A family that dances together stays together — or finds eternal happiness by the time the credits roll. You don’t think so? You clearly haven’t watched enough Hindi cinema of the late 1990s and 2000s. There were Rahul and Rohan doing the Shaava Shaava with dad Yashvardhan Raichand in that mommy-daddy of all weepies, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, a film where Bharatiya sanskar ended up colonising even obscure British palaces. Surely, you remember Hum Aap Ke Hai Koun..!, when not even a meal could be had without someone breaking into a happy dance. Only a few weeks ago, in Sooraj Barjatya’s opulently staged Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, the whole shebang of princes, princesses and Prem dance in synchrony to celebrate their newfound love for each other. A squabbling family made whole by dance and Himesh Reshammiya’s music.
Contrast this with another family celebration, this one from Kanu Behl’s Titli. Against the grey-green darkness of the scene, a white ghodi stands out. On it is the impassive groom, Titli. Baraatis dance with violent gusto around him. He is being forced into the marriage by his brothers and father, a sacrifice that will get capital (via dowry) and a new recruit for the family trade (the bride). The only trouble: this is a family of carjackers, where the fist rules and the hammer blow of parental/filial authority keeps all ambition in check. It’s a songless, joyless dance that is more omen than celebration.
Prem Ratan Dhan Payo and Titli released within a couple of weeks of each other — but if Titli could be described as a “family film”, never has a descriptor been so apt and yet so wide off the mark. It depicts one of the darkest and most dysfunctional families in Hindi cinema. A family that destroys rather than nurtures, a unit that works on patriarchy and its violence. Another recent film, Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly, also examines the darker side of the parivar. A child is kidnapped, but her parents allow their personal rivalries and resentments to derail the investigation. They race to game the system and each other, and the missing child is relegated to the background.
Family films are the crowd-pullers of Hindi cinema, and one of its most archetypal narratives. If three brothers Amar, Akbar and Anthony got separated through time, tide and a Manmohan Desai script, you knew they would always be reunited by the end of the film. From Waqt (1965) to Yaadon Ki Baaraat (1973), the family that is lost and then found on screen provided a cathartic experience.
As the single-most intimate unit of human interaction, the family is also a rich source of stories. But if once the emphasis was on figuring out how to bring about the happily ever after, now filmmakers and writers are being driven to explore the conflicts — big and small — that mark family life, regardless of whether there is an ending that neatly ties up all the loose ends. The adarsh parivar is splintering on 70mm, and the results are interesting, even if not pretty.
It’s not like Hindi films haven’t shown selfish parents or greedy siblings before. “But those were all morality tales,” says Behl. Watching them, one took home the lesson that certain “family values” like sacrifice, honour and loyalty, were the most important thing in life. As the tagline of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham memorably put it, “it’s all about loving your family.” The plot and the characters operated within a recognisable moral framework that was meant to assure the audience that all was right with the world. This tendency to use films as pulpits reached a peak first in the 1980s and early 1990s with melodramas like Swarg and Ghar Ek Mandir, and then again in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
A new generation of filmmakers and writers is not beholden to such family values, even if it is fascinated by relationships. They explore the idea that family members might love each other, while holding on to deep-seated resentments. As writer Juhi Chaturvedi points out, “We can’t deny the importance of the family in the stories that are told in Hindi cinema. After all, this is a culture that emphasises ‘family values’. But within that restrictive space, writers have to dig out the idiosyncrasies and the complexities that will make each story unique.” For example, in Piku, Chaturvedi depicts a widowed man Bhaskor Banerjee and his daughter Piku living together, but not without friction. Piku could be described as a dutiful daughter who loves her father enough to be willing to listen to him describe his bowel movements even when she’s on a date. But she’s not so bound by filial sentiments as to not admit how suffocating she finds her situation. There’s no judgment on father or daughter here; they’re both acting under their own compulsions. (What would Piku have done in a film like Hum Saath Saath Hain? Would she have martyred her happiness?)
