Shakun Batra’s beautifully performed drama, about a family lurching from one crisis to the next, is part of a recent development towards ‘Happy endings with reservations’ in popular Hindi cinema. These include movies as diverse as Batra’s debut Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Hasee Toh Phasee, Piku, Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Queen and Dil Dhadakne Do. All these movies explore the anxieties, complications and tensions that govern romance and family through a combination of realism and wish fulfillment. Their characters are more ruffled and layered and therefore more credible than their pancake-wearing predecessors. The arguments and quarrels are delivered in tones associated with normal humans rather than creatures of the opera. The songs remain, but they are often relegated to the background. All ends well, but at a price.
In Kapoor & Sons, family secrets that might have driven some people to violence or life-long therapy are delivered by gorgeous leads in picture-perfect settings. The Kapoor sons Rahul (Fawad Khan) and Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra) are summoned by their soon-to-be-90 grandfather (Rishi Kapoor) for a family reunion at their home in Coonoor. Their parents Harsh (Rajat Kapoor) and Sunita (Ratna Pathak Shah) are dealing with Harsh’s business woes. Rahul is a best-selling author, while Arjun is a floater with his own writing aspirations. When neighbour Tia (Alia Bhatt) meets each of the brothers separately, her heart beats, quite naturally, for the long-lashed, accomplished and mature Rahul, but she gets along better with the easy-going and boyish Arjun.
Each of the characters is saddled with a longstanding grievance that is revealed at an appropriate juncture. Kapoor & Sons is choppily shot and edited so that no moment of truth is allowed to take its entire breath, and Batra’s choice of inter-cutting between crucial emotional exchanges does not allow any of the individual strands to emerge fully. A spat over a game of cards at the grandfather’s 90th birthday takes place at the same time as a blow-up between Harsh and Sunita. One is plain silly, the other is ugly, and both cancel each other out.
Another piece of parallel editing similarly drowns out the impact of the big secrets shared by Harsh, Sunita and Rahul. Kapoor & Sons wants to expose the rot that often exists within Indian families, but it loves the toppings far too much to do so in a wholly convincing manner.
All families do not fall apart and re-congeal in a systematic manner, and perhaps the biggest mystery about this social unit is its endurance. The movie does not address this conundrum, but it goes some way towards recognising the cracks that are often scrubbed out of the family album.
Kapoor & Sons contains many references to movies by other directors who have gone down this path, from Woody Allen to Wes Anderson, but its most direct debt is to Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, especially in the sequence in which the family gathers for a portrait. Nair’s 2001 movie, in which a family nearly comes apart at the seams during a wedding, showed that a marriage between Indian-style melodramatic conventions and arthouse realism could actually work – and that such a hybrid narrative could accommodate songs. The musical tracks in Kapoor & Sons, however, only drag the 140-minute narrative rather than enriching it. Bollywood’s increasing preference for realism and subtlety is one of the best things that has happened to popular cinema of late, and perhaps the next bold step is to jettison the songs that have no place in this storytelling style.
The songs do establish the easy chemistry between Malhotra and Bhatt, both of whom play lightweight characters. Tia has a back story that is of no interest, while the extent of Arjun’s angst is never elaborated, but both actors are perfectly matched and presented at exactly the right pitch. Pakistani heartthrob Fawad Khan has the part with the most meat on it, and he beautifully communicates Rahul’s inner messiness.
Although the nicks-but-no-deep cuts approach, also seen in Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), doesn’t help the movie realise its ambitions, Kapoor & Sons works best when it isn’t trying to wave a knife. The characters are nicely observed and chime well with each other, and the relaxed moments don’t feel as forced as the overwrought ones. The conversational dialogue, written by Batra and Ayesha DeVitre Dhillon, always rings true, whether it’s Arjun wooing the blithe spirit that is Tia or Rishi Kapoor’s grandfather declaring his love for the actress Mandakini in Ram Teri Ganga Maili (an in-joke about the notorious movie directed by Kapoor’s father, Raj Kapoor).
Rishi Kapoor barely appears to be a man short of a century, but he owns most of the light moments, including the one in which he reminds his grandsons during a marijuana-imbibing session that everything was more fun in his time.
The veteran has appeared in his share of melodramas, including the screechy films of the 1980s that warned of the threats to the joint family from within (cruel and selfish women were almost always the villains). Much has changed since such movies as Sansar, Ghar Ghar Ki Kahani and Ghar Ho To Aisa. It’s now the nuclear unit that is in danger of going critical. The men, rather than the women, are often the instigators and the culprits. The family portrait is still a lie. The happy ending remains the link between these two worlds, always coming on cue and never failing to reassure viewers that the deceptive warmth of love is preferable to the more acute heat of anger.