Funny but flawed: 'Kapoor & Sons' kar gayi chull
Cast, crew and location may have come together well to deliver a fun watch, but its latent gender dynamics and frequent recourse to dull formulae hold the narrative back
Dhruba Basu Delhi
Spoiler Alert: The following article contains many details of the film’s plot. It is not a review but an attempt to look at the themes that emerge from an engagement with the film’s narrative.
It is not difficult to see why Kapoor & Sons has been received with varying degrees of warmth across the spectrum, even by critics who expressed reservations about the film. As bourgeois family dramas go, it is largely enjoyable, with well-written lines, well-directed scenes and (sometimes surprisingly) well-performed roles giving rise to intelligently constructed laughs and several reasons to volunteer one’s concern for the tragicomic travails of the Kapoors of picturesque Coonoor. Moreover, in keeping with what may tentatively be identified as a gradual but inexorable progression in mainstream Bollywood towards dismantling the taboos of the past, the narrative features some refreshing novelties like an unapologetically and hilariously libidinous pot-smoking grandfather and a gay man whose sexuality is not conflated with a camp aesthetic.
However, before we allow our shock (at finding out, for instance, that the jock/dunce-turned-ace-investment-banker from Student of the Year can act) to convince us that Shakun Batra’s sophomore effort is the hero Bollywood may not deserve but definitely needs, there are important things to consider.
The most obvious one: the songs, for which there was no need at all. A case can, of course, be made for the use of song-and-dance to express merriment (or anything, really), but the form this takes is crucial to its effect. A natural, spontaneous and diegetically sourced scene, like the opening of Ishqiya, can be used to establish characters and situations without demanding that the viewer switch off his/her sense of narratorial reality and switch on his/her resignation to the reality of Indian cinema. On the other hand, lengthy interludes of synchronised moves and lyrical outbursts are lazy, gratuitous and disruptive from the point of view of the storyline, and counterproductive from the point of view of breaking from traditions that serve neither the story nor the medium of film but as vehicles for mindlessly spotlighting and/or sexualising actors. At a time when more and more films are making do without, Kapoor & Son’s compromise on this front is inexplicable.
Moving past this manifestly visible pimple on an otherwise fair and lovely visage, what must next be confronted lurks subcutaneously, at the level of the deep, dark patriarchal infrastructure that we all share. Perhaps the title should have been the first hint of this; it would certainly be appropriate, since the problem is one of representation.
There are two major women in Kapoor & Sons. Sunita Kapoor (the ever-adaptable Ratna Pathak) is the mother of the titular family and wishes to open a catering business that her husband Harsh (played with the gravitas of Atlas by Rajat Kapoor) does not have the money for. She fears her husband has a mistress, makes a scene at her nonagenarian father-in-law’s birthday party about the fact that he invited the suspected woman, and finds out after they make up that he had been to see her again the very next day (although, of course, he made the visit with the intention of breaking off the relationship). Meanwhile, her sons find out that she gave the older one, Rahul (Fawad Khan keeping it classy) the idea for his first novel by stealing it from the younger one, Arjun (Siddharth Malhotra wearing his vulnerability on his sleeve), catapulting the former to literary stardom and sowing deep seeds of fraternal resentment in the latter. Following the exposition of this juicy but not entirely unpredictable secret, she calls the husband she has refused to interact with, which results in his immediate death as, in reaching for his phone while driving, he fails to notice the truck bearing down perpendicularly upon his car.
What, then, can a family be torn apart over, according to Kapoor & Sons? The answer is women, cast as wives, mistresses and objects of desire, causing relationships to fall apart both deliberately and inadvertently
The second woman is Tia Malik (Alia Bhatt being Alia Bhatt), a free spirit whose freespiritedness is symptomatic of repressed issues arising from the death of her parents in an airplane crash. She meets Arjun at a party that she seems to have taken it upon herself to emcee and they hit it off over a joint, but soon after she ends up making a move on Rahul, who wants to buy her house and, being gay, is inevitably irresistible to all the women in his vicinity. This overture is destined to fall flat, paving the way for her and Arjun to progress towards their happily-ever-after, until the truth predictably outs (Tia’s conscience gets the better of her after she finds out they’re related), the brothers fight, and revelations about Rahul’s sexuality and Sunita’s theft of Arjun’s idea threaten to tear the family apart.
