Dir: Shakun Batra Year: 2016
It is like sitting by the sea on the sands, watching the waves roll by
Like seeing your family at the airport gate as you wave them goodbye
Like watching a sunset in winter as the sky slowly fills up with red
Like holding back your tears when someone in the family is dead
Like a single tear burning your skin as it rolls down your cheek
Like someone telling you her entire life without trying to speak
Like watching the first rains as big fat drops fall to the ground
Like seeing a close friend suffer and have a nervous breakdown
Like life itself and its quirky ways, not knowing what it has in store
It is like this and that film they say it is like, but also so much more.
Why the attempt at poetry? Because it is such a poetic film. And a prosaic response would be an insult to the film. I haven’t been so emotionally moved by a Hindi film in years. Director Shakun Batra who co-wrote the film with Ayesha DeVitre sucks you into the world of the Kapoors and takes you close to every character. You become a fellow-rider of the rollercoaster ride of their life together. You feel every moment of their joy, hope, grief, disappointment, affection, envy, resentment, trust, betrayal, concern, anger and acceptance.
It brings to mind Tostoy’s famous opening line of Anna Karenina : “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Except that it is hard to say whether the family is really happy or unhappy. Come to think of it, which family is totally happy, or unhappy? the film seems to ask. Every family has some hopes fulfilled some not fulfilled, every family has moments that seem so happy when recollected but they seem to have flown by; every family has someone who feels not as loved as he or should ought to have been; there are heartbreaks, there are hidden secrets that get revealed – not always at the most appropriate moments, and yes death, there is always death.
The strength of Shakun Batra is that he creates characters that are real and he paints them with loving details but never airbrushing the warts, making us care for them. There is the Grandpa Kapoor, in his 90s, who has a heart attack at the start of the film, setting the events rolling. He flirts outrageously with a fat nurse, calling her ‘moti’ and ‘bhains’; he has seen Ram Teri Ganga Maili fourteen times just for the waterfall scene, and asks his grandson to show him blue films on the i-papad that he has been gifted. And he wants to have a photograph of his entire family taken which he can label ‘ Kapoor & Sons ( Since 1920)’.
There is Papa Kapoor, who has given up a cushy bank job to start a business and is struggling financially. There is Mama Kapoor who is trying to run the house under these strained circumstances, with an offer from Mimi aunty to take up a franchise of her catering business. And there are the Kapoor siblings, Rahul and Arjun. Staying abroad. Both working at novels, with varying success. Actually, the difference is starker than that. The elder brother has published two novels, with his second novel a bestseller; and is also an entrepreneur of sorts, while the second one is struggling to get his first novel published while working part time as a bartender. There are other characters: Arjun’s childhood buddy who is a photographer and whose brother is a body-builder, a plumber who is trying to fix a leaky pipe in the Kpaoor household, Papa Kapoor’s office colleague Anu, Grandpa Kpaoor’s teenpatti partner friend and the younger brother of Papa Kapoor and his family. And yes, there is elfin-like Tia Singh who has a brush with both the brothers and a real crush on one. And she too is fighting some devils of her own, trying to cope with loss, even as she goes around spreading rays of sunshine and tinkles of laughter.
Events unfold in a pace that is close to real life. There is khushi and there is gham. There are twists, but no more outlandish than that can happen in any of our lives There are two characters that are living with secrets which when revealed wreak havoc in the lives of people around, but he twists again are not as sensational or shocking as in Monsoon Wedding.
Events move at their own pace. Nothing is rushed, nothing is contrived. The way people meet, the way crisis befalls, the way people talk, everything happens with a semblance of naturalism. The director is not afraid to leave some moments of silence. Or let characters lie in bed and talk. The sequence where Papa Kapoor and Mama Kapoor lie in bed and Papa Kapoor reminisces wistfully how they were so happy once and couldn’t they get back those moments breaks your heart with the earnestness of the characters. They are all trying their best. There are quirky touches. Like Grandpa Kapoor wanting to be buried instead of being cremated. And life is not about big moments. Small things happen too. Pipes leak. Power goes out. It rains.
I would club these episodes under the title that Stevie Wonder gave to one of his seminal albums: Songs in the Key of Life.
There is humour, but it is never forced. Like when after bickering bitterly about family finance within hearing distance of plumber Papa Kapoor asks how much he should pay for the job done, the plumber replies sheepishly, “ Ab is bura waqt pe aap jo theek samjhe’. When Arjun introduces big bro to Tia, Tia says, “Yeah, Karan”. Of course Grandpa Kapoor gets to mouth the funniest lines, some over the top, some vey clever. When Grandpa Kapoor wants the photographer to take one shot of him palying dead, the photographer says, ‘Aap kya handsome lag rahe hain. Meri dadi hoti to aap ke sath fit kar deta”. “ Kyun teri mummy nahin hai?” he retorts. Touche!
There are no choreographed songs. Even the chartbuster party song is used to showcase some buffoonery by Tia. And for the sequence where the entire family is together , Big Bro is playing the guitar, and they are all singing, they use an old Bollywood number like ‘Chand Si Mehbooba Ho Meri Kab Aisa Maine Socha Tha’. The scene is done so well, it brings tears to your eyes ( like so many other scenes do) because you can see the family is so happy together now but it won’t last…it never does
There is spouse infidelity there is sibling rivalry, there is romantic mix up…but all handled with a feather touch. Apart from the writers and directors, a big part of the credit for this must go the cinematographer Jeffery F. Bierman and the music director Sameer Uddin.
But what makes the film throb with life is the performances. Rishi Kapoor as the Grandpa is a riot delivering all the comic lines with panache and yet making the character belivable. Rajat Kapoor and Ratna Pathak Shah as Papa and Mama Kapoors wear their roles like a second skin. Rajat Kapoor especially is so earnest, you can feel every arc of his hope, anguish, struggle and frustration. Fawad Khan ..what can you say about him! He is pitch perfect as the brother who is suffocating under the burden of living up to his image of the perfect son, and yet playing on with stoic grace. He gets every expression, every speech, every silence, every smile, every tear right. Siddharth Malhotra as the Younger Bro does quire fine, only falling few notches short in the emotional moments. And what can one say about the young and so talented Alia Bhatt as Tia. He must be the actress with the best comic timing in the business. She conveys so much, not only with her voice or her eyes or but by employing the entre vocabulary of body language.
I liked the ending, the most difficult part of any film to pull off , using a cut out of one of the principal characters. I like the symbolism, I like the poetry. Memories of a person are like cut outs…the next best thing to the real thing, right? And ultimately what I admire most about the film is its ambition…what it wants to be is not entertainment but a rumination on life.
- Wish I had met them…