Non-conformists are not always synonymous with subversives. A subversion is a calculated act that questions undermine and negates the entrenched attitudes/ norms of people and the society they live in. The more entrenched the attitudes, the more diligently a film has to work at every level of the narrative to subvert them. It’s a highly risky proposition when the film aims to be an entertainer first and then tries to pack in a purpose. It’s a new sub-genre that has delivered hits. The leader of this distinct pack is Rajkumar Hirani and now, Nitesh Tiwari has emerged with his own voice.
Parenting is his forte. It comes under the guise of campus capers in Chhichhore and this is what works for the film: nostalgia for some and revenge of the underdogs for others. Tiwari’s serious underlying preoccupation has been parenting: arduous, often thankless and sometimes, rewarding beyond expectation for those who have achieved through trial and error the right mix of unconditional love, discipline and understanding. They are truly blessed.
Tiwari has done this over a number of good films, whether he has only written the story – Nil Battey Sannata — or the hits he directed and co-wrote. If you think about it, the actual process of parenting is something our masala films haven’t bothered to explore. We had the ‘50s/’60s avatar of the rich Papa: pipe-smoking, parading in a brocade dressing gown, either dotingly indulgent/ peremptorily authoritarian/cussedly contrarian father of the heroine, depending on the story. Or the wheezing/pitiable/ worn to the bone clerk cowed by responsibility of getting the daughters married, son educated, old parents to be taken care of…the litany of miseries never ended till the scriptwriter took pity on the poor man. The mother rolled out parathas for the laadla beta or slaved over the sewing machine for subsistence or fondly fussed over the nubile daughter . . . only the actors varied but their karma was preordained. This is inevitable when the sole focus is on the romantic leads. Parents fade into predictable props.
Whether it is demands of the nuclear family or the irreversible tide of urbanization, fathers are involved in parenting beyond being the breadwinner. Ads featuring fathers — in a whole range of settings — reveal this trend with Shah Rukh Khan promoting Byju and the joys of seeing a child enjoying learning. Mainstream films follow where advertising leads. Thus follows the genesis of a new kind of auteur who makes fatherhood cool despite all the challenges. Tiwari has traversed the Haryanvi patriarch role model to the harried ex-IITian dad who has now to teach his teenage son how to cope with failure. The writer-director has his own take on what modern parenting entails in our highly competitive society.
Tiwari has given us two kinds of fathers in two highly successful films: Dangal and Chhichhore. Dangal was a megahit, not only in India but in China too. Shared Asian patriarchal norms — and that too in competitive sports — explains the enormous appeal of the film. The demanding, cussed coach is a recurring, recognizable figure in a sports film but the stakes are doubled — for the cussedness quotient — when the father dons the coach’s mantle. Double authority and double the punishing regimen unleashed on two young girls who have to cut their hair, run at dawn, abjure all girlish fripperies and wear boys’ clothes so that they are akhada-ready to wrestle down the opponent. No wonder the plaintive song Haanikarak Bapu accompanies the girls Gita and Babita as the hard taskmaster Mahavir Singh Phogat whips them into shape to win gold medals. ‘Auron pe karam, bachchon pe sitam, Re bapu mere pe ye zulm na kar…’ goes the heartfelt plea to the heartless father. But Aamir Khan’s Mahavir Singh Phogat is not all that heartless. He rubs oil into the girls’ blistered feet as they sleep, tenderness in every touch. Since Dangal is based on real-life characters, the director could only add a small tender gesture to balance the stoic father when a grown Gita relies more on the ‘scientific coaching” at the institute than trust her father’s homegrown methods. But finally, Gita has to go back to her father’s distant coaching — through watching videos of bouts and instructions on the phone — to make her way to the finals and win the gold — and fulfil her father’s thwarted dream.
That is the drama of the finale. To reach this point, Phogat has to take on the formidable elders of the village community to raise his daughters like boys, and have them wrestle with boys to gauge how superior physical strength can be overcome. This faith in the ability of his daughters might spring from his own unfulfilled dream but it does instil self-belief in the girls and take them to the winner’s podium. It is easy to quibble and contest how little autonomy the daughters had and ask whether they were meant for the father’s own sense of achievement. A fair point but the narrative and the emotions driving the narrative to validate and valourise the father’s role in shaping the destiny of his daughters.
