Shakun Batra comes across like someone trying to work his issues out through his movies, the way writers exorcise their demons through stories. Or is it just coincidence that his films – Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, and now, Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921) – are about sons scarred by puppeteering parents? Look at how Harsh (Rajat Kapoor) lashes out when he discovers his younger son Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra) has changed careers… yet again. And look at the mother, Sunita (Ratna Pathak), who qualmlessly steps over one son to help out another. (Fawad Khan’s Rahul completes the family. He’s the older son.) Another common factor between Batra’s two films: the Bollywood spin on Hollywood staples and styles. Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu played like a coming-of-age saga guided by the spirit of Wes Anderson. Kapoor & Sons, set in Coonoor, owes a debt to the dysfunctional family drama that gets going when people who live apart are thrown together around an occasion (Home for the Holidays, The Myth of Fingerprints). The cause for this gathering, though, isn’t quite an occasion. It’s that Harsh’s father Amarjeet (Rishi Kapoor) has suffered a heart attack.
Death – or the shadow of it – is all over this deceptively light-footed movie. Amarjeet – let’s call him Dadu, like the grandsons do, for part of the satisfaction of watching families on film is to project our own relations onto the people on screen – likes to play a game where he shoots his grandsons dead. Dadu likes to keep pretending he’s fallen dead. (The film opens with an amusing scene where his face hits the dining table and Sunita, without missing a beat, continues to order the domestic help around.) Dadu talks about where he’d like to be buried. There’s a death scare when a car careens off the road. Another driver, in the same car at a later point, isn’t quite so lucky – it’s a fatal accident. And a lovely scene between Arjun and Tia (Alia Bhatt), a girl whose house Rahul wants to convert into a writer’s retreat, unfolds in a cemetery. Tia’s backstory, too, comes with a couple of corpses. Even inanimate objects show signs of giving way. A car is wrecked. The power goes off. The plumbing cracks.
Yes, I said cracked plumbing – which may make Kapoor & Sons something of a watershed in the history of Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions. Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham was a dysfunctional family drama too, but the closest we got to the waterworks was whenever Jaya Bachchan appeared on screen. There are no millions here, no mansion. The Kapoors are very middle-class. They discuss electricity bills. Batra teases us with Bollywood clichés and then swerves in other directions. Despite the photogenic threesome at the story’s centre, there’s no love triangle. The mother shows her love for her sons by preparing – you’d better be sitting down for this – not gajar ka halwa but… apple pie. And Rahul’s certainly not the kind of lover boy Shah Rukh used to play, with that name, in Johar’s films. Let’s just say this Rahul can look at a colour chart and point out orange from tangerine. Plus, there’s a lot of weed use, which, come to think of it, may have solved a lot of the issues in the Raichand clan.
This middle-classness, this light flirtation with (and subversion of) Bollywood tropes make Kapoor & Sons a more appealing affair than Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, which, for all its strengths, felt like an English film dubbed in Hindi. Everything was so meticulous, so formally composed (with that signature tracking shot, leading us into and out of places and emotional states), so perfect. Here, even the “perfect bachcha” turns out not so perfect after all in his mother’s eyes. Things are messier, befitting the chaos of familial ties. The signature cinematic device is the constant cross-cutting between two scenes that, typically, would each be staged as a whole. Dadu and grandsons get stoned in a room while, nearby, mother and father try to remember the reasons they’re still on a bed together. Dadu’s card game with old pals turns into a bickering match just as Sunita and Harsh are duking it out elsewhere. This happens over and over, a reminder of not just the messiness of it all, but also the interconnectedness of it all. The fractured filmmaking mirrors these fractured ties.
Kapoor & Sons is exquisitely crafted, beautifully written. When Tia says she’s scared of flying, it sounds, at first, like a throwaway bit, the lead-up to the comedy around Rahul’s fear of mice. When Rahul, after meeting his parents after a long time (he’s London-based), embraces his mother first, we don’t make much of it. But these little moments lead to big emotions. But not too big. The melodrama is muted. It’s in the content but not in the execution. When Dadu is hospitalised at the film’s beginning, Rahul gets the call, and he informs Arjun, who wonders why no one bothered to call him. But when you’re used to being a “runner-up,” as Arjun is, these things cease to sting the way they used to. When an affair is uncovered, we get the storming out, but not the storm – at least not right then, right there. Batra even manufactures laughs from sibling rivalry. “Mom and dad love us both equally,” a stone-faced Rahul tells Arjun. There’s a pause, then they both burst out laughing. It is what it is. How long can you keep moping?
