make sweeping statements about something as vast as Hindi-film history – how things were then vs how they are now; that sort of thing – but I tried to incorporate some of those concerns into the piece itself, and mostly enjoyed writing it]

Among the many laidback, conversational scenes in Shakun Batra’s film Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921) is one where the down-on-his-luck Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra) speaks with his new friend Tia (Alia Bhatt) about his elder brother who can do no wrong. An apparent binary has been set up at this point: both brothers are settled abroad (and are now visiting the family home in Coonoor), but while Rahul (Fawad Khan) is a glowing beacon of success, Arjun seems fated to stay in the shadows and miss opportunities.

A little later, though, we learn that it isn’t so cut-and-dried: the “perfect baccha” has vulnerabilities and secrets that he is keeping from his middle-class family. And simultaneously other things are unraveling for the Kapoors. The boys’ parents are far from the ideal of a happily (or even securely) married couple; details of the father’s relationship with another woman are unclear; there is a sudden death near the end, and this is followed not by the sort of funeral where a family unites in unqualified respect and love but by continuing sullenness since everyone is still dealing with their own issues; finally, there is a spot of goofy irreverence in the very last scene.

The Arjun-Tia scene mentioned above also has a tongue-in-cheek moment. Tia doesn’t yet know Arjun’s brother’s name, so she jokingly calls him “tumhara Karan”, an allusion to a mythological trope that has run through our cinema over the decades, as in the 1975 Deewaar, a story of two brothers on opposite sides of the law (or, closer home for today’s viewers, the 1995 Shahrukh-Salman-starrer Karan Arjun). But a Karna-Arjuna reference in Kapoor & Sons is incongruous, even chuckle-inducing, because this movie belongs to a new tradition of Hindi cinema that isn’t much interested in those familiar archetypes. It is the sort of narrative – for the most part, anyway – where people have mundane conversations and fleshed out inner lives complete with contradictions and warts (even when they are played by smoking hot actors, as they are here). Just when you think you have someone slotted, the carpet might be pulled out from under your feet.

When critics approvingly use words like “realistic” and “understated” for such films – and set them against jibes like “melodramatic” or “over the top” – one of the things they are responding to is that mainstream Hindi cinema has been moving from a mythical gear to a more novelistic one. The former – which dates back to Indian film’s earliest years, its forging in the fires of the Parsi and Sanskrit theatre – involves larger-than-life situations, the idealizing or sentimentalizing of relationships, and character types such as the self-sacrificing mother, the authoritarian father, a conniving stepmother or bhabhi, an anti-hero with the stars aligned against him. The latter mode, derived from the modern novel and closer in tone to Western cinema, is built on psychological realism, the accumulation of detail, and attention to the small moment. And with the family being the founding stone – and the holy cow – of so many of our stories, nowhere is this demythologizing more obvious than in the portrayal of families in recent films.

Speaking of which, Kapoor & Sons has another “Karan” who may appear to be playing now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t: its producer, Karan Johar. Casual followers of Hindi cinema might be surprised that such a film would be produced by a man who was long associated with the syrupy tagline “It’s all about loving your family” and who once directed the most conventional and status quo-affirming of clan sagas, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (KKKG, 2001). But Johar, like many other high-profile producer-directors, has been doing edgier things of late, and there were hints of a sly, knowing sensibility in even his earlier work. While working within the dictates of big-budget cinema and the star system, he made a film – Kabhi Alvida na Kehna (2006) – that not only dealt with marital infidelity but also cast Amitabh Bachchan, the humourless patriarch of KKKG, as the lascivious “Sexy Sam”, determined to make the most of life now that his wife has passed on. (This didn’t, of course, preclude a scene where Sam shows his vulnerable side.) More pointedly, there was the fine short film Johar made for the anthology Bombay Talkies (2013), in which a prim, upwardly mobile white-collar man is coaxed out of the closet and made to accept his homosexuality.

If slotting Johar can be difficult, this is also true for Hindi cinema in general. Until around 20 years ago, the line between “mainstream” and “non-mainstream” films was reasonably well-defined, but it is less so today. Major filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee have their thumbs in a variety of pies, and a big production house like Yash Raj Films can produce Kanu Behl’s Titli, one of the darkest family films of last year – so low-key and “indie” in its writing, direction and general appearance that one hesitates to include it as a reference point in a piece that is mainly about commercial cinema.

One must also be wary while constructing narratives or making generalisations about what has changed over the years. Take this fashionable new word, “dysfunctional”. It is easily used when describing families in Kapoor & Sons or Titli (and the usage is closely linked to particular sorts of gritty narratives from Hollywood or British films), but it shouldn’t create the impression that old Hindi cinema was a sanskaari utopia. Look at some of its milestones. Who would think of the families in Awaara (man abandons his pregnant wife; son is raised by a criminal) or Mother India (mother shoots her errant son) or Deewaar, or even the social dramas of the 1980s, where henpecked older brothers and their crafty wives made life difficult for the goody-goody heroes, as models to aspire towards? Dysfunctional, in some form or the other, has always been around.

