“Kapoor & Sons” and a brief history of “family” in Bollywood

kapoorandsons759

Shakun Batra’s “Kapoor & Sons” (2016) is the latest example of how Bollywood’s portrayal of the family is changing dramatically.

The film is about the Kapoors, living in Tamil Nadu’s Coonoor hill station (nobody knows how these Punjabis landed there). The husband and wife (Rajat Kapoor and Ratna Pathak Shah) play a perennially quarrelling married couple, who have differences over money, or the lack of it; the man’s alleged closeness to a certain Anu aunty that eventually turns out to be an affair; and his opposition to his wife’s plans of starting her own bakery. Also bring in a wacky,  horny (despite being seriously unwell), eager-to-die and over-the-top grandfather in the name of Rishi Kapoor; and his cantankerous grown-up grandsons (Fawad Khan and Siddharth Malhotra) who are not fond of each other either; a love angle between Malhotra and Alia Bhatt; and a gay man (Khan) being “outed” by his mother when she looks at his laptop.

That pretty much sums up the film that shows extremely high-decibel fights between family members who don’t seem to agree on anything and have skeletons in their cupboard that invariably tumble out towards the end.

The fights are ugly, nearly breaking down an institution long glorified in Hindi cinema – say thanks to the Sooraj Barjatya school of film-making, for example, with their modern-day Ramayana like too-good-to-be-true characters.

“Kapoor & Sons” can be seen as an extension of “Dil Dhadakne Do” (2015), Zoya Akhtar’s family drama that’s set on a cruise during – don’t miss the irony – the wedding anniversary celebrations of an unhappily married couple (Shefali Shetty and Anil Kapoor) . Their dysfunctionality peaks when, in the end, they spar bitterly that is made to look like a slugfest between family members probably not shown before in Bollywood.

Add “Piku” (2015) – a funny film about a single woman (Deepika Padukone) and her potty-obsessed, irritable father (Amitabh Bachchan) – to this list of heightened family melodramas and you realise that in the depiction of present-day urban family situations there is so much that is unsettling. If it is unsettling, it is probably true and in that these films also hold a mirror to our lives. But these films seem to suggest that the mask of utopia seen in the portrayal of families, especially towards the climax of many films in the past, has come off.

Of course, children rebelling against the family and discordant relationships have been done-to-death themes in Bollywood. There are umpteen examples, but to name a few the following come to my mind: “Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak”, “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge”, “Dil”, “Maine Pyaar Kiya” etc.

These films are a far cry from the day when Amit (Amitabh Bachchan) in “Kabhi Kabhie” and “Silsila”, Yash Chopra’s large-scale and his most famous romances till date, would put family honour and duty above his relationships with Pooja (Rakhi) and Chandni (Rekha) in both the films.

“Humein koi haq nahin pahunchta ki hum apni khushi  ke liye apne maa baap ke armaanon ka gala ghont dein, unki lashon par apne pyaar ka mahal banayein,” he tells Pooja as she is about to marry Shashi Kapoor in “Kabhi Kabhie”.

To put it less melodramatically, these lines simply mean – we have no right to put our dreams over our parents’.

In another Chopra production with a typically ensemble cast, “Waqt” (1965), the reunification of Lala Kedarnath (Balraj Sahni) and family, who are torn apart by an earthquake, is the underlying theme and the eventual aim of the film. Ten years later, in “Deewar”, Bachchan’s now-institutionalised dialogue “Mere paas maa hain” simply shows the premium Bollywood stories gave to the representation of the family and its celebration.

In the late 1980s, just on the cusp of India’s liberalisation and the subsequent advent of modernity, “Sansar” (1989) would talk about the difficulty of a joint family sticking together because of a showdown of egos and varied interests. In “Avtaar” (1983), Shabana Azmi and Rajesh Khanna play an older couple, who are neglected by their children. In the end, Avtaar (Khanna) dies of a heart attack and leaves the will in the name of his wife Radha.

Somewhat inspired by this Mohan Kumar film, among other influences, “Baghban” (2003) would attempt the same – disown the children who don’t look after their parents. The final speech of Amitabh Bachchan speaking of his hurt as a neglected father is part of the comparatively lesser-heard perspective of the older generation about their children.

Now, dialogue in films like “Kapoor & Sons”, “Dil Dhadakne Do” and even “Piku” show the acrimony has acquired a shrillness and madness not seen earlier. Whatever little was left of the gentleness and covert questioning has vanished completely, making way for a filial discord that is unabashedly in-your-face.

