Deepika Padukone picking up a copy of Catch-22 in Tamasha

Spectacular: All the Symbolism in Tamasha

Catch-22.

That’s the book Ved, Ranbir Kapoor’s character, is reading when Tara, Deepika Padukone’s character, meet and do their matargashti in Corsica, in Tamasha (2015), my favourite film of that year.

The title of Joseph Heller’s cult book, which added, well, a catch-all phrase to the dictionary, aptly sums up Ved’s life (and work) when his and Tara’s paths cross again after a few years, this time though introducing each other with their real names. (In Corsica, they resolve to go with the spirit of getting away, and decide to eschew the standard path that follows after a meet-cute: no hi’s, no hook-ups.) Ved now, as Tara grasps, is caught between doing what he loves (theatre, the tamasha in the title) and what he is supposed to do according to society and dad. He chooses the latter, and only after Tara re-enters his life, does he realise he is anguished because of the decision.

But the symbolisms in Tamasha don’t end there.

The stamp of Social 110066 on the titular page of Catch-22 in TamashaThe inside titular page of the book bears the name of the place where he picked up the book from: Social 110066 (in Hindi), the Hauz Khas Social in Delhi, the number referring to the area pin-code. So, Ved is basically trying to be… social. When Tara turns down his proposal, she tells him that “a polite, well-behaved product manager” is not who she likes or is looking for, but rather “the guy who talks to mountains and drinks water from a stream directly with his mouth… like an animal”.

Also, the number 110066 appears within parentheses that look like they are book-ending him. Dev is trapped from both sides.

It goes on.

‘Tara’ is the ‘star’ that enlightens the truth to him, relights the fire within him and illuminates the path for him. ‘Ved’ has the ‘knowledge’ of his destiny inside him, but perhaps needed a star to shine its light on the path to it.

And if I have to push it, what does Tara do herself? She is the scion of a business family that is into tea import-export (the company named Darjeeling Impex in the film). Tea. The drink that invigorates. Enough for Ved to get charged up and work toward giving his audiences many a tamasha (spectacle).

And if all this isn’t enough, the melancholic Heer toh badi sad hai song. Where the performers are singing and dancing in what seems to be a Haryana village – about Heer, that is, Tara, who is actually in Calcutta / Kolkata.

 

How come? Because Heer doesn’t know who this guy she is sighing over and pining for is, his name or his place of domicile, in her mind – given his behaviour and how full of life he is – he would most probably be from a place where people are known for their loud, boisterous enthusiasm for and celebration of life. So, Delhi, Punjab or… Haryana.

And oh, Tara’s favourite book? Of course, Asterix in Corsica.

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Whole and Soul

I have never had a role model. And for a long time, if only for a bit, that would weigh me down. Especially when I would see others happily citing everyone from Gandhi to Branson to Chopra (both Deepak and Priyanka). I used to wonder if something was amiss in my personality development by not having some big footsteps to follow.

Bollywood actor, Boman IraniThe closest I have come though has been Boman Irani. Mainly because he “made it” “quite late”. (At 44, my present age. And I trust I am still “struggling”.) Boman comes across as a nice and genuine chap, with no airs. I even used to follow him on FB, and found his shares the most sincere of the few celebs I would follow. He even liked a comment of mine on his very cute grandson. But I eventually unfollowed him. While I wasn’t looking at him as a role model, somewhere, this celebrity follow thing doesn’t work for me. No offence, Boman. Although if I were to catch him in person now (I did see him during the launch of his first Bollywood movie, Ram Madhvani’s Let’s Talk, back in 2002), I could still go schoolgirl-blush on him. Yup, he’s cool.

I eventually figured it out. When you are as individualistic and hatke (unconventional) as I am, you can’t have a role model. You are your own model, and perhaps for other individualistic and unconventional folk too. So, I started feeling easy about this don’t have a role model thing, and started allowing myself to just be myself.

