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Current Cinema: Families Under Stress

It’s a tried and tested trope: bring the family together for an event (both death and weddings will do) for an extended period of time and put it under stress. Simmering resentments and suppressed differences will keep the drama nicely on the boil till the lid is blown off. Catharsis (full-blown outbursts or more restrained […]

It’s a tried and tested trope: bring the family together for an event (both death and weddings will do) for an extended period of time and put it under stress. Simmering resentments and suppressed differences will keep the drama nicely on the boil till the lid is blown off. Catharsis (full-blown outbursts or more restrained airing of repressed feelings, depending on the filmmaker) is followed by a reconciliation of sorts. People could end up being wiser for the experience. This is the basic structure of the sturdy family drama that survives all the vicissitudes of scattered members gathered under the ancestral roof, finding an opportunity to vent frustrations. Both in Hollywood and in India, it is a fail-safe mantra that a good ensemble cast and sharp, insightful writing plus a director with an eye for quirks of character can turn into a memorable film.

Last month Seema Pahwa, the veteran television, theatre, and film actor made her directorial debut with Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi boasting an enviably stellar cast at the MAMI film festival. Pahwa has made the screen mother her own in films as different as Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, Bareilly Ki Barfi and Aankhon Dekhi. She gives her characters a highly vivid recall value, and just one scene is enough to stamp it as her own. Pahwa is part of the group of talented actors that give nuance, humour and individuality so essential to add muscle and movement to storytelling. This recent trend of making the supporting cast integral to the narrative, often more interesting than the romantic lead, is most welcome.

How Pahwa’s thespian experience translates into direction is keenly awaited. The poster is packed with visual drama. A lot of action from the gathered group vies for attention, centred as it is around a garlanded portrait of Naseeruddin Shah, obviously the man for whom the 13th-day obsequies are being held. White-clad Supriya Pathak sits under the portrait, weighted down by grief (presumably, since we don’t know the undercurrents of what looks like a black comedy!). Konkona Sen Sharma and Vikrant Massey, standing beside the portrait, are having what looks like a stolen tête-a-tête. The guests in the foreground are grinning for selfies. The grim reaper sets off grins of all kinds.

It reminds me of the wonderful Marathi satire Ventilator. Here, the entire Karmekar clan, from the ancestral village branch and to other relatives in Bombay, congregate in the waiting room of a hospital as the family patriarch is hooked to a ventilator. Director Rajesh Mapuskar allows spontaneous sparks from the disparate gathering while holding a tight rein over the narrative with panache. The film reminded so many of their own family (dysfunctional or otherwise) and what happens overtly and covertly when close and distant members meet. Even Khosla Ka Ghosla had an eerie moment when the paterfamilias Anupam Kher thinks he is dead and the neighbourhood has gathered — curious and mournful. Amidst all the usual chatter, you have the presumed widow giving her recipe to another woman. A surreal moment when the dearly departed thinks how everyday life, so utterly banal, goes around him — a wake-up call for all of us who think we are indispensable. Yet another reiteration that life is often farcical when it’s supposed to be tragic.

It is over the past decade and half that Hindi cinema has ventured into this tragi-comic territory and made the audience recognise and accept what was hitherto taboo for mainstream entertainment. Death was solemn, villains were black sheep who returned to the fold in the last frame (suitably chastened), the patriarchal couple was usually noble in their stoic suffering and family bonds were upheld as the acme of perfection, an ideal state that resurrected itself magically after passing through vicissitudes of disharmony and strife. This family melodrama ruled for decades during the 60s into the 70s, under the all- encompassing rubric of the Madras formula. There was often a comedy track that was tagged on: loud and very often cacophonous.

This idealised state survived with tenacity under the Rajshree banner. Suraj Barjatya presided over sumptuous, star-and-song studded sagas that sang paeans to the virtues of the Hindu family — with nods to secularism and paternalistic socialism via Muslim family friends and faithful family retainers. Karan Johar expanded it to the diaspora and made lavish blockbusters where love your family was the magic mantra. Even he came round to unhappy marriages in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna and single moms in Kal Ho Naa Ho. Is it possible to read the family as the metaphor for the greater family, the nation, in the heroic tradition of Mother India? That is another question that demands discussion. Suffice to say that our vision of the family as representing the nation has shrunk even as triumphalist nationalism seeks to homogenize a very diverse people.

Large, unwieldy family sagas have shifted base to television. There are enough characters to spin off subplots and stretch the serial till viewers die of boredom or exhaustion. Reflecting social changes, most films now have nuclear families with perhaps a grandfather/grandmother in residence. Badhaai Ho!, Vicky Donor, Queen…all have a feisty Dadi in residence. In Badhaai Ho! the true face of Dadi’s daughter and other daughter-in-law are exposed when she goes to Meerut to attend a wedding. The very pregnant Neena Gupta is the target of tittering relatives making barbed comments and the hitherto carping Dadi speaks of the care and concern the bahu she lives with has showed on her.