So it’s better to focus on treatment rather than subject matter. Here’s an example. Zoya Akhtar’s 2011 film Zindagi na Milegi Dobaraa (ZNMD) has a subplot about Imran (Farhan Akhtar) seeking out the biological father he has never known, Salman (Naseeruddin Shah), who left Imran’s mother decades earlier. This situation broadly resembles one from a very different sort of film scripted by Akhtar’s father Javed Akhtar in 1978: Trishul, in which Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay sets out to find and destroy the man who had deserted his mother. But the handling of the theme in the two films is very different. Made during the high tide of the Angry
Young Man era (and the Salim-Javed era), Trishul is driven by Vijay’s barely controlled anger and intensity, and by fiery phrases like “mera naajayaz baap” (“my illegitimate father”). There is a clear mythic arc and a reconciliation: the father redeems himself in the end by taking a bullet for his son; even in tragedy, the world is made whole again. (And yes, again there is a variant on Karna-Arjuna, with Bachchan as the outcast treading a path of fire and Shashi Kapoor as the privileged legal heir.)

In ZNMD, Imran gets a form of closure too, but the scene is deliberately hesitant and underplayed, and derives much of its impact from little touches such as the father carefully rolling a joint while speaking to the son he has never seen before. There is no apologizing, no dialogue-baazi, there isn’t even a background score – if you were hoping for heightened emotions and epiphanies, the wind is taken out of your sails (which is one reason why many viewers of my generation feel ambivalent about the new, cooler cinema and sometimes find it pretentious or distancing). It bears mentioning here that by the standards of recent multiplex cinema, ZNMD was an uncomplicated, audience-friendly film with attractive leads and exotic locations. But today, even such films are open to bittersweet or cynical endings that simulate something of the messiness of real life – again a bequest of the novelistic tradition.

Akhtar is one of our sharpest directors, even while operating within a glossy, big-budget idiom, and her last film Dil Dhadakne Do – one of the best-looking movies of 2015 – didn’t get as much credit as it deserved for its portrait of generational conflict, of how melodrama and conservatism continue to figure in the lives of even outwardly sophisticated Indians, and how children can see through their parents’ machinations and hypocrisies. All these things come into play when the wealthy Kamal Mehra (Anil Kapoor) keeps his daughter Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra) out of the family business and throws a fit when she wants a divorce (“that sort of thing doesn’t happen in our family”). Ayesha’s sense of being sidelined, of being made to feel like “paraya dhan” (an old-world phrase that is relevant to but would never be used in this narrative), is a reminder of one of the more notable changes in recent cinema’s family depictions: the increasing attention paid to the father-daughter bond.

With the leading man having been central to Hindi cinema for most of its history – literally its laadla beta – it is unsurprising that father-son and mother-son relationships have been done to death. On the other hand, when I think of fathers and daughters in old Hindi films, the dominant motif is the infantilisation of the “bitiya", represented by the girlish shrieks of “Daddy! Daddy!” by Asha Parekh and others as they set off on a picnic or cajoled wealthy papas into giving them a birthday treat; even in more recent years, Simran (Kajol) in Dilwale Dulhaniya le Jaayenge (1995) or Megha (Aishwarya Rai) in Mohabbatein (2000) were under the control of authoritarian fathers. This has been changing, and has much to do with increasing consciousness about presenting women characters who are self-sufficient (personally and professionally) and positive role models.

Consider two of the most well-observed Hindi films of the past year. In Shoojit Sircar’s Piku, a father doesn’t want his working daughter to get married (he is insecure about her leaving him) but seems fine about her having casual relationships; at another end of the spectrum, a father in Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan is devastated by his unmarried daughter being caught in a sexual tryst. But this difference is more superficial than it first appears, having much to do with the milieus and social assumptions in each story (cosmopolitan family in south Delhi vs teacher with a reputation to protect in conservative Varanasi). What may be more important is that in both films there is real camaraderie between the protagonists, they have actual conversations, and the women perform roles that would once be the exclusive dominion of sons. In fact, the small-town father in Masaan – who, despite his own hurt and humiliation, recognises his daughter’s right to be her own person – is in some ways more progressive than the globe-trotting corporate big-shot in Dil Dhadakne Do.

There is increasing frankness in depictions of parents and children: a father might tell a potential suitor for his daughter that she isn’t a virgin (Piku), a son might confront his parents with their infidelities and double standards (Kapoor & Sons, Dil Dhadakne Do). And once in a while, candour morphs into inspired lunacy. Vikas Bahl’s very weird and very underrated Shaandaar (2015) began with the potentially sentimental premise of a man bringing home his (illegitimate) biological child under the cloak of adoption. This situation is mildly similar to that of the sensitive 1983 family drama Masoom, but Shaandaar manufactures a hallucinogenic fairytale out of it. The grand reveal occurs around the intermission, and you expect this to be followed by an emotional scene; instead, Alia (Alia Bhatt again – her pixie-like persona always lending itself well to ironic or whimsical scenes) claps her hands excitedly and trills about how cool it is to be naajaayaz.

This is not something you would have caught Hindi-film protagonists of an earlier time doing – certainly not the glowering Vijay of Trishul, much less young women unsure of their place in family and world. Perhaps it indicates that impudence and wackiness will be the tones of the future, that the adarsh family will begin to resemble the Addams Family, and dysfunctional may yet be the new humdrum.


[Earlier posts on some of the films mentioned here: Bombay Talkies; Piku; Shaandaar. And my long essay about mothers in Hindi cinema, written for the Zubaan anthology Of Mothers and Others, is here]

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