And then, Guru Dutt happened.

Guru Dutt in his introductory shot from Pyaasa

Guru Dutt in his introductory shot from Pyaasa

When I started watching his movies in this intense discovery phase of mine, I could identify with the “tortured creative soul” he was, and not just in his movies. (GD is one of those few artistes, if not the only one, who put out a lot of himself, along with his world view, in his movies.) It was easy: I am a tortured creative soul myself.

And as I started and finished watching all his movies (directed, produced, acted) and started and am on the way to finishing all books on him, I began feeling more and more of a kinship with him. The same feelings of humanism toward the world, the same feelings of not being accurately understood by others, the same desire to be and remain a purist – or as I say, a truist (all themes in the glorious Pyaasa), the same desire to be uncompromising (brought out to a brutal extent in Kaagaz ke Phool), and the same anguish that comes from having these attitudes and making the choices that go with these.

Somewhere, across the time-space continuum, across the close to 10 years between his death and my birth, across the over 50 years after he passed away that I discovered him, getting to “get” him only through the written word (others’) and created visuals (his), I find that he could be the closest person I could come to be emulating. (I have been telling my friends that GD’s spirit, or a part of it, like the horcruxes in Harry Potter, has entered mine, perhaps explaining my newly acquired obsession of him.)

Of course, highly individualistic as I am, and no matter how immense I find GD, I could never want to become a clone of him. So, maybe not role model, but perhaps, and given that he is no more in the earthly realm, a… soul model?

Guru Dutt as an older man in Kaagaz ke Phool

Guru Dutt as the aged Suresh Sinha in Kaagaz ke Phool

 

Guru Dutt as an older man at the beginning of Kaagaz ke Phool

Destruction and Construction

In my rapid and rabid discovery of Guru Dutt, after having watched almost all his acted, directed and produced movies and a documentary on him, I have now moved on to his books. I have read three so far, am in the midst of one, have one more to go, and want to get my hands on the only one I don’t have yet, but also the most expensive. (That has letters from GD to the other GD, Geeta Dutt, his better half and singer in almost all his films, written over the 13 years of their togetherness, and so costs what it does. But I will get to it, I will.)

Cover of Sathya Saran's book, Ten Years with Guru Dutt: Abrar Alvi's JourneyAll the books are, aptly, around a certain theme or have a certain leaning. The one I’m reading right now actually is about Abrar Alvi, who wrote the dialogue for his films and directed one (Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam; its songs though, like all GD films, were directed by GD himself). It’s about the 10 years he collaborated with GD, and is thus called Ten Years with Guru Dutt: Abrar Alvi’s Journey. It’s authored by Sathya Saran, former Femina editor, and is structured interestingly: the chapters are named after songs in GD’s movies, and achingly, begins with his death through the Kaagaz ke Phool lament Bichhde sabhi baari baari.

Cover of Arun Khopkar's book on Guru DuttA couple of others (In Black and White: Hollywood and the Melodrama of Guru Dutt, by Darius Cooper, and Guru Dutt: A Tragedy in Three Acts, by Arun Khopkar, translated by Shanta Gokhale) read more academic and go into the realm of philosophy and psychology, regularly bringing up Jung and Freud. While Cooper, as his book’s title goes, talks at length about the various kinds of melodrama in GD’s movies, Khopkar brings up one theme quite often: self-destruction. How self-destruction was a recurring thought in GD’s movies, and although not saying it directly (the scope of the book is not biography, as Khopkar states at the beginning), also in his life.

Since Khopkar looks at GD’s movies through the twin lenses of philosophy and psychology, perhaps we do the same for this comment. What is self-destruction? And through whose eyes? Perhaps “self-destruction” is living your life your way rather than that prescribed by the world, and paying the price for that. As I often say (as I am often at the receiving end of society’s diktats myself), the world / society does two things to an individual who goes against the grain: It tries to bring them “on track”. And if they don’t fall in line, which is the case with most individualistic people, society pronounces them “evil” and marks a tortured path for them.

