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The Great Indian Family is in transition

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

The Great Indian Family is in transition

After the unsubtle, manifesto-like subtitle of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), Dharma Productions, the big daddy of the “family pack”, took a surprising swing for the fences, making films on adultery, marital separation, and homosexuality, among others. 

After the unsubtle, manifesto-like subtitle of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), Dharma Productions, the big daddy of the “family pack”, took a surprising swing for the fences, making films on adultery, marital separation, and homosexuality, among others. 

The family in pop culture is morphing into an unsteady and fragile site of introspection.

“Everyone knows that hating a father only strengthens his power over you,” literary critic Merve Emre wrote in her essay about the encyclopaedic novel Ulysses, which celebrated 100 years of being in print, in conversation, and in contention, this February. She was referring to the dad-like stature of the book that makes it both the object of awe and anger, raves and ridicule, and in doing so she struck at something both profound and gnawing.

That hatred or anger—a depleting emotion that ruptures the day, bleeding you empty inside out, staining the night like a hangover—is, sometimes, tied so viscerally with love and with power that it is impossible to hold these emotions separately, as though one seamlessly switches between them. That there is no logical transition. They strike together, sedimented in odd proportions.

‘The binge element’

It isn’t surprising then that not just the paternal figure but the family unit, too, tied sometimes by biological tethers but always by some shapeless, ill-defined concoction of love, longing, hate, duty, fear, and fatigue, has taken centre stage in the stories being told on streaming platforms, and are being mostly told through the genre of suspense— Tabbar (literally family in Punjabi) on SonyLIV, Mai on Netflix, Masoom on Disney+ Hotstar, Suzhal on Amazon Prime Video. As though streaming, which has given writers the space to stretch and stir a story, has made them give up entirely on the genre of romance, instead landing on violence or suspense told through the lens of the family. As though the only thing that might nudge a person from one episode to the next—“the binge element”—is the promise of a reveal, scandalous and meaning-making. (Alternatively, it is a sign that our writers have given up on the possibility of producing original shows such as Friends, Modern Family, The Office, whose binge element was the capacity to cocoon you in warm, soft, ephemeral comfort.) Besides, there is enough fodder in a family for resentment, ravages, reversals. Which writer/director would not want to give wind to those wings? After all, if streaming is seen as the connecting tissue between television and cinema, it must absorb something both have been gnawing at—the family.

Still from the series Suzhal on Amazon Prime Video. Streaming, which has given writers the space to stretch and stir a story, has made them give up entirely on the genre of romance, instead landing on violence or suspense told through the lens of the family. 
Still from the series Suzhal on Amazon Prime Video. Streaming, which has given writers the space to stretch and stir a story, has made them give up entirely on the genre of romance, instead landing on violence or suspense told through the lens of the family. 

It is not unusual that the family should be the unit most exciting to toy around with in art, cinema specifically, and even film criticism—it is extremely common to wonder, in reviews, why a character is hazily conceived by noting that the writers did not bother giving them parents and, thus, a rooting backstory. The sign of lazy writing is often an orphaned protagonist or, as in Tamil cinema, the doting brother to the paavam thangachi, the sad younger sister. That the family has so emphatically become the source of both conflict and catharsis that it refuses to dim its burnish even decades after being the centre-piece of cinematic storytelling perhaps says a lot about the culture from whose cracks it grows: From Guru Dutt’s conception of the family as greedy and isolating to Raj Kapoor’s conception of rich families as loveless and stringent, with both making concessions towards the maternal figure; from Nirupa Roy’s pathetic, virtuous affection towards her cine-children of the 1970s to Karan Johar’s patriarchal conception of the father, which eventually leaks out of his filmography, with the conflicts in his last film, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, happening entirely outside the purview of parental involvement.

The centring of the family is, perhaps, one way of defining, however vaguely, what “Indian” storytelling is. This is a controversial claim, I realise, for is there truly something “Indian” about the centring of the family at a time when the clothes we wear, the books we read, the glass-sheathed architecture of the MNCs we work at are indistinguishable from those of another culture? Parmesh Shahani, author of Gay Bombay and Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion In The Indian Workplace, offers a way of thinking through this question vis-a-vis queerness, “Being queer in India is all about negotiating family.”

EXCLUSIVE | Parmesh Shahani: ‘We are still not equal today’

In Queeristan there is an entire chapter dedicated to how Indian queerness is defined by its fixation on the family. In the introduction to the special anniversary edition of Gay Bombay, he digs his glittering heels further into the claim that the way queerness is articulated in culture is entirely about embedding queerness in the thorny terrain of the family. To wit: the 2017 Vicks ad with Gauri Sawant, a transgender activist and mother; the Bhima Jewellers ad about the parental acceptance of their trans daughter; the Satyamev Jayate episode with Aamir Khan not only speaking to trans scriptwriter Gazal Dhaliwal but also her parents and extended family; commercial films such as Dostana, Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhaan, and Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga focussing on the family’s journey of acceptance instead of queer desire. The sexual aspect of one’s sexuality is best left outside the purview of the commercial. An understandable myopia, given how even heterosexual romance on screen has rarely represented the complicated tumbling, twisting, and seething sexual being of real life.