Perhaps, upcoming film R Balki’s “Ki and Ka”, starring Kareena Kapoor and Arjun Kapoor, may provide some comic relief from the non-stop ghar ghar ki kahani in showing a full-time “house-husband”, whose wife is “the man” in their marriage.

Reading “Carol” and “Fire” together

003.jpg

The most everlasting feature of American film-maker Todd Haynes’ “Carol” is Cate Blanchett. In the film, she is Carol Aird, a charming, but unhappy woman suffering a bitter divorce from Harge (Kyle Chandler).

While seeking out a younger woman, Blanchett acts out Carol’s seducing skills with stunning brevity – an affair that has repercussions for her family. [Review by The Telegraph]

“Carol”, based on novel “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith, is set in the New York of the 50s. In its writing, direction, performance and – let’s not forget – the clothes, it’s a beautiful film; a modern-day Casablanca, you can say, in its attention to style and dress.

But it’s a sad film too.

One day, ahead of Christmas, Carol buys a present for her daughter from a department store, where she meets a shop girl by the name of Therese Belivet (Ronney Mara). That meeting – between a costumer and a saleswoman – arouses their curiosity for each other, leading to a secret love affair that eventually jeopardises Carol’s demand for sharing the custody of her daughter with her to-be-divorced husband.

Therese is unsure of her feelings towards Richard, her so-called boyfriend who wants to marry her. Almost dumping the man, she takes a road trip with Carol, where the women drop all restraint and have sex for the first time.

A detective appointed by Harge tapes Carol’s and Therese’s stay at a hotel room. The warning of exposing Carol’s homosexuality – she had had a relationship with best friend Abby years ago – becomes the reason for Harge to seek the sole custody of their daughter Rindy.

On hearing the news, Carol flees the hotel, leaving Therese in the company of Abby, who drives the girl back home. Except for a letter by Carol, the women remain incommunicado for sometime.

In the end, Carol moves to an apartment and becomes a furniture buyer. Therese joins The New York Times as a photographer. They meet. Carol offers Therese to live with her.

After her initial no, later, Therese is seen walking towards Carol, who is in a business meeting. In the final sequence, their eyes meet in what appears to be a happily-ever-after ending.

It’s an end that does not have men in it. What if Carol had been dating a man? Would it still have merited a “morality clause” in the divorce petition? Of course, it has a lot to do with the taboo of homosexuality that existed in America 60 years ago. That was decades before the American Psychiatric Association removed the mention of homosexuality as a mental disorder in the 1970s, even though the discrimination against gays persisted.

“Carol”, whose original text is considered to be a feminist lesbian classic, took me back to “Fire”. Released in 1996, the Deepa Mehta film had two women – wives of two brothers – walk out of their loveless and sex-less marriages to live with each other.

Deepa_Mehta_-_Fire_poster.jpg

We don’t know what kind of lives Radha (Shabana Azmi) and Sita (Nandita Das), the main characters of “Fire”, lead with each other, whether are they happy or not. Ditto with Carol and Therese. [Review of “Fire” by NYT]

But in excluding men from their lives, these women challenge the obvious authority that emanates from being married to these men. In “Fire”, for example, the husbands of Radha and Sita neglected them; one practised sexual abstinence, under the guidance of a spiritual master; and his brother dates a Chinese woman. In other words, they were at the mercy of them, not only in financial terms. In “Carol”, Richard and Harge want their women to the point of desperation.

In their rejection of men as partners, are they looking for personal freedom in their search for love and happiness?  It’s hard to arrive at a clear answer, but in the case of “Fire” it is certainly the end of patriarchal tyranny. In “Carol” the women don’t want to be with their men because they are naturally drawn to each other, and less driven by circumstances as in “Fire” and it probably has more to do with free choice. Perhaps it’s a mix of all these factors. But you do wonder if the husbands of Radha and Sita had kept them happy, would “Fire” have happened?

And you still wonder, given the open-ended nature of the endings, whether these decisions and choices are definitive? Cast in stone? Again, there are no clear answers.

Film Review – 45 Years

“The direction and screenplay is understated, but younger viewers might find themselves stifling a yawn or two at times. The slow pace however, can make 45 Years somewhat brisk run-time seem much longer. On the other hand, the film is perfect for the elderly to see, be intrigued by and savor,” The Times of India said in its review of the British film released last year.

I am young and I didn’t stifle a yawn while watching this magnificent film shot in the British countryside. But then someone would tap my shoulder and say – who asked you to read a review in The Times of India, the part-tabloid, part-news-paper. Never mind it is one of the world’s largest selling.

