Monday, February 26, 2018

Travelers, platforms: recent depictions of vulnerable parents and headstrong children

[in my latest Mint Lounge column, thoughts on a lovely scene in the new film Love Per Square Foot]

In some of the busier, more detail-rich Hindi films of recent years, the supporting characters have been more compelling than the protagonists. I can’t think of many better examples of this than Anand Tiwari’s Love per Square Foot, a romantic comedy-drama released on Netflix earlier this month.

Taken as a whole, the film blew hot and cold for me. Despite the likable duo at its centre – Sanjay (Vicky Kaushal) and Karina (Angira Dhar), two bank employees who fall in love after making a joint deal to buy a flat – the narrative was long-winded and sometimes seemed like it was trying too hard to be cute. But this was partly made up for by some fine sequences involving a trio of veteran actors: Raghuvir Yadav and the real-life sisters Ratna Pathak Shah and Supriya Pathak.

One wonderfully delicate and moving scene is set during the retirement celebration of Sanjay’s father Bhaskar (Yadav), a railway employee who came to Mumbai thirty years earlier to be a singer but ended up in the much less glamorous profession of train announcer. This hasn’t killed the artist in the man, or his need for riyaaz: the first time we see him, at the film’s beginning, he is practicing on his harmonium, clearing his throat, testing the word “yaatri” (traveler). Now, in the retirement scene, Bhaskar makes a hesitant speech about train lines being like haath ki lakeer (palm lines) and how one might easily get on the wrong platform in life too; how announcers like him are like parents gently steering their children towards the right path (even as those children get impatient and complain).

In a room full of appreciative (if somewhat jaded-looking) colleagues, he then not only makes his last train announcement but is also coerced to sing a few lines of the classic song “Musafir hun yaaron” – and we see people on a platform, listening. The inner world of a peripheral character has come alive: Bhaskar has, very briefly, realised his dream of singing for a public (though the lyricism of a Gulzar-penned song is then followed by a mundane announcement about a Bandra train). At the same time, the words “na ghar hai, na thikaana” comment on the ongoing struggles of his son, who is trying to break away from his father by getting his own space in the big city.

Watching the scene, I was reminded of another, younger version of Yadav (one of our finest actors, though his career has had many starts and stops) – as the junkie Chillum, who lives and dies near the railway tracks, more often than not finding himself on the wrong path, in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay. But I was also reminded of how adept the “multiplex film” has become at depicting a certain sort of vulnerable parent – a character who might at first seem to exist in the narrative only as an obstacle or antagonist for the younger generation, but who has a hidden depth and a back-story, even when the film doesn’t overtly explore it.

In Love per Square Foot itself, Bhaskar isn’t the only such parent. Another strong scene has Karina’s mother, the chatty Mrs D’Souza (Ratna Pathak Shah), feeling wounded when her daughter gives her a lecture about wanting to be her own person – “not like you, dependent on your brother”. Oh no, you’ll never be me, the mother replies in a tone that combines hurt with sarcasm. You’re not capable of the sacrifices I made to bring you up.

It has generally been a good time for well-written and performed parental figures who get to both shape and passively comment on their children’s lives. Pankaj Tripathi and Seema Pahwa got deserved praise for their roles as the heroine’s fretting parents in Bareilly ki Barffi, but Tripathi also played a different, more sinister father – a real-estate developer whose life and actions cast a shadow over those of his children – in one of last year’s most underrated films, Shanker Raman’s Gurgaon.

Just as interesting is when the generational conflict plays out in ways where the viewer is left a little ambivalent. Without making sweeping statements about self-centred youngsters and their sacrificing parents, it seems to me that the arc of our socially conscious cinema – emphasizing progressiveness, self-actualisation, individual freedom – often stacks the cards in favour of the young and against the old. However, some of the best writing gives us people who might be innately tradition-bound but are also trying to understand new ways of living and thinking.

One of the most complex scenes along this vein occurred in Anurag Kashyap’s excellent Mukkabaaz, when Shravan (Vineet Kumar Singh) explodes at his father, who is questioning his decision to become a boxer. The scene – driven by Singh’s heartfelt performance and a script full of gems (“You are both zeroes,” Shravan rages at his parents, “How did you expect me to become an Aryabhatt?”) – seems to put us in the young man’s corner. And yet there is something about the sad-looking father’s expression as he sits there in his faded pullover, tries to rage back and comically mispronounces “passion” as “fashion”. He does eventually stand by his son, and you wonder if this “shunya” (zero) once had mad dreams of his own, how life ran roughshod over them – and how much the son owes, without realizing it, to his parents having gone for stability over passion.

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