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Are dysfunctional families the new norm in Hindi films?

Is dysfunctional the new normal in Hindi films? Or are we simply beginning to accept on celluloid what we always had in real life – a family far removed from the ‘adarsh’ stereotype?

brunch Updated: Mar 20, 2016 12:36 IST
Kapoor & Sons

Kapoor & Sons is the second big multi-starrer film to get branded as a ‘film about a dysfunctional family’.

Fifteen years ago when Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions released Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham… , it was just another high-intensity family drama that conformed to the norms of the day. The father was the patriarch; the mother meekly gave in to his decisions; the elder son didn’t dare meet his eye while trying to stand up for his lady love; only the younger son rebelled just a little, but for the greater good of his family of course. It was all very ideal, very ‘adarsh’ – the kind of family we grew up watching onscreen in the ’90s, from Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! to Hum Saath-Saath Hain.

This Friday, another big release from the Dharma stable hit the screens. It is yet another high-intensity family drama. Only this family is far from ‘adarsh’. The parents fight and shout in front of their kids, the kids (who’re grown up adults really) throw kitchenware at each other in fits of rage, question their parents, raise their voices against them… what on earth is going on with this family?!

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Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham... was Dharma Productions’ last big family film to portray the ideal family.

Even before its release, Kapoor & Sons was labelled as ‘a film about a dysfunctional family’. Just like Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), in which ‘The Mehras want the world to think they are happy’, but in reality “iss family mein sab upar upar se baat karte hai, asli baat toh koi karta hi nahi ek dusre se.” Every publication took the bait and jumped in to dissect the dysfunctional family aspect of the film, many questioned the splintering of the ideal family of the Barjatyas, and now with another big, mainstream film in tow, reams are being dedicated to understand if dysfunctionality is the ‘new’ norm.

But the question really is: was the adarsh family ever the norm? If it was, could the average Indian family relate to it? More importantly, if dysfunctionality is so atypical, then why does its portrayal onscreen feel so real, so relatable – so normal even?

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Because It’s Everywhere

“I hate the term ‘dysfunctional family’,” exclaims Shakun Batra, the director of Kapoor & Sons, when asked if his film is about one such parivar. “It almost sounds like a handicap in a family. Any family in this world has some problems or disagreements at some point. It’d be ridiculous to call one family dysfunctional and another, normal.”

Batra asserts that his film is simply a family drama-comedy that has its light and heavy moments – a film about just another regular family reuniting under the same roof after a few years of living apart from each other, just like everybody does nowadays. “As far as my film is concerned, there’s nothing dysfunctional in it.”

Kanu Behl, whose 2014 debut film Titli became the talk of the town last year, agrees with Batra. A “dark, brutal and psychologically violent” film, Titli was about a family of carjackers, where each family member was “more repulsive than the other”, according to a Brunch story last November. You wouldn’t want to call such a family normal, but Behl argues, “To call it a dysfunctional family is to give ground to the fact that there is somewhere a family that is completely functional, where everything is perfectly all right. That, in my opinion, would be a little unrealistic – naïve even.”

Behl adds that it is just a natural progression for filmmakers to go from depicting an ideal family to a realistic family onscreen. “I think we’ve started to peel the different layers of the onion that the family is.” Anand L Rai, director of Tanu Weds Manu (and Returns), too agrees, “As a filmmaker, you depict on screen what you observe off screen in society at that particular point of time. When the Barjatyas made those (adarsh family) films, they must have borrowed from the big, joint families of the time. Now if you make a film about such an ideal family, then that would be called dysfunctional.”

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It’s All Normal

So is dysfunctionality really that prevalent in our society that it can actually be called normal? Dr Rakhi Anand, consultant clinical psychologist at Indraprastha Apollo Hospital in Delhi, answers in the affirmative. She says, “Most families in India have dysfunctional elements, or more precisely, ‘unhealthy parental practices’. Like, fighting or using abusive language in front of children, using children against each other, disrespectful behaviour, and neglect of children, to name a few.” She explains that dysfunction can be on two levels: structural (single or divorced parents) and functional (frequent parental fights, a member suffering from an addiction, extra-marital affairs etc).

“Earlier, the family was very structured and hierarchical – the father would make the decisions, the mother couldn’t overrule him, the kids couldn’t answer back,” Dr Anand says, adding that the new films are only showing what is happening now – the children are more expressive, they have more rights, they’re sharing, discussing, arguing, putting their foot down. “These are emerging communication patterns. You cannot label them abnormal or dysfunctional in any way.”

Does it all mean that what we understand as ‘dysfunctional’ was perhaps always ‘normal’ in the context of the Indian family? And the ideal family of the ’90s films was in fact a small, isolated event in cinema history? Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London reminds us that family conflict has always been important in Indian storytelling – it’s central to even the Ramayan and the Mahabharat.

She says, “The ’90s were often about the diaspora and the greater idea of Indianness, so it was a particular moment only. The recent change is part of the move to more realism and less idealism within the Hindi film melodrama.” She too agrees that “‘dysfunctional’ is a problematic term that needs analysis”. Because as Leo Tolstoy famously wrote in Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.

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From HT Brunch, March 20

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