As Tolstoy said “All happy families resemble one another, and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, and so is Mr Kapoors family, unhappy in multiple ways that is. Time is running out for the patriarch of the family Mr Kapoor ( Rishi Kapoor, twinkling eyes firmly in place under a thick mask of grubby makeup). The film opens with him pretending to drop dead at the breakfast table, as his son Rajat Kapoor and daughter in law Ratna Pathak bicker over expenses. They don’t even roll their eyes in a “not again” move. But goofy Granpa soon has a real heart attack and his two grandsons Rahul and Karan fly down to be with the family.
The film treads well worn territory in bringing together a family under difficult circumstances and putting them under some sort of stress and watching it all fall apart. The success of such a film depends upon how closely it watches and how claustrophobic does it get for the viewer. A film like this should place you in a sauna and gradually raise the temperature to an unbearable level. But Kapoor and Sons is a strange film, it skilfully mixes serious family drama with Bollywood campy humour, with a quirky old grandfather salivating at a wet Mandakini under the waterfall, to a bubbly teenybopper(Alia Bhatt) bursting out of her hot pants. Without these two formulaic elements, Kapoor and Sons could have been in Thomas Winterbergs Danish drama Festen (1998) territory, or even Burgmanesque in bits. And of course there are two handsome hunks to draw in the ladies to the theatre, harried husbands or boyfriends in tow, not the least bit enthused about Alia Bhatt.
This film is 160 minutes long, about the standard running time for a average Bollywood flick and spends about 80 minutes trying to be a Bollywood rom-com crossed with “ tharki grandpa in his elements”. The casualty for a serious film viewer is that so many elements which are solid building blocks of the films characters remain unexplored. How did this Punjabi family land up in a South Indian hill station like Conoor? Why did Rajat Kapoor have an affair and what is the nature of his failing business venture, why did his two sons became novelists, what was Rishi Kapoor like as a father, what more can we learn about the rich brother who makes an appearance twice in the film but we know precious little about him? And what about that little old man – Choksi Uncle, with whom Rishi Kapoor has a fight playing cards, the feud between them obviously runs deep?
These are a host of such details which are ignored, they are critical not for plot, of which there is precious little in the film anyways, but for developing individual characters and the organic whole of a family unit locked into perpetual conflict. More than three months after watching the film these questions are alive in my mind, because the film had a lot going for it. I really wanted the film to delve into the relationship between Rajat Kapoor and Ratna Pathak, this is the real reason why the two brothers have fallen apart. Both these veteran actors steal the show, Ratna Pathak is an actress we need to see more of.
Instead of sticking to the spine of the story which is the dynamics of the nuclear family of the Kapoors, the film fluffs up its act with the completely tacked on character of Alia Bhatt, who plays it with well, a whole lot of tack. I feel compelled to comment on this film because it is a great case study of Bollywoods growth pangs. The problem of course is not with Bollywood or all our regional mainstream cinema, but with us the audience. Come Friday evening we need some laughs, some dance and music, one item number, a few stars, foreign locales and hot bods. If those boxes are ticked then we are able to appreciate some moments of pure cinema which Kapoor and Sons provides. “We are like this only” and shall continue to be, for the foreseeable future, and who am I to complain?
Shakun Batra sets it all up expertly and we are immediately sucked into the tension on the dinner table. As I watched the drama unfold I could not help but notice how different the visual grammar was compared to mainstream Bollywood, the quick editing and very intimate handled camera taking us to the heart of a conflict zone. A scene involving a plumber intercut with the bickering family is brilliantly filmed and edited. It is these moments which lift Kapoor and Sons above its peers and makes us sit up and take notice. When Jeff Bierman, an American cinematographers name popped up in the credits, it made complete sense. This is a rising trend in Bollywood, the “gora” DoP looking at Bollywood scenarios with fresh eyes, and indeed the results are refreshing. And there is Greg Cannom the three times Oscar winning makeup artist who turns Rishi Kapoor into our own Benjamin Button. This is another gimmick in the film, they could well have cast an actual 80 year old, look how well Big B did in Piku( psst.. he even won the National Award).
Five years back for me there were about 5 Bollywood films every year worth a watch, the last two years the number has inched up closer to 10. Recently I found Neerja, the biopic about an air stewardess who saved hundreds of lives on a hijacked plane quite riveting, a story worth telling and very well told indeed. The production design of Bajirao Mastani was world class, in the Oscar nominee territory.
So do I see it as glass half full or half empty? Half full of course, is the answer, or as a recent Whatsapp nugget of wisdom enlightens me- the glass is refillable. I have been sitting, for far too long, a very thirsty man, at the Bollywood table, with people slurping Rose syrup around me, so when Karan Johar and Shakun Batra come and pour me half a pint of Belgian beer (I make this comparison factoring in the films euro sensibilities ) and top it off with syrupy lemonade, I try to be a happy shandy drinker. After looking at the list of National Award winners this year I am even willing to put a small bet on Shakun Batra winning the best Director trophy from the Presidents hands next year.
PS: I get the images for my blog posts from Google of course and I could not find one still image of Rajat Kapoor and Ratna Pathak Shah sharing a quiet tense moment on screen. What I found I have shared. It is obviously not a coincidence!