21 March 2016

Fixing the Family Album

My Mirror column yesterday

Like a memorable family gathering, Kapoor and Sons serves up a mix of merriment and tears.

At the core of Shakun Batra's new film is an abiding affection for family gatherings. You know, the good ones—the ones in which secret crushes are confessed to cousins, vast quantities of food consumed, endless rounds of Antakshari played, and the cockles of every heart so warmed by the general bonhomie that long-held grudges can be—at least momentarily —forgotten. 

But of course, as we all know, family gatherings can often be the opposite of heartwarming. Herding the parivaar together into a concentrated space—and loudly insisting that they get along—can have the distressing effect of rekindling not good feelings, but bad ones. We've all been there, watching with bated breath as buried resentments bubble their way up to the surface and threaten to burst into flames; knowing full well that once someone lights the match, there's going to be no dousing the fire. 

What makes Kapoor and Sons rare, at least in the Hindi movie universe, is that its joyful arrival at the feast of the Great Indian Family does not preclude a full-blooded dissection of whatever is then served up at table. And despite the fact that this film comes to us from the Karan Johar kitchen, what's served up isn't always pretty. 

Sure, by having his stormy unravellings take place against the perfect mists of Coonoor, where his characters get to fight it out in the sort of gracious, tasteful old wooden bungalow you've always dreamt of, Batra makes sure there's no dearth of pretty things to look at. And he gives us three young leads who're delightfully easy on the eye: Fawad Khan as the sober, successful elder brother, Sidharth Malhotra as the younger one still struggling to find his feet, and Alia Bhatt as the poor little rich girl: an orphaned princess with a big old house and no family to put in it. 

But to the credit of both director Batra and cinematographer Jeffery F. Bierman, the film doesn't dwell on the good-looking-ness of anyone or anything. Instead, it looks at Coonoor with the same wryly affectionate eye as it does the family's foibles, and presents it with the same light touch. Batra might display a glimmer of nostalgia for what's unchanged about the hill station—the oldschool photo studio, for instance—but it sits happily alongside an enthusiastic embrace of the new - like a corny Mr. Ooty contest, deathly serious to its muscular participants but faintly ridiculous to everyone else. 

That ability to keep the goofy side of things going, to try and prevent the terribly serious stuff from overwhelming everyone and everything, is one of the film's strengths. And suitably, that sensibility is embodied in the film's likely most memorable character: the raunchy nonagenarian grandfather who refuses to let a mere heart attack and hospitalisation keep him from ceaseless potty humour or sneaky porn-watching sessions on the miraculous new instrument he calls the Papad. Played with an infectious air of mischief under layers of prosthetic make-up by the marvellous Rishi Kapoor, Dadu is a character far less hammy and far more believable than Amitabh Bachchan's similar recent turn as Bhaskor Banerjee in Piku(2015). 

But while punctuating the film with reasons to giggle, Batra and Ayesha Devitre's script doesn't shy away from the grown-up stuff. On the one hand is bada bhai (Fawad Khan, named Rahul Kapoor, which is also what Batra named his hero Imran Khan in his first feature Ekk Main Aur Ekk Tu), having to stand tall while secretly collapsing under the weight of being his mother's "perfect bachcha". On the other, there's the chhota bhai Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra), who feels like he's been running all his life: running from the family's expectations, running to catch up with his elder brother—but always remaining stuck, as he puts it, as "runner-up". 

Perhaps even more powerful than the brothers' own festering misunderstandings are the ones created by their parents. Batra offers a cruelly unforgiving view of parents as those people we rely on to be measured and judicious and 'adult' - and whose deeply-held prejudices can therefore, in their unthinking moments, really prove to be the undoing of families. Rajat Kapoor and Ratna Pathak Shah are very good indeed as the harried older couple caught in an entrenched pattern of marital mistrust, their taunts and counter-taunts bouncing off each other like a volley in some horrible tennis match. But unlike the fairy-tale version of the unhappy older couple in Shandaar and Khubsoorat, or the practically irredeemable relationship between Anil Kapoor and Shefali Shah that was the most powerful thing in Dil Dhadakne Do, these are characters whose frailties make them seem flawed and vulnerable, but not unloveable. And so one feels all the more deeply for them, for the things they are forced to leave unsaid. 

Kapoor and Sons, like Rishi Kapoor's old Dadu, is fixated on the happy family photo - as if capturing his warring clan in the same frame will magically erase the real distances between them. One of the film's most hopeful moments comes out of the collective viewing of old pictures: visual proof that they once were happy. At one pre-climactic moment, Ratna Pathak Shah's character, wounded by a recent revelation about her husband, stalks off in disgust before the camera can memorialise the assembled company. A 'Happy Family' image now would be fake, she says, and she has a point. But the relationship between life and our memorialising of it may be closer to what Dadu believes: make the picture, and you make the memory. Sometimes what it takes to be happier is to make-believe that we can.

Published in Mirror.

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