Guru Dutt was a perfectionist, idealist, humanist and romantic in his movies, and I can safely add, in his life too. And perhaps paid the price for that. Or should I say, self-destructed.

But I also read somewhere that our purpose in life – and here’s adding a spiritual lens to this discourse – is the “completion of the soul”. GD’s movies were full of soul, even the lighter ones (such as Aar Paar and Mr and Mrs 55), and they filled the soul of their viewers, and continue to do so, more than fifty years since he passed on. Hmm, maybe that’s why he departed so early. He had managed the completion of his soul. Hopefully, it rests in peace now.

A composite pic of Guru Dutt in a movie still and as a baby

Guessing Dutt

The first real piece on Guru Dutt (yesterday’s was an intro), and it happens to be around his death. Actually, it’s also about his birth, and there is a common thread between the two (and so the reason for this piece). But first, the tragic part.

Read up most stuff on the net, and even most books on him (as I am in the state of doing so these days), and you will find that most believe – no, are sure – his death was a suicide. He had attempted suicide two or three times before (and this is more or less confirmed, perhaps also because the man was around to affirm them), and I guess so the reason for this strong belief. Plus, they also look to the big serious films he did (Pyaasa, Kaagaz ke Phool, Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam), all of which had a key protagonist dying, actually (the latter two movies) or metaphorically (the first). People hold that he had an obsession or at least a fascination with death (and some also call his cinema ‘poetry of death’), and so there isn’t much to sway them from this notion.

But think Twelve Angry Men (and its various adaptations worldwide) and, closer home, the Aarushi Talwar murder case. In the latter, the public and social media had passed its judgment on the “privileged” Talwar couple. In the former, 11 people had already announced their verdict on the boy “from the slums”.

If you try and find out what folk really close to him (most notably his sister, Lalitha Lajmi) and really admiring him (such as his assistant director, Shyam Kapoor, and former Femina editor, Sathya Saran, who has also written a book on him, Ten Years with Guru Dutt: Abrar Alvi’s Journey) – or basically, people with a more sensitive, sensible bent of mind and perhaps a less sensation-seeking mindset – feel and believe, it seems it was indeed an overdose that night of 10 October, 1965. At the most, and this is me speaking, he may have consumed an extra dose intentionally, but more out of a feeling of extreme frustration and anguish, rather than a desire to “end it all”. (He was going through a tough time those days, living on his own in a rented apartment, separated from his wife, singer Geeta Dutt, and possibly struggling with which direction to take his cinema next.) Perhaps he was looking for a lot of calm that night amidst a lot of internal storm. Just not permanent calm.

I – and I don’t say this only from the point of view of a loving fan – feel it’s best to keep it open, like many do too. It is also to respect the man’s dignity.

Now, if GD left us unsure of the circumstances of his death, his place of birth, in an intriguing kind of life symmetry, isn’t entirely certain either. Many say he was born in Bangalore (now Bengaluru), many others Mysore (now Mysuru), still others that it was another Karnataka city, Karwar. (On the inside cover of his book, In Black and White: Hollywood and the Melodrama of Guru Dutt, Darius Cooper says he was born in Mangalore, and in the introduction, that he was born in Bangalore. Or is that just bad proofreading?) And the state of Karnataka as we know it now didn’t even exist back then. (The linguistic division of states happened in 1956, when, to time-peg, Guru Dutt released his production, CID, starring Dev Anand and introducing Waheeda Rehman.)

Many others believe he was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), as he knew Bengali well (he knew only English better) and his work showed a lot of Bengal influence (from the oft-analysed Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, based on a book by Bimal Mitra, to the lesser-discussed Sautela Bhai, based on a book by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay). He also had a touch of the Bengali accent in his voice. The reason is this. He had spent his formative years, from about five to 17-18, in Calcutta. I would know. I had spent a similar amount of time (11 years to his 13) in Cal (as most Cal-bred folk call it), too in my early years, also know Bengali quite well, and have a hint of the accent in my voice too. Maybe this is why I like GD so much? No, just one of the many reasons why.