Queerness quotient

As queerness becomes a staple presence on streaming shows, there is a frequent depiction of how the family reacts to queerness, or how queerness lends itself to the institution of family—the lesbian cops in The Fame Game curating a family of their own; the gay cop in Aarya who is moving towards marriage; the bristly, bursting coming-out to parents in Masoom and Guilty Minds; the insistence on marriage as the logical next step of queer love in Modern Love: Mumbai’s episode “Bai”. The logical culmination of queerness here is acceptance, and acceptance defined as being enfolded into familiar familial institutions like marriage is its absolute crest.

A still from the episode “Bai” in Modern Love: Mumbai. In the episode, the insistence on marriage is shown as the logical next step of queer love.
A still from the episode “Bai” in Modern Love: Mumbai. In the episode, the insistence on marriage is shown as the logical next step of queer love. | Photo Credit: YouTube Screengrab

Dharma Productions and Yash Raj Films, the two behemoth production houses, once peddled the idea of the family as the site of a love so powerful that like a tall wave it simply washes over any hateful city it crashes onto. That family, even as it crushes, also cleanses. Then, a change. Family as the site of conflict and of opposition to love had to, along with the economy, liberalise, globalise, privatise. Familial opposition stopped being the source of conflict. Now, it was the family itself which was the conflict.

Source of emotional ruin

Still from Wake Up Sid.  Other aspects of rarely represented love —older woman, inter-religious commingling, unrequited love petering out into an abiding friendship—are increasingly becoming part of the cultural palette. 
Still from Wake Up Sid. Other aspects of rarely represented love —older woman, inter-religious commingling, unrequited love petering out into an abiding friendship—are increasingly becoming part of the cultural palette. 

JugJugg Jeeyo, the latest Dharma confection, does something extraordinary in that sense. It locates in the family the source of emotional ruin—whether you knock paths as children to grow into love, get married, and then ideate a graceless divorce (Varun Dhawan and Kiara Advani), or fall into the easy swapping of duty for love in an arranged marriage, producing resentments and affairs (Anil Kapoor and Neetu Kapoor), or are enamoured by the idea of love and gearing up to get it in marriage, only to be rudely awakened to the fragility of marital love (Prajakta Koli). This is not the first time Dharma Productions, the big daddy of the “family pack”, has broken it up for dramatic purposes. After the unsubtle, manifesto-like subtitle of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001)—“It’s all about loving your parents”, the production house took a surprising swing for the fences, making films on adultery ( Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, Gehraiyaan), marital separation ( We Are Family), and homosexuality ( Dostana, Kapoor And Sons), among others. Other aspects of rarely represented love —older woman ( Wake Up Sid), inter-religious commingling ( My Name Is Khan, Kurbaan), unrequited love petering out into an abiding friendship ( Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu)—are increasingly becoming part of the cultural palette. There is, increasingly, a comfort with the idea of tearing the family apart even if eventually to sew it half-heartedly back together.

In this new world, is marriage the end or the beginning of a different kind of end? What was once the culminating point of a film, the wedding sequence, is now merely the beginning of the story. Films like JugJugg Jeeyo, for example, spend far less time on the pursuit of love—just a song montage in the beginning—and instead are more interested in the trainwreck that life becomes after marriage.

Films like JugJugg Jeeyo spend far less time on the pursuit of love and instead are more interested in the trainwreck that life becomes after marriage.
Films like JugJugg Jeeyo spend far less time on the pursuit of love and instead are more interested in the trainwreck that life becomes after marriage. | Photo Credit: YouTube Screengrab

It is not just the stories but the structure of stories, too, that are changing. In an old interview, I remember the producer of JugJugg Jeeyo, Karan Johar, noting that the scene post-interval must be extremely light-weight, even dispensable. This is because the audience, mostly entire families, is still pouring in from the lobby, with buckets of popcorn, samosas and colas, and they must not miss anything central to the story. But in JugJugg Jeeyo, the post-interval scene is one of confrontation, where both the older and younger couples yank at the Gordian knot, insisting on divorce as the only solution. Has the family as the audience, too, disappeared?

None of this, of course, is surprising. When a society pivots its priorities, like a reluctant dog being walked, the arts too pivot, even if with a delayed reflex. The interpretation is all in retrospect, of course: that abstract expressionism came from the American post-war loss of innocence. That India’s Progressive Artists Movement came from the zeal to walk hand-in-hand with independent India’s destiny, separate from JJ School’s European influence or Bengal’s fetishising of the traditional arts. That the Angry Young Man of the 1970s came from the disillusionment towards Nehru’s “tryst with destiny”.

Actor Amitabh Bachchan as the ‘angry young man’. The Angry Young Man of the 1970s came from the disillusionment towards Nehru’s “tryst with destiny”.
Actor Amitabh Bachchan as the ‘angry young man’. The Angry Young Man of the 1970s came from the disillusionment towards Nehru’s “tryst with destiny”. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

That, now, the family, which was once a steady but archaic source of conflict has become an unsteady, fragile site of ruin and introspection, is perhaps a record of our times—the transition away from the family as the central, organising unit perhaps? The answer to this will lie 30 years ahead, when discerning critics and anthropologists zoom their telescopes on the things we produced and what they snowballed into.

Whatever happens, the one stable assurance is the sigh of joy one walks out of the theatre with. Commercial cinema is, after all, a constructed trail of catharsis, and that won’t be affected by any cultural change—except perhaps extreme nihilistic pessimism. As psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar noted, Bombay cinema is “a collective fantasy, a group daydream” and at no point are we allowed to wake up with a sense of foreboding. The happily ever after is untouched by the vagaries of time. Or so we hope.

Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com.