I kept wishing Batra had found a middle path, somewhere between full-blown melodrama and the poised emotional pitch he strives to maintain. (We feel this with Zoya Akhtar’s cinema too, which tries so hard not to succumb to melodrama that many scenes lose their bite.) Recall the James Dean character from East of Eden, a younger brother seething beside a “perfect bachcha” of an older brother, and you’ll see why Arjun’s plight doesn’t affect us as much. I was especially unhappy with a twist that makes Sunita look like one of those monster-mothers from the Tennessee Williams canon – the horrible thing she did (to a son who dreams of becoming a writer, no less, which usually points to lifelong neuroses) is too-quickly brushed under the carpet. As for Rahul, does he feel no guilt about his success when he looks at the failure that is Arjun? In the scene where Arjun and Rahul discuss books, Arjun reveals a preference for “realistic” – that is, sad – endings, something that doesn’t find favour with publishers. But Rahul says, “Isi liye hum khushi kahaaniyon mein dhoondhte hain.” You could turn that line around and get to the core of my problem with this film. We go to dysfunctional family dramas to be reminded of the fact that there are other families like ours, that we aren’t alone in our suffering. It’s a kind of catharsis, and it’s denied when a happy ending is rather painlessly arrived at (or at least, in a manner that doesn’t allow us to feel too much of this pain).
But the performances are so good that I didn’t feel like complaining too much. Ratna Pathak and Rajat Kapoor, unsurprisingly, make us feel this couple who are now together simply because it’s hard to break thirty-five years of habit. And how refreshingly un-movie-like that a night of newfound intimacy doesn’t automatically mean everything’s back to normal. Fawad Khan may well turn out to be one of God’s great jokes on the rest of mankind. He looks like that, and he can act like that? (Movie in-joke alert, but in the interest of fairness, maybe he has a small nose?) Alia Bhatt continues to remind us that she’s the best young actress to come along in a long, long while. She has such excellent screwball rhythms, you want someone to write a full-length comedy around her. She makes us see that Tia is at once damaged and delightful. These others must have rubbed off on Sidharth Malhotra – for the first time, he appears at ease. He still cannot throw convincing tantrums, but I liked him in the scene where he talks to Tia about his issues with Rahul. I liked the tear that runs down his cheek much later, when Rahul makes a confession – reams can be written about the reasons behind that tear. There’s just the faintest trace of resentment, but, again, it’s something time has tempered. Only Rishi Kapoor sticks out. He gets an obsession (sex is to him what shit was to Piku’s Bhaskor da) and some funny scenes, but his shtick feels utterly out of place. He’s a bhangra dancer in a ballet.
More than anything, after a grim few months at the movies, Kapoor & Sons gives us people we want to hang out with. They’re so fun, so fascinating that even when we’re vaguely bored, it’s like sticking around at a party because things are generally so pleasant. The characters, too, spend a lot of time hanging with each other – not falling in love or anything, but just being. They hang at a body-building competition. (I smiled every time I heard the name Boobly.) They hang at a dance floor. My favourite scene was the hanging out at the cemetery. Tia makes a joke about what she’d like for an epitaph, then it’s Arjun’s turn. He improvises quietly: “Aakhri baar likh raha hoon. Ho sake to kahaani yaad rakhna.” Maybe it’s a writer thing, but I teared up at the line. In a movie so filled with death, this aspiration for immortality is profoundly moving.
- Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu = see here
- Home for the Holidays = see here
- The Myth of Fingerprints = see here
- Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham = see here
- gajar ka halwa = it’s a Nirupa Roy thing
- East of Eden = see here
- “perfect bachcha” = perfect little boy
- “Isi liye hum khushi kahaaniyon mein dhoondhte hain.” = That’s why we turn to stories for happy endings.
- Piku = see here
- “Aakhri baar likh raha hoon. Ho sake to kahaani yaad rakhna.” = These are the last words. Remember my story if possible.
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.