So, from his birth to his passing, GD left us guessing. Actually, no. Only regarding his birth and his leaving, he left us debating. About his movies and the messaging through them, he was very very sure. Though that leads to another kind of discussing and debating, albeit of the rich and intense kind.

Guru Dutt in the classic song Jaane woh kaise log the from Pyaasa

Guru Nutt

As I have been telling everyone on my social media list for the past couple of months, and as I now plan to tell everyone on my blog list for the next many months, I have come to Guru Dutt late. (I am in middle age, and he passed away at its cusp.) I really discovered him these couple of months ago. However, as I have also been telling my friends (or whoever hasn’t yet unfollowed me fatigued by my new-found obsession with the Dutt), I have made up for lost time with lots(a) intensity. I have watched almost all his movies: produced by, directed by, and starring him, and have now moved on to books about the man. I have only not watched three movies with him essaying a prominent role: Lakhrani (1945), in which he was an assistant director (AD) and also played a bit role; Sailaab (1956), directed by him; and Suhagan (1965), the last movie starring him and released the year following his death. I am still half-way into those books, and amidst it all, keep devouring as many pieces about him on the net as I can.

I think GD (as I refer to him from a deep and warm place of my being, cinematic and otherwise) does that to most people: when you discover him, you deep-scover him (discover him deeply), and after that, no one, at least, not too many other film-makers, comes close. To borrow the opening sentence of one of those many pieces I have read: Unlike other film directors, Guru Dutt does not have fans – he has devotees.

Over these past couple of months, I have discovered and mulled over various aspects of his cinema and his personality (and those who know him know that the two are very closely intertwined), and plan to share them here, over an irfinite, er, infinite number of posts. So, basically, Guru Dutt by a… Guru Nut(t).

Cover pic for this post with a composite image of the brothers from 'Kapoor and Sons' and the post title

Irficionado | Writing and Creativity (Since 1921… and Way Earlier)

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Wrote this piece for The Hindu’s thREAD. It got published today, the perfect day, Friday, as it’s about movies, and the arts in general. Here’s the link: This Piece on thREAD. And below’s the original piece.

 ∞

There are about three conversations happening around the super-loved, superhit Kapoor and Sons (Since 1921) right now.

First, it’s a delectable easy-charm, slice-of-life movie that takes the protagonists and the viewers not from A through Z, but to, let’s say, a T. Also, it’s a liner and not a submarine – it cruises along without diving deep. I agree with most of that, but wish it could have gone just a bit deeper; it would have been a “truer” film, like the director, Shakun Batra’s debut Ek Main aur Ekk Tu, which does the opposite of Kapoor and Sons – it goes from A to T and then back to A: the protagonists don’t end up being together at the end, nor seem very likely to.

Next, how insanely good-looking Fawad Khan is, especially shorn of the stubble from his Bollywood debut, Khoobsurat – and people thought that was hot. Fawad has got most girls, and some guys, weak in their knees and other body parts. And there’s talk that just for this delightful import from across the border, we might finally let their cricket team win a World Cup match.

Fawad Khan in a scene from 'Kapoor and Sons'Finally, people are going to town about how sensitively the film-makers have dealt with Fawad’s character, Rahul, being gay. (Did we hear those girls weeping and those guys whooping? Chill, that’s just his character – although he is married in real life.) The LGBT community especially seems ecstatic that the makers have said ‘gay’ without saying ‘gay’ – there’s no mention of the word, not even an indication (even the fuchsia feather boa in the family belongs to his dad) and Rahul isn’t portrayed as disco/Cher-loving or shirt-chasing. I think the makers could have gone better here too – while no one uses the G word, Rahul’s mom treats him, at least as soon as she comes to know of his “truth”, with the same disgust most queer people find themselves at the receiving end of. But portrayals of LGBT characters in our movies rarely go beyond those effete, pink-loving stereotypes, so this is at least two-steps-forward, one-step-back.