It is around this crucial issue, of what a family can be torn apart over, that the traces of an underlying bias begin to reveal themselves. Harsh and Sunita Kapoor are at loggerheads because Sunita does not have money of her own to start the business she wants to and knows that Harsh is sleeping with another woman. Sunita and Rahul are at loggerheads because Rahul likes men, which Sunita initially cannot stomach. Arjun and Rahul are at loggerheads because Arjun thinks Rahul stole his idea, but who actually stole the idea? Sunita did. Arjun also thinks Rahul is trying to take Tia from him.
What, then, can a family be torn apart over, according to Kapoor & Sons? The answer is women, cast as wives, mistresses and objects of desire, causing relationships to fall apart both deliberately and inadvertently. This is not to say that Harsh’s adulterous relationship is the fault of the other woman, but while we are able to get to know and maybe sympathise with him, while the narrative forgives him his transgression by killing him off more or less immediately after it is revealed, we know her only as the other woman, the woman who audaciously turns up at the Kapoor household and pushes Sunita over the edge. What follows is the derailing of the aforementioned grandfather’s birthday party, effectively a result of a tag-team effort by the women.
Something implicitly destructive characterises the women in Kapoor & Sons. Perhaps this would not be so flagrant if not for the fact that the men, meanwhile, are characterised by efforts to be constructive. Rahul is a successful writer based in London and is looking to open a studio in Coonoor; Arjun is trying to be a successful writer and making ends meet until then by serving drinks at a bar in New Jersey. Their involvement in organising the party for Grandpa Kapoor (Rishi Kapoor, terrifically made-up by 3-time Academy Award-winner Greg Cannom, and very endearing), whose heart attack was the reason for their return from NRI-land and the germinal event of the storyline, and their maturity in looking past their personal grievances, the wrongs done unto them, to work for the larger good combine to secure their membership in the Hearts of Gold club. Where they fail, Grandpa picks up the baton instead, magnanimously defusing tensions after the failed party and calling Rahul and Arjun back after their father’s funeral. Even the father is constructive; he agrees to finance his wife’s business and breaks off his illicit relationship, but ends up dead. Admittedly, it is Rahul who spills the beans on him, but this is prompted by his mother’s revulsion upon finding out about his sexuality.
Meanwhile, what is Tia doing? She is partying, hanging out with Arjun and selling her property. Her main role is, as a cute, charming and ebullient young woman, that of a distraction, and as a sexually liberated one, that of a femme fatale. It is not exactly a huge step forward in the characterisation of independent women. Speaking of which, there aren’t really any in the film; how can there be, if they either have no money or no narratorial mooring? Tia may have inherited property, but she is nothing in the film without the men who fall for her. And Kapoor & Sons does not pass the Bechdel test either.
The day and age demand more, more than weak undercurrents of opposition to Article 377; the words ‘gay’ and ‘homosexual’ are not mentioned in the film at all, clearly skirting around the risk of making any bold statements on the matter. More than women who want money from their husbands, women who are mistresses, and women whose limits are defined by the hook, ‘Arre ladki beautiful, kar gayi chull.’
If the films of today are looking to change the terms of mainstream discourse, then it is incumbent on those who wish to see the change to not settle for neo-Byronic visions of grandfathers and grandsons watching porn and smoking spliffs together and hastily sewn endings that make a big deal of reassuring viewers that everything’s going to be alright. That Dharma Productions needs to make money is no excuse; what is funny and entertaining about Kapoor & Sons derives from the qualities of its script, performances and direction, not from its prostration before unreflexive formulae. The Bollywood family drama may have come far, but Kapoor & Sons is a reminder of the distance that remains to be travelled.