If the daughters feared their laying-down-the-law father in Dangal, Raghav of Chhichhore is on yaari terms with his Dad Ani (Sushant Singh Rajput). The cool corporate executive Dad brings home a bottle of bubbly to celebrate the son cracking the IIT Jee exam. But alas, they never thought he could fail and the father’s fault is not anticipating possible failure and preparing for it. A pearl of wisdom dropped in the sea of wisecracks and campus slang. Raghav lives with his father after the breakup of his parents’ marriage — the details are un-delightfully sketchy. Just a couple of lines are supposed to suffice why the two IIT rankers who were college sweethearts couldn’t stay together. The mother Maya (Shraddha Kapoor) seems to have hardly any role in the upbringing of their only child. So, when the stressed out Raghav who fails to make the grade, impulsively jumps out of the balcony to escape the loser tag, the doctor has pretty bleak news for the heartbroken parents. Broken bones apart, Raghav seems to have no will to survive though he does come of his unconscious state.
Once an IIT geek, always a geek, even under the corporate-conformist demeanour — Aniruddh Pathak, his name abbreviated to Ani by the whims of the alwaysin-a-hurry hostel admission clerk, has to think out of the box to get his boy to accept that life doesn’t end with failure. So he goes back to his bunch of hostel friends now scattered across the globe for a shot at innovative therapy. Tell Raghav their story of overcoming the loser tag permanently affixed to the wretched Hostel 4 and come heartbreakingly close to winning the General Championship (through fair means or foul) and for once prove to all doubters that they are not just incompetent nerds.
So, in effect, you get a collective parenting process going, to put heart into the apathetic Raghav. If the outside world thinks IITians are nerdy with noses buried in books, perish the thought. They are as serious about fun – each in his own way – as studies. Jocks are as prized and preferred in these exclusive environs as any other campus. Sexa (Varun Sharma) is more worried about getting his “Bunty” some action via Playboy and Debonair centre spreads than any other athletic pursuit. Acid’s (Naveen Polishetty) abusive vocabulary gets all the more colourful and to zip his lip is dire punishment for a guy who breathes in anger and spouts out ma-behen gaalis without fail. Looming over them all is Derek (Tahir Bhasin), smoky-eyed to keep up with the cigarette dangling from his mouth. He is the final year good/bad guy who has given up on his hostel ever winning anything. It is Ani’s fresh enthusiasm and Derek’s seasoned cynicism that glues the congenital no-hopers into determined doers.
It is this fighting spirit that revives Raghav’s wilting willpower and infuses in him the courage to never give up. Ani’s desperate clutching at something, anything, to bring his son back from the brink demonstrates a father’s love even if formerly he never had enough time to give to his family. Everyone is wiser after the trauma. And if you thought that not getting into an engineering college is the end of the world, perish the thought. You see Raghav — sporting a few facial scars a year later — off to another engineering campus if not the premier one his parents went to. In that sense, Chhichhore is conformist after all. The second best will do and a father has to teach his son that too is okay. The director and star of the film are on TV panels along with educationists and parents to de-stress stressed-out students toiling over exams, telling them to take it easy.
Tiwari’s story for his wife Ashwini Tiwari Iyer’s Nil Battey Sannata celebrates a single mother’s determination to get her daughter to overcome the maths bugbear and prevent her from dropping out altogether. Iyer’s engaging direction and Swara Bhasker’s conviction as the maid who will do anything to make her recalcitrant daughter stick to studies pack feminist raw power into a debut film. The maid who works in a few homes and puts her kids through school is a familiar urban story. The twist in the tale is how the mother enrolls into a school herself to shame, compel and encourage the teenager to give it her best. The fairytale ending is how the young girl finally joins the IAS — the pinnacle of aspiration for a class that still believes in government service. Well, the film was made before three young IAS officers quit on grounds of principles, for not wanting to be part of an establishment that compromised democracy. But that is an entirely different story.