But I’d like to bring a fourth, and perhaps more discussion-worthy, conversation to the Burma-teak table. Before that, the context-setting.

Rahul and his younger bro, Arjun, are both writers. However, Rahul is the successful one and Arjun the struggler. Rahul’s second book has been a huge success – although his first tanked – and he’s presently working on the third. In fact, he seems to be doing well enough to come to his home-town, Coonoor, to scout for a bungalow to turn into an artists’ retreat. Arjun, in contrast, is struggling with more than just his writing. He’s recently given up, after a short stint, his gig of blogging about Bollywood and is presently making ends meet as a part-time bartender. In his spare time, he is working on a book, his second one, after having given up the first because it “somehow” proved to be very similar to Rahul’s second/successful book. (Did Rahul sneak a peek and get “inspired”? For that, you’ll have to watch the movie.)

Sidharth Malhotra and Fawad Khan in a scene from 'Kapoor and Sons'

Setting aside their differences for a while, in the second half, the brothers begin talking about Arjun’s manuscript. Arjun shares that the publisher has asked him to change the ending as it’s a not happy one, but he is, um, not happy with doing that. Why? Because he believes “books, or literature, should reflect real life – and real life is never happy.”

However, toward the end, as the movie moves toward its T point, we see Arjun reneging: he makes the book end positively. At the publishers’, when asked how he finally relented, warmly recalling Rahul’s reflections to him (more about this later), he offers, “Based on someone’s suggestion…”

As a writer and creative individual (or so the hope), this seemed a more primal point for discussion than how deep a movie should go, how lovely a lad looks, or how a gay guy can love other colours in the rainbow flag.

A quote about happy endingsThe great books, even the good ones – and by this I mean literature and not “racy, pacy reads” – have almost always ended sad. From Homer to Shakespeare to Hardy to living authors, it’s like a defining trait of literature that it shouldn’t end joyous. And I believe this is for the good: people read these books, not so much to escape their pain, but to empathize with others in a parallel universe somewhere dealing with the same kinds of pathos. As we see our troubles equalled, or even surpassed, in literary characters, we are assuaged – kind of like a therapy session right at home, or wherever you choose to read. And while these characters are fictional, lit-lovers know that somewhere these are either alter egos of the writers or amalgamated versions of people the writer has met or observed.

While I haven’t read Iliad and very little of Shakespeare and Hardy, let me talk of the ones I have, right from my favourite authors and books to more recent literature.

Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, while mesmerizing to read right from the first Buendian (the family in the story) to the last, eventually ends up in loss for the family. As the second-last Buendian loses himself more and more in academia, the last Buendian, the baby, loses his little life, Second-Last failing to pay attention to Last’s precarious situation. A century on, the family is back to solitude.

Cover of V S Naipaul's sublime 'A House for Mr Biswas'In Naipaul’s tender, tearful A House for Mr Biswas, there is almost no relief for Mr B through the expansive tome. As he sees his third and final house slowly disintegrating, his life too seeps away, at the ripe old age of… 46.

Even in Marquez’s ultimately-happy Love in the Time of Cholera, the lovers meet only after “51 years, 9 months and 4 days.” Many would say, where’s the joy in that?

Cover of Cyrus Mistry's 'Chronicle of A Corpse Bearer'Or take the recent DSC winners (an award given for South Asian writing, which seems to be going India’s way over the last few years, just like the Ms Worlds/Ms Universes were once upon a time). Cyrus Mistry’s Chronicle of A Corpse Bearer deals with the many tragedies in the life of the titular khandhia, from his excommunication from his caste on marrying a woman “below” him to the death of his wife at a very young age. Even the most recent winner that I’m in the middle of now, Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter, deals with many dark and heavy themes: the not-so-holy doings of some (all?) godmen, the frustration inherent in most gay romances (the flavour of the season?), and the spirit-leeching deterioration of the faculties in old age. I’m yet to know how it ends, but it surely doesn’t augur well.