Weddings and deaths bring uncles, aunts and cousins together to create conflict and resolution. Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding is the mother of all wedding-based dramas. Not many have come anywhere close to her intelligent narrative that blends sophistication, humour and insight culminating in spilling the dirty secret of a pedophilic uncle. The big fat Indian wedding can’t hide ugly warts under the glittering celebration. Monsoon Wedding remains a trendsetter that travelled well: a Golden Lion in Venice and a crossover success in the West. The earlier wedding films stumbled on the perennial dowry issue with a preachy resolution to end this evil. Now dowry doesn’t raise its ugly head under all the jollity of rituals celebrated at length à la Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! Even today, the sangeet, mehendi, pheras are slavishly mounted on grand scale — in life and on screen, small and large.

Stories set in small towns and those set in large cities carry the ethos that is hospitable to extended families. Take Dum Laga Ke Haisha. The Haridwar family living in an old-fashioned house with narrow rooms and small common areas is crowded with an aunt in residence along with the main family. The ill-suited newlyweds have hardly any privacy to resolve the hero’s aversion to his overweight wife. The same lead pair, Ayushmann Khurrana and Bhumi Pednekar, have to cope with the bride’s uncles and aunts who are smarting under perceived insults by the girl’s parents when it comes to wedding arrangements in Shubh Mangal Saavdhan. And when the groom’s erectile dysfunction becomes common knowledge, the poor guy is hounded by unwanted advice from well-meaning relatives. Not to speak of his own father who nurses feelings of male inadequacy by producing a son who can’t perform. The film deals with a delicate subject with unexpected candour couched in euphemisms. It is as if the clan gathering loosens inhibitions and gives an opportunity for one-upmanship games to set the family hierarchy right.

Dysfunctional families are something we are loathe to acknowledge. The same Karan Johar who manufactured angst in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham produced Kapoor & Sons that explored the soured feelings and betrayed expectations of an upper-middleclass family in Coonoor. The middleaged couple Harsh (Rajat Kapoor) and Sunita (Ratna Pathak Shah) routinely trade insults at the breakfast table, unmindful of the rambunctious Harsh’s old father (Rishi Kapoor). The visit of their two sons — the older successful writer in London Rahul (Fawad Khan) and the younger, doing odd jobs in pursuit of a writing career in the US, Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra) — when the adored grandfather’s heart attack gradually reveals the frayed relationships between brothers. Sibling rivalry, discovery of the father’s on-going liaison with another woman, Harsh’s guilt at his failed business and Sunita’s frustration at not being to start her catering service…layer by layer, the resentments surface with no forced reconciliations in sight.

There is also the issue of literary theft of Rahul’s unfinished story by Rahul that makes it a bestseller. Tia (Alia Bhatt) appears to sell her ancestral bungalow and this exacerbates the worsening relationship between brothers, who see each other as rivals. Sunita’s complicity in giving Arjun’s unfinished story to her favourite son almost snaps their relationship. The greatest shock to Sunita is finding out that Rahul is in a committed relationship with a man. A very tenuous understanding is hinted at after Harsh dies in an accident and the sons return after six months to fulfill their grandfather’s wish for a family photograph of Kapoor & Sons, a cutout stands in for Harsh. Rancour gradually yields to acceptance. A tenuous hope lingers, like a fragile thread to repair frayed relationships.

It is the indeed the coming of age of the family in Indian cinema. Shonali Bose’s two films, Margarita with a Straw and The Sky is Pink, showcase the millennial family that is taking root in urban India. In both films centred round daughters with disability, the driving force of the close-knit nuclear family is the determined mother advocating her daughter’s case with ferocious determination. In Margarita with a Straw, it’s Revathy as the mother who encourages her teenaged daughter suffering from cerebral palsy to go to the US to study. She’s the tigress mother who will not let any opportunity slip by if it could help her bright daughter to succeed in life. The stress takes the mother’s life.

The Sky is Pink is again the story of a tigress mother and her supportive husband to do the impossible for their baby daughter who has severely compromised immunity. This is a story based on a real family. A rare genetic coincidence afflicts the Choudhary couple and they had lost their first daughter to this inherited threat of early death. Aditi (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) is determined not to abort an unexpected pregnancy and she takes baby Aisha to London for treatment. It’s the story of a family overcoming financial problems and years of living separately so that their daughter has a chance. Bose imbues what could have been a tearjerker with Aisha’s voice over narration of her and her parents’ life in a tone stripped of self-pity, spunky and irreverent, teasing the parents about their sex life (totally taboo in our society but this is a gutsy millennial kid). The family’s ups and downs are smoothened by Aisha’s narration and when emotion slams into you, it hits hard. All the more because it has been restrained most of the time.

The family seems to have travelled a long way from the 60s melodramas to contemporary mix of irony and irreverent love. Leave the unwieldy, conniving families reveling in kitchen politics to TV and welcome the refreshing new take on the way families often function now, where closeness also includes giving space to individuals. And recognise that children thrive when they are valued for what they are and not the surrogates of parents who want to live through them.