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

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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.

The return of Shefali Shetty

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(Stills from the trailer of “Dil Dhadakne Do”)

Once upon a time on a humid day in Delhi, I sat inside a crowded staff room of a university for an admission interview.

The hall was teeming with students eager to display their skills in the extra-curricular activities category. Since they didn’t score well enough to get a seat through merit, creative talent came to their rescue to pursue higher studies. So, there were dancers, painters, athletes, creative writers. I was among those with a passion for stage speaking.

It was my turn to take the interview, which was conducted by a grim-looking panel of professors seated in another room.

“Why did you score so less, beta?” a lady sitting in the centre asked me as I nervously sat in the chair, clutching my leather file containing dozens of merit certificates.

I didn’t react to that. I had had my share of self-flagellation before facing that interview. But once I got over the question, I noticed her exhausted face, which uprooted me from reality and reminded me of snippets of TV shows seen on Doordarshan.

She looked familiar. She could have played someone’s mother, sister, daughter or a working woman on the state broadcaster’s shows.

When my mother saw her leaving the interview room for a loo break, she said, “Yes, I remember that scene in which she consoles her friend and blows her nose very loudly.”

We are still not sure in which show did she actually blow her nose or whether she appeared in any at all.

But the deal with so many second fiddle actors is you can identify them by face but don’t know their names. And the best thing about them – besides their acting, of course – is when they perform they are believable, gripping characters, who have no relation whatsoever to their lives beyond the profession. Thankfully, they don’t come with any star appeal that encumbers or colours their actual on-screen work.

One such actor is Shefali Shetty, who recently played a high society, but unhappy woman in Zoya Akhtar’s latest film “Dil Dhadakne Do”, a family drama set on a cruise.

Neelam Mehra (Shefali Shetty) is married to Kamal (Anil Kapoor) in the film. While suffering a loveless marriage and staring at bankruptcy in family business, they set out to host their 30th wedding anniversary on a cruise with their children (Priyanka Chopra and Ranveer Singh), relatives and friends.

But the façade of a successful marriage doesn’t hold for too long. Kamal is a charming, flamboyant and widely travelled businessman. A known philanderer, he happens to meet a foreigner during a sightseeing trip. The lady gets special attention from him, something that rankles his wife a great deal. As a host, it is my duty to be nice to my guests, Kamal, when questioned, explains to his agitated wife.

In the next scene, a shattered Neelam stuffs chocolate pastries into her mouth, while trying to hold back her tears and fix the smudged lipstick.

During the near-three hour long film, Shetty is a theatrical powerhouse in a story that could have been better written and executed. But the credit to her performance also goes to her boss, Akhtar, who works out the film in such a way that no character oversteps his or her brief, given the fact it is such a star-studded film. [Review here]

Neelam is a socialite, prefers her son over the daughter, and diligently commits herself to create a happy-marriage image in front of the world. Despite a discordant relationship with her husband, she is insensitive to her daughter’s marital problems that eventually lead to a bitter divorce.

And as Akhtar peels off layer after layer in the tumultuous lives of the Mehras, Neelam is made to reveal her vulnerability for the first time, when her anxiety-prone husband is hospitalised. That’s when she expresses a fear of losing him, the man whose wayward ways she got accustomed to endure. But then, there is a knock on the door and she immediately composes herself to become what is she in front of everyone – a façade.

Beyond that hospital room, I do not remember Shetty, except as a largely docile housewife in “Mohabbatein” or in a scene with Rahul Bose probably in Kucch Luv Jaisaa.

One of her best performances is supposed to be in Mira Nair’sMonsoon Wedding”, also a family drama about the lives of the Vermas captured during a Punjabi wedding in their house in Delhi.

As an unmarried and sometimes subdued Ria Verma, Shetty portrays the role of a woman living with the memory of sexual abuse since her childhood. Her tormentor is none other than a family member – a tall, fair, graying and smooth-talking Tej Puri (Rajat Kapoor). As he arrives before the wedding of her cousin, the trauma of those “seven afternoons” jolts her again. And yet, she contains her reaction and lives with his lingering presence as he tries to be friendly with another young girl.

In “Monsoon Wedding”, Shetty is subtle and never melodramatic. Those big eyes reveal a lot, more than a dialogue can. In the end, the film becomes her story, when she pours out her agony in front of the entire family.

Before “Dil Dhadakne Do”, her last substantial role was in Nagesh Kukunoor’s “Lakshmi”, which dealt with human trafficking and child prostitution.

At 42, she is leading a satisfied life with her sons and husband Vipul Amrutlal Shah, who is also part of the film industry. She loves to paint, write, cook and watch four films a week, she says in an interview to The Indian Express newspaper.

“Dil Dhadakne Do is one of the best scripts I have read. It doesn’t have huge dramatics but according to me, I have a very powerful role,” she says.

Indeed. I won’t be surprised if she wins an award in a supporting role as Neelam Mehra.