So, if literature ends up being tragic yet triumphant, and he isn’t writing a book with a number in its title or a Hindu mythological figure as its hero, why does Arjun end up modifiying its ending?

The answer perhaps lies where it started – in our movies. Many Bollywood directors (no doubt, there are examples in other Indian cinemas too, but I am a Big Bolly Buff) make a great first movie – a movie from their heart and soul – but which doesn’t do ting at the tills as it’s too “real”, and so change tack and make a more “commercially viable” movie henceforth, which not surprisingly works.

Ayan Mukerji made the wondrous Wake Up Sid, which despite all its acclaim at best only woke up, rather than shook up, the box office. So, he moved to more commercial elements, such as a more saleable leading lady and foreign locales, and delivered the blockbuster Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani.

Poster of Zoya Akhtar's debut movie 'Luck by Chance'Zoya Akhtar first gave us, or me (as it’s my favourite film of all time), the rich, deep, involving Luck By Chance, which had layers upon layers of psychology, nuance, complexity, and then some. But apart from folk like me who watched it 15 times, it had little luck. So, she swerved to the big, vapid Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and then the bigger and only less vacuous Dil Dhadakne Do.

Director Shakun Batra leaning over a cut-out of his debut movie 'Ek Main aur Ekk Tu'Finally, and ironically, Shakun Batra himself. He debuted with, as I already wrote, the ruminative Ek Main aur Ekk Tu, where the hero-heroine remain ek main aur ekk tu, but never ek hum (one you, one me, but never one us): the heroine, Kareena Kapoor, feels they are nice individuals in their own place but can’t be together, at least she doesn’t see it that way. Not surprisingly, the movie was seen by ek-do (one-two) folk. And so, in Kapoor and Sons, Shakun had Arjun and Tia (Alia Bhatt) hooking up by the end. And perhaps, to be doubly sure, he made Rahul prefer men. (Oh, was that the real reason for the character being gay?)

Cover of the book 'Creativity, Inc.To be fair, these directors might be attempting a golden middle. In a mini-interview to a different part of The Hindu, about which book he’s reading presently (Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace), Shakun had this to say: “The book talks about finding the balance between telling the stories you have to tell and fighting the battle you have to fight… It gives a lot of perspective and also makes me feel that it is possible to not sell your soul and make a film that connects with people.”

Your first creative endeavour goes under. You don’t want the next to suffer the same fate. Any wonder then that in making its ending a happy one, Arjun makes a practical decision. He wants to be successful – and if this is the only thing stopping him – why not, in a manner of speaking, lower your ideals?

Now, to all the writers/creative souls out there: what would you do? Write (pen/direct) a real but less saleable story? Or a happy and more successful one? That is, write for the self – or to sell? Or is there a golden middle?

As you begin writhing over that, let me finally share the suggestion Rahul gives Arjun, which leads to the modified ending, “Because people find real life tough, they look for happiness in stories…”

Now what would you do?

Agonizing, huh? Well, such is life. And I guess, literature.

Composite image of stills from 'Mother India' and 'Wake Up Sid' with the Mother India image having a sepia feel

Irficionado | Movies | Parents: Missing in (Lights, Camera,) Action

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Had sent this piece to thREAD, The Hindu’s online segment. The article came out today! With some edits, text and visual. The link is below and the original piece below that.

This piece on thREAD

I had been waiting for the DVD of Tamasha to come out for two reasons. One, to enjoy my favourite movie of last year all over again. Two, to check whether Deepika Padukone’s character, Tara, had parents in the movie. For we just see a glimpse of her kin in one song, Heer toh badi sad hai, and then too, it’s not clear if they are her parents and family or rather guardians and their family.