But this isn’t about Times of India-bashing, after all there are many others gainfully employed doing that. This is about “45 Years” – a film about marriage, isolation, and hurt.

There is a twist, however: the trigger for the fissure between the couple who’re about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary is a dead woman who existed much before they got together.

One day, when a letter arrives from Switzerland informing Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) that the body of his long gone ex-girlfriend has been found in a glacier, Geoff’s wife Kate (Charlotte Rampling) grapples with a ghost from his past that drives a wedge in their relationship. This, a week ahead of their anniversary celebration.

The memory of Katya, who plunged to death during a hike with Geoff, haunts the Mercers. Geoff is somewhat shaken by the news and looks up the dictionary to understand the letter written in German. He climbs into the attic to revisit some memories. One day, Kate goes there too and finds Katya’s photos, one of them suggests that Katya was pregnant before she died.

Earlier Geoff tells Kate he and his then girl friend had planned to live together. When Kate comes to know her husband is secretly planning a trip to Switzerland, she gets upset and realises he’s drifted into the past and probably still has feelings for his dead lover.

While a moody Geoff deals with the memory of Katya by keeping to himself, his marriage to Kate suffers. In the end, he delivers a moving speech at their anniversary party, telling his wife how much he loves her. But his words, even when he brings himself to tears, do not mitigate Kate’s worries.

The most remarkable quality of “45 Years” is its implicitness, leaving many things unsaid. We don’t know what Geoff is going through, nor do we get a peep into Kate’s mind, except that she hates the way her marriage – after forty five years – has turned out, because of a letter. Although it is evident from his speech that Geoff is wants to save his marriage, Kate is on a different page.

The final sequence sums up their situation. It features a dance between Rampling and Courtenay to “Smoke Gets in You Eyes”. In the end, Kate is shown drifting into herself.

Their performance is subtle and understated, without ever slackening in intensity. The serene landscape of Norfolk serves as a befitting background to the underlying tension between the couple.

Rampling, who won the Silver Bear for Best Actress award, is brilliant as the dejected wife. Geoff, also winner of the best actor award, is good too; but Rampling steals the show.

The lonely old men of ‘Aligarh’ and ‘The Lunchbox’

‘Aligarh’, a film about a professor caught in a scandal for having sex with a man in his apartment, reminded me of ‘The Lunchbox’.

Although the two films are worlds apart in their themes, they give an insight into lives of two men who, despite having full-time government jobs, are on the fringes of society.

Professor Siras, played by Manoj Bajpayee, and Irrfan Khan, who is Sajan Fernandes in ‘The Lunchbox’, live by themselves. Siras does his grocery shopping, occasionally picking up some whiskey on his way back home to go with his solitary mehfil of Lata Mangeshkar’s apki nazron ne samjha. Sajan gets his food from a nearby dhaba, has his meal while reading an old book. His post-dinner cigarette breaks are punctuated by scenes of a family having dinner right across his house.

In ‘Aligarh’, a reporter asks Siras whether he married or not. Bajpayee, in a never-before-seen, but brilliantly understated performance, said he was always immersed in his books and Lata. The wife obviously felt neglected and left him. It had nothing to do with “sexual preference”, he said.

Sajan’s lunchbox is a misplaced one, meant for another man by his wife. She prepares the best of meals, thanks to the instructions of her aunty living upstairs. The lunchbox becomes ‘the pigeon’, establishing an exchange of letters between Sajan and the woman.

Sajan’s interest is a married woman with a child, who suspects her husband to be having an affair with another woman. They plan to meet in a restaurant, but that meeting never takes place.

Siras, on the other hand, found a friend – and more than that – in a man who worked as a rickshaw puller.

Siras and Sajan, like any person, are probably seeking more what than they have. And yet, in their search they end up getting entangled in “illicit” desires – one deemed so by the law and the other by social norms. These desires, the films show us, never work out. For one, it costs him his life.

They are the brooding, melancholy and self-effacing anti-heroes, who enjoy their company, their books, and music. Their life is also a reflection of the stigma attached to single men – and women – prone to several deviances by virtue of their single-dom, according to their critics. In the end, it’s about the difficulty of living as an older and single person in India.

While there may be nothing contemporary or novel about such a lifestyle, its portrayal – in two recent films – is particularly striking and probably marks a shift in story ideas of today’s writers.

Are they new age, albeit less intense, Guru Dutts? I wouldn’t know.

Love is (always) Strange

Love_Is_Strange_(film)

Yes, it is. And it’s many other things too. But did we need a film to tell us it is so? Perhaps.

