‘Kapoor and Sons’ shatters the Bollywood myth of the perfect family to present us with some uncomfortable truths.
Kapoor and Sons (Since 1921)
Director: Shakun Batra
Starring: Rishi Kapoor, Rajat Kapoor, Ratna Pathak Shah, Fawad Khan, Siddharth Malhotra, Alia Bhatt
Is there such a thing as a truly happy family? Before you issue your self-righteous protestations that yours counts as one, put your hand on your heart and ask yourselves a few questions. Is there nothing about your significant other that makes you contemplate, even for a second, taking a pillow and letting death do you part while (s)he sleeps? Is there nothing that you resent your parents for, even after all these years? Have you never felt envy towards a sibling? Have you never wished you hadn’t had kids? Has a family gathering never made you want to scream? Tolstoy wrote that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The happy families are all alike, in that they do not exist.
I returned to the cinema this week after a self-imposed hiatus—there is only so much Bollywood crap you can digest on a weekly basis before the soul starts to ache—for a film that sought to dispel the notion that the family unit at its centre is truly happy, despite pretentions to the contrary. (Not much had changed, except they have ads for glow-in-the-dark underwear, and that Kolkata Police has a disturbing public advisory on jaywalking that shows real people being mowed down by traffic.) With a name that sounds like a Karol Bagh sweetshop, Kapoor and Sons (Since 1921) is the story of a nonagenarian coming to terms with his approaching mortality, whose last burning desire is to have his entire clan reunite for one family photograph.
Ah, photographs. Those testaments to our quixotic quest for immortality. Those statements of our inescapable need for the persistence of memory. Take a picture or it didn’t happen. That tiramisu didn’t start a party in your mouth if you didn’t broadcast its delectable presentation to your Instagram followers. That perfect sunset wouldn’t be perfect without a #nofilter hashtag. Your family doesn’t love each other if they don’t say cheese when the cameraman asks them to.
As Magritte would say, ceci n’est pas une famille heureuse. This is not a happy family; it is the representation of the idea of a happy family. What lies behind those manufactured smiles?
But photographs have the tendency to obfuscate the truth. As Magritte would say, ceci n’est pas une famille heureuse. This is not a happy family; it is the representation of the idea of a happy family. What lies behind those manufactured smiles? What does the spacing between the family members tell us about their relationship? What went into constructing this moment? What were these people like before the shutter was pressed? What did they do once the moment had been captured? How difficult was it to get these people together in one frame?
In Kapoor and Sons, the photograph is taken in the climactic scene, after the various tensions between the members of the Kapoor family have been milked for ample comedy and tragedy. In a previous, aborted attempt, after one of the film’s many glorious depictions of descent into chaos, after having overcome all odds to bring everyone into that one frame, and with imminent rain threatening to ruin the outdoor shoot, Sunita Kapoor (Pathak) realises she can’t just forget all the various tumults in her life and smile and pretend to be happy. Final desire be damned.
It’s not as if the various resentments and disputes between the various members of the Kapoor clan are hidden below a layer of saccharine Bollywood hokum that signifies the atoot bandhan of the Indian family. At one point, after Sunita brings her marital discord to a head, throwing cookies at her hubby Harsh (Rajat Kapoor) in front of all their family and friends, her son Arjun (Malhotra, in what might be his best performance to date) reassures his friend Tia (Bhatt, who is now an assured, bankable actor) that their family doesn’t usually behave like this before correcting himself—they don’t usually behave like this in public.
The whole thing seems eminently authentic—they talk like real human beings, not actors delivering lines; the house looks like a home, not a set. When the tension bubbles over in the aforementioned descents into chaos, it seems like a real argument, even if the great scene construction and comic timing make these arguments cinematic gold.
The film asserts early enough that it is going to eschew conventionality. Amarjeet Kapoor (Rishi Kapoor) is having breakfast with his son and daughter-in-law when he suddenly collapses. Harsh and Sunita pay him no mind, continuing their bickering, and it turns out he was just pretending, like he does every day. Of course, when he gets up and walks to the other room and collapses there a second time, prompting Sunita to roll her eyes and ask the servant to take a look, you know it’s a genuine heart attack.
This brings together the whole family, as the sons are summoned from London and New York. Information is carefully dispensed with, but over the next few minutes we understand that elder son Rahul (Khan, who a colleague insists I call gorgeous at least once in this review), a famous author struggling with a deadline for his next novel, is the apple of his parents’ eye, while Arjun, a part-time waiter and would-be novelist, is the underappreciated younger son denied their approval and attention, who resents Rahul for some reason. The resentment isn’t helped by the development of a love triangle of sorts, as both Arjun and Rahul make the acquaintance of Tia, a young heiress trying to sell off her parents’ property.
As we get to know our characters, the tensions between them bubble under the surface, referenced here and there by a turn of phrase or the casual mention of a name. It is intriguing stuff, helped by creditable performances by a stellar cast. The whole thing seems eminently authentic—they talk like real human beings, not actors delivering lines; the house looks like a home, not a set. When the tension bubbles over in the aforementioned descents into chaos, it seems like a real argument, even if the great scene construction and comic timing make these arguments cinematic gold. (A plumber, who witnesses a major fight in what is probably the best scene in the film, when asked how much he is owed, says in an almost perfectly deadpan manner, “Is bure waqt mein jo theek samjhe.”) Although Amarjeet’s antics might seem excessively sophomoric, the young characters in the film look and sound like millennials. (The film goes further to normalise marijuana use than any other Bollywood film in my—admittedly pot-addled—memory, with almost every member of the star cast partaking of the product at some point.)
If there is no such thing as a truly happy family, what, then, is the point of family? What is the use striving for a more perfect union if the ideal you seek is non-existent?
Once the various scabs in the protagonists’ relationships have been uncovered and picked apart, once they have aired their grievances and huffed and puffed until they can no more, they must confront the corollary to the question I began this review with. If there is no such thing as a truly happy family, what, then, is the point of family? What is the use striving for a more perfect union if the ideal you seek is non-existent? The answer, both in the film and in real life, isn’t the most uplifting, though unimpeachably true—the alternative is to die alone, and life is too short to hold a grudge.