I watched the song a few times to verify, and the most I could discern was that there is a senior male figure in her life, but going by the displayed behaviour between them, he seems to be a caring uncle at best. In contrast, Dev’s (Ranbir Kapoor’s character) parents are well established, as a key part of the movie involves them.

And then I started thinking of other romantic movies (aren’t all our movies around that warm, fuzzy feeling?) in the recent past with a young urban setting or story, to check a developing theory.

In Wake Up Sid, my favourite movie of a few years ago, Ayesha’s (Konkona Sen’s character) parents find mention only in a wall photo of her Mumbai rental and in a late-night call to her mom back in Kolkata. This movie too pivots partly on Ranbir Kapoor’s (Sid) parents, but the core (love) story takes off when Sid moves into Ayesha’s apartment.

Farhan Akhtar and Konkona Sen-Sharma in the latter's room in 'Luck By Chance'In Luck By Chance, my favourite movie of all time, the parents of both the principal characters (Vikram, played by Farhan Akhtar, and Sona, again Konkona) live in cities away from the city in which the characters have come to pursue their Bollywood dreams.

Nithya Menen and Dulquer Salmaan in a scene from 'O Kadhal Kanmani'The roster continues… Yeh Jawaani Hai Diwani: screen time of three minutes max for Deepika’s mom and none for Kalki Koechlin and Aditya Roy Kapur’s parents; I Hate Luv Storys: Sonam Kapoor’s parents appear for around six minutes overall and Imran Khan’s mom appears for five minutes in the second half; and looking at Kollywood – and from the limited Tamil movies I watch and understand – in last year’s O Kadhal Kanmani (OKK): no parents again for the girl, Tara (Nithya Menen), and an elder brother and his family at the most for Adi (Dulquer Salmaan).

My theory, or rather, query was ripe: Where are the parents in today’s movies? Or better put, why are they missing? Contrast this with the time when movies were all about Mother India and her mamta and which bhai ke paas maa hai.

Poster of 'Deewar' (1975) with the mother, Nirupa Roy, holding centre-stage

The reasons, it would seem, are both reel and real.

Reel first. The dynamics of both movie-making and watching in India have changed. Movies are no longer three-hour-plus backside-burners but of a more palatable two or two-and-a-half-hour duration, leaving little room for elaborate back or side family stories. Going to the movies now is also less of a family affair and more a hangout with friends or a significant other, and since these happen more in multiplexes, these folks don’t want to see movies with the “baggage” of, well, folks – the people they have left outside those multiplexes. Also, a majority of Bollywood and many Kollywood movies are now being shot abroad – to cater to aspiring Indians and gloss-habituated NRIs – and the economics and mechanics of doing this doesn’t leave any room in the script and in the plane for the mummies and daddies.

But the real reasons appear to be the real ones.

Graphic of a Do Not Disturb door sign with text talking about the need to have spaceThe growing urban clamour among Indians first since liberalization and then globalization has seen people steadily moving from smaller cities, towns and villages to the metros and super-metros for better opportunities and hopefully a better life. And sometimes, like in Wake Up Sid, individuals move within the same city (out of their parents’ nest into their own), for space and privacy. In both cases, parents can become estranged (as Sona’s parents in Luck By Chance, who don’t like her decision to go to big, bad Bollywood, and Sid’s parents when he moves out after a war of words with his dad). Where’s the space for your progenitors when you’re busy pursuing your dreams and aspirations and fierce about your individuality and privacy? But also, as millennials would ask, where’s their need? After all, aren’t they just a WhatsApp message or Skype call away?