‘Love is Strange’ is about two older men, who get married after knowing each other for 39 years. But the marriage costs George, a Catholic school music teacher, his job as the news reaches the archdiocese. That results in their separation as they can’t anymore afford to live in their apartment. George moves in with his neighbours, two policemen who are a couple too. Ben, an artist, shares the bunk bed with the only son of his nephew and novelist wife.

Despite the distance and the difficulty of having to adjust to new people, George and Ben stick to each other. It is interesting to note that their relationship isn’t borrowed from the many stereotypes that the LGBT lives are sometimes unfairly associated with. Concerns of livelihood and being together matter most to this couple.

While Ben and George deal with their situation, the film also has several subtexts – the transition from childhood to adulthood, teenage love, ideas of personal space, modern relationships, art, and housing issues for non-salaried older people. These themes are handled equally well and with a rare insight that make ‘Love is Strange’ a fine film to watch.

But I wonder if such a film were to come to anti-gay India, these issues – and the fact that it’s a good film too – would probably get lost in the din of the expected controversy over the film’s main characters.

Watch the film for its deceptively simple writing; minimal, but beautiful, background score and a beautiful piece of artwork.

Learning to Drive – on road and elsewhere

Learning_to_Drive_Poster

Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley-starrer ‘Learning to Drive’ uses the metaphor of a driving lesson in New York to make a point about life and relationships.

Clarkson plays Wendy, a book editor, who’s husband has just left her for another woman. Kingsley is Darwan, a meticulous and gentle Sikh man, who is Wendy’s driving instructor.

During one of the lessons, Darwan tells his student – when you drive, you have to look straight ahead and not let your mind get distracted.

Doesn’t the mind wander? Wendy asks.

No, I pray. The sardar replies.

It seemed to me that the man was implicitly telling her about life, just when she was going through a divorce with her husband that she didn’t want, even though he had cheated on her.

But in life we do fumble, and flounder. Don’t we? Like one night, during an evening driving lesson, Wendy bangs another car. And then, just when the film may have been giving subtle hints – at least to me – of an impending romance or sex between the teacher and student, a hinterland woman from Punjab arrives in the U.S., who would be the sardar’s wife the next day.

When the driving lesson is over, Darwan asks Wendy if they can hang out. Wendy says no, because he’s a good man. But we don’t get to know what the man actually thinks of her. Does he see her only as a friend? Or does he feel bound by the morality of the country he comes from? Does it boost his self-confidence to be friends with a white woman?

The film is soon over; the initial awkwardness and diffidence between the Sikh couple wears off too. In the end, the whole film seems like a lesson in riding the steering of life. You can slip, but there are consequences too. You want to drive straight ahead and not get distracted by what’s happening left or right, you’d miss some things too, but it would be a safe drive.

What kind of a driver are you?

[Note: ‘Learning to Drive’ is based on an autobiographical short story by Katha Pollitt, a long-time political columnist for The Nation. In the original version, her teacher is actually from the Philippines.]

When Enough is Said

Enough_Said_(film)

When you go through shit and some more of the same, enough is said and done. And that probably happens when relationships either grow or fall or stagnate and when you’re in search of the new ones.

‘Enough Said’ is one such story that is about people who’ve had bad relationships, but are still looking for more in life. And yet, despite the lack of success in that area, there is a quietude about them, a resignation and mellowness that probably comes as you move ahead in life. Maybe. Maybe not.

Eva, a beautiful divorced masseuse starts to date Albert, a handsome, but obese, man. Later, she finds out that he is her friend and client Marianne’s ex-husband.

Marianne’s hatred for Albert affects Eva’s relationship with him – whether it’s his excessively high intake of calories, sex or lack of side tables in his bedroom.

One day, Albert discovers that Eva and Marriane are friends and that his girlfriend hid her friendship from him. It breaks his heart and he says he is too old for that.

They split up, until another day Eva goes back to his house and they get back together.

The film is a romantic comedy written with a lot of subtlety. Its humour is understated that would not make you guffaw but may provoke limited laughter and for a film like ‘Enough Said’ it is apt and good enough.

There’s no melodrama either despite the fact that the film is about mostly unhappy people, discordant emotions and relationships. But the film still has several moments of smiles and silences that give an impression of beholding a meandering river on a sunny day.

James Gandolfini stands out as the charming divorced man who seeks out a much younger woman in Eva, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The Sopranos star died of heart attack shortly after the film’s release in 2013. Louis-Dreyfus is pleasant as the confused and credulous divorced masseuse in search of love.

Watch the film for its treatment of mature romance – I am sure you haven’t had enough of it yet.