A father is walking his daughter home from school. She is annoyed, cranky, and refuses to talk to him. He relentlessly tries his best to cheer her up. “Did you eat lunch? I messed up the salt, didn’t I?” “There’s a fair in town. I’ll take the day off, you bunk school. Let’s go tomorrow...”
Eventually, she gestures to her father to lean in, and awkwardly whispers in his ear. The father looks visibly stunned when he straightens up. After a few silent seconds, he gently pats her on her shoulder and asks, “Does it hurt?” “Just a little.” “That’s normal! Why are you worried? Baba will take care of everything,” he says with a smile.
That’s Arre Baba, a film released on YouTube (1.6 million views) by online story telling platform, Terribly Tiny Tales, in 2015. The 5 minute film establishes a poignant theme – fathers can be good mothers, too. And can sensitively discuss menstruation with their daughters.
Arre Baba released exactly 20 years after one of Bollywood’s most iconic films: Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. In it, late actor Amrish Puri plays a stern father, who has to be painstakingly convinced to let his daughter (played by Kajol) live life on her own terms. Discussing periods, one must assume, was out of the question.
The list of conservative fathers in Bollywood doesn’t stop at Amrish Puri. Prithviraj Kapoor’s Akbar in Mughal e Azam (1960) wages a war against his son (Salim, played by Dilip Kumar) for falling in love with a courtesan. Anupam Kher in Kya Kehena (2000) disowns her pregnant and unmarried daughter. Ronit Roy in Udaan (2010) assaults his sons with a leather belt in order to ‘discipline’ them. The list goes on.
Yet, a change is afoot. With films such as Arre Baba, web series such as The Viral fever’s Fathers, and even mainstream successes like Piku (2015) and, to an extent, Dangal (2016), a conscious effort is being made to represent fathers as normal human beings, capable of forging friendships with their children.
Reflection of society
Sure, authoritarian father figures are not exclusive to Bollywood, or Indian cinema. Darth Vader is undeniably the worst of the lot. Closer to reality, films such as Sound of Music (1965) and Dead Poets Society (1989) featured frigid fathers. So much so that the latter saw a son commit suicide for having disappointed his father. In contrast, films such as such as Kramer vs Kramer (1979) and Mrs Doubtfire (1993) saw Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams, respectively, fight for an active role in their child’s upbringing.
Bollywood, too, made an attempt to sensitise the father figure with films such as Masoom (1983) and Akele Hum Akele Tum (1995; inspired by Kramer vs Kramer). The former saw Naseeruddin Shah’s character make an effort to befriend and care for his illegitimate son. But such unusual fathers were few and far between. A majority of the films continued to stereotype them as conservative, god-fearing, and obsessed with social respect. Take Alok Nath in Vivah (2006), or Amitabh Bachchan in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (2001), for instance.
But cinema can’t function in isolation. It’s a reflection of society, and the Indian society in the ’80s and the ’90s was undeniably more conservative. It was the pre-globalisation era, and patriarchy was an accepted social order. Men were the bread-winners, and women were responsible for nurturing. So, while sexist gender norms led to women being portrayed as damsels in distress, men were often portrayed as emotionally detached and incapable of communicating their feeling.
“It wasn’t as if fathers had no feelings. But it wasn’t common for men to display emotions. Naturally, cinema, too, couldn’t portray authoritative male characters with an active emotional quotient. So, they were shown as abrasive, indifferent parents. Today, as millenials grow up on western ideas of feminism and pop culture, we are fighting for the idea of accepting fathers as approachable, friendly men,” says Harsh Dedhiya, director of TTT’s Dry Day, a 2017 short film that specifically broke the stereotypes around the relationship between a father and a son.
Just millennial things
The gradual change in the representation of fathers is also characterised by the abolition of the stereotypical macho man. Arre Baba does it through a father figure with a maternal instinct. Dry Day sees a father and his son sharing a drink together, and push past the awkwardness. While neither fully communicate their feelings, both emotionally connect through nostalgia, over a game of carom.
TVF’s latest series, FATHERS, now on air, on the other hand, approaches drinking with sons as comedy. “Dost dost ke saath nahi piyega to kiske saath piyega [if two friends don’t drink together, who will they drink with],” says a father to his shocked son. Through the course of the episode (titled First Drink with Son), the duo open up about their lives, and even discuss girls at one point.
“The need to represent a friendly father is a part and parcel of the feminism wave. The fight for gender equality, that demands equal opportunities for women, also seeks to humanise men – that they too need avenues for communication and support,” says Raghav Subbu, director of FATHERS.
And not wanting to be left behind, Bollywood, too, is slowly warming up to the idea. Last year saw Piku and Dangal, two father-centric films that did well at the box office. But while they did celebrate the father’s role in a child’s upbringing, the patriarchy wasn’t entirely omitted out. Dangal, particularly, faced criticism for being a faux feminist film, that posited Amir Khan’s father figure as the main decision-maker in his daughter’s life.
Yet, the shift is unmistakable. Sure, we’re still testing revolutionary waters. But the flood gates to explore a father’s need to engage with his children are now open. And it may not be long before we get our own father of the century mascot – a version of Phil Dunphy from Modern Family.