A bigger factor than the urban dream, though, seems to be inner conflict. Today’s tussles are no longer Parents vs You, Family vs Lover, Society vs Status: “You’ve got to take up your dad’s business.” “What will relatives and society say?” “You can’t marry him, he’s outside our class/caste/fill-in-the-blank.” Today’s parents know these hoary dialogues won’t budge with today’s youth, and today’s youth have scant headspace for the same. Not having a big outside demon to fight, the individual’s struggles now have all gone internal. Now vs Sometime in the Future, Commitment vs Independence, My Ideology/Dreams/Fill-in-the-blank vs Yours: “Now’s not the time – not because we’ve been seeing each other for just six months, but because I’m due for director at the firm.” “We’re somehow not compatible – I think I’m looking for something else.” “What about my dreams?” Ambitions and aspirations have become the new antagonizing amma and appa. And even where this is love, there is still conflict, because now we look at turns and shades of love. “I love you, but I’m not in love with you (or vice versa).” “I like you… as a friend; you are great to hang out with, but beyond that, I’m not so sure.” “I love you, but… (and any variety of reasons here).”

Imtiaz Ali wearing a T-shirt of 'Jab We Met'

Imtiaz Ali, Tamasha’s director, is perhaps the flagbearer of the urban-setting, inner-turmoil romantic movie. His career graph reflects this evolving graph of Bollywood – and the case of the MIA parents. In his first film, Socha Na Tha (2005), the boy rejects the girl in an arranged-marriage rendezvous, leading to parents and family on both sides turning into epic warlords. Cut to the movies after that – Jab We Met (2007), Love Aaj Kal (2009) and now Tamasha – and you see how protagonists are inflicting enough torture upon themselves (with all their goals and wants) to not need the earlier lava of parents. In Tamasha, Ved subjects himself and Tara to enough heartache and heartbreak by not being able to be true to himself and his passion. In Love Aaj Kal, both Saif Ali Khan and Deepika’s characters give each other enough anguish and agony by not being sure of each other and wanting to pursue their individual dreams – in different continents and with different partners; not surprisingly, the movie doesn’t even bother featuring each other’s parents. In 2012’s Cocktail (only produced by Imtiaz), featuring Saif and Deepika again, Imtiaz makes up somewhat by bestowing parents on Saif, but still nothing for Deepika. (Hmm, no folks for Deeps in most of her movies. Is that why… she had gone into depression?)

Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham pretending to be a gay couple in 'Dostana' (2008)And then, there’s the last type of movie, or movie setting. Where the story is deemed too radical for audiences so that the milieu is changed to far away from where the protagonists hail. Dostana in Bollywood and OKK in Kollywood. Indian audiences would not accept a gay couple in even big, bad Mumbai where apparently anything goes (so what if the guys were only pretending to be lovers for the sake of an apartment?), and so Karan Johar decided to set it in Miami, far far away from both guys’ parents. In OKK, Mani Ratnam felt Tamil audiences would incant “Aiyyo, Kadavulai” on seeing a couple living in sin in even rapidly-become-cosmopolitan Chennai and so decided to set it in, no surprise, Mumbai, again far away from each other’s parents. And maybe for good reason. For we remember all the invocations (to God and godmen) Abhishek Bachchan’s mom, Kirron Kher, makes when she comes visiting, and the frayed looks Dulquer’s sister-in-law gives him when she discovers women’s stuff in his room.

But before you begin relishing (or bemoaning) the absence of parents in present-day films, remember what they say about the movies? Cinema reflects reality. If you look around, you’ll notice a new trend, especially with bugle sounds of Make In India, the growing number of start-ups in the country, and thus, a reverse brain drain: people coming back to India (after going abroad for studies and a few years of work ex), getting back to their hometowns and setting up companies there (Rashmi Bansal’s recent book on entrepreneurs, Take Me Home, showcases several such stories), and consequently… coming back to stay with or near their parents. Will these then begin getting reflected in tomorrow’s movies? Will movie Ma’s and Pa’s then make a grand comeback? Will Imtiaz Ali then make a Love Kal Aaj aur Kal? And will Son-mani’s parents be OK with he living in with his Kanmani? We shall wait and watch.