Nowhere is this willingness to suspend judgment clearer than in the treatment of the extended family. Writer Jai Arjun Singh recalls watching a kind of cinema, when he was growing up in the 1980s, which used family members as stand-ins for specific qualities like greed or irresponsibility. They were fixed points in the narrative that would tell the audience what to expect. “Back then, the writers didn’t feel the need to explore the inner lives of these characters because it was simply not considered important to the main plot that would revolve around the hero and heroine,” says Singh.
Filmmaker and writer Paromita Vohra says, “What is happening in movies like Dil Dhadakne Do and, to an extent, Piku, is that the various threads that make up family life are becoming visible. They’re showing us that things are complicated in every family. This also leads to a narrative which is constantly shifting. In Dil Dhadakne Do, for example, you think that all is well with the family and then you see everyone’s ugly side. Just when you start believing that they’re all bad people, you then see something that redeems them.” The point being, she says, that movies like this don’t make an assumption at the start and then stick by it, no matter what. They allow room for flexibility, without judgment.
Writers are no longer interested in coding their films with moral lessons by populating them with stock characters like the doting bhabhi, scheming mami and dutiful son. Chaturvedi says, “Earlier, in most films, if the hero or heroine’s family members entered the picture at all,they were defined by a single quality, instead of being given fully realised personalities. Now, when writers give these characters layered personalities and a rich inner life, it makes for a movie that becomes richer in its telling. It also gives us access to a wider audience because not every single audience member will identify with the hero or the heroine; there might be some who will identify more with characters like Biji in Vicky Donor or with Chhobi mashi in Piku.”
By abandoning the traditional moral framework, these movies are also showing us that our fantasy of the ideal family — and by extension, the ideal society — is just that: a fantasy. The “typical” Indian family as depicted by Barjatya, Johar and Co. upholds certain values like family honour and unquestioned loyalty that are highly prized in a traditional society. Movies like Titli, Ugly and Masaan, by refusing to engage with these values, also call into question the very foundations of a patriarchal social structure. For example, in Masaan, retired university professor Vidyadhar Pathak’s disappointment with his daughter Devi’s actions doesn’t prevent him from trying to protect her. Devi might have made a choice that landed her in a “dishonourable” situation, but her father doesn’t disown her or, as might have happened in an earlier type of cinema, throw her out of the house.
Varun Grover, who wrote Masaan, says that depictions like this come from the conscious decision to question patriarchy. At the same time, there is also an exploration of individual morality. Grover says, “As a society, we have never valued individualism. You’re supposed to do things for the good of the family. But now writers want to show the ugly side of patriarchy and how it can stifle individuals. Look at movies like Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! or Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan, where the whole plot is about how the protagonist escapes from his family or father.”
This conflict between the family and the individual gets full play in Titli. Behl, who has spoken many times about his own youthful confrontations with his father, says, “When I sat down to write Titli, I wanted to depict the conflict between a father and a son, between what is expected and what is desired. In Titli, the conflict is between the oldest brother Vikram, who is the father figure, and the youngest brother Titli,” says Behl. “While Titli is single-minded in his pursuit of his individual dreams, Vikram is sacrificing his own future for the family, and he expects his brothers to do the same. The clash comes because Titli is no longer willing to follow his family’s path.”
Throughout its long history, Hindi cinema has reflected back to us our aspirations as well as our lived realities. If the accent now is more on depicting the reality of dysfunctional families rather than the fantasy of family values, it is simply a reflection of what the nation is experiencing at this moment. Behl says, “In the post-liberalisation period in the 1990s, more and more movies came to be made that showed a hopeful, ‘happy’ mood. There was a greater emphasis on idealization of family values, even to the point of banality, such as in Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!. There was no complex discourse on the family and most such movies ended up being morality tales that told us how we should behave,” says Behl.
In the post-India Shining years, however, the incompatibility between social conservatism, that puts the greater good of the family first, and economic liberalisation, that puts the self first, is becoming more obvious. This gap between the two is proving to be fertile ground for writers and filmmakers who want to tell the story of a young India desperate to break out and do well for itself, but finds itself tied down by family expectations.