This is an excerpt from Nandini Ramnath’s weekly newsletter, Eye Spy. To receive it regularly in your inbox, sign up here.
The teaser of Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s upcoming film Animal reveals Ranbir Kapoor as an agent of destruction. Apart from the carnage promised by the Hindi-language movie, Vanga’s follow-up to Arjun Reddy and Kabir Singh explores the root cause of the lead character’s personality: his father, played by Anil Kapoor.
Violence begets violence, suggests Animal, which is scheduled for a December 1 release. It’s the latest movie to explore a reality not available in saccharine family dramas or romances in which obdurate fathers see the light just in time for the end credits. Daddy knows best, until he doesn’t.
In the innocent old days, the movies were littered with “Ofo Daddy!” sentiment, aimed at cigar-chugging men wearing suits at home while standing at the bottom of a long staircase. These patriarchs opposed love on the ground of difference, but came around eventually. That hasn’t always been the case.
The toxic father who creates the roadmap for his sons to follow is present in such films as Shyam Benegal’s Nishant (1975), Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya (1983) and KG George’s Irakal (1985). In each of these films, the father figure defends his actions in the name of family honour – even though the definition of that honour is deeply twisted.
Kanu Behl’s stunning directorial debut Titli (2014) amply makes clear the link between a perverted patriarch and dysfunctional sons. In one of the film’s most unforgettable moments, the titular character sums up the courage to tell his father, you are a pig.
Fathers leave a mark through their absence too. In Yash Chopra’s Deewar (1975), the father’s abandonment of his family is the inciting incident for Amitabh Bachchan’s anti-hero Vijay. The father is a trade union leader who is forced to renege on an equitable deal for his workers after his wife and two sons are kidnapped. The father flees in shame, leaving the family to wallow in poverty until Vijay takes to crime.
“Mera baap chor hai” (My father is a thief), which is forcibly tattooed on Vijay’s arm, is also a reminder of why he must stay away from the straight and narrow. In Chopra’s Trishul (1978), Deewar’s writers Salim-Javed replaced the absconding father with the irresponsible father.
Bachchan’s Vijay takes Freudian revenge against the man who has ditched his lover for a better life. Vijay gets into the construction business, building phallic towers to rival his father’s properties.
The influence of Deewar can be felt on Prashant Neel’s K.G.F films, in which Yash’s gangster Rocky sees his mother struggle in poverty after her alcoholic husband walks out on her. Unlike Deewar’s principled matriarch, Rocky’s mother encourages him to stand up for himself by whatever means possible. In K.G.F: Chapter 2 (2022), Rocky shows his father his place by making him tend to his mother’s grave – a forced duty as well as a punishment.
Sukumar’s Pushpa: The Rise (2021) too has a hero shaped by the trauma created by a missing father. Born out of wedlock and forever reminded of his inferior status by his step-brothers, Allu Arjun’s Pushpa yanks himself out of penury through crime. In the vivid climax, Pushpa loses his cool when a corrupt cop questions his parentage.
There have been irredeemably nasty daddies too, who exist purely to harass or abuse their children. In N Chandra’s Tezaab (1988), Anupam Kher plays a father from hell, who exploits his daughter for money every step of the way. He is unrepentant until the end, when he is killed off so that the romantic leads can finally escape to a better life.
Vikramaditya Motwane’s assured directorial debut Udaan (2010) has another exemplar of toxicity. Ronit Roy plays the abusive father who insists that his son call him “Sir”. Frequently humiliated and belittled, the sensitive teenager plots his flight, taking along his younger sibling.
Abhishek Varman’s 2 States (2014) puts a nice twist to Ronit Roy’s frighteningly convincing performance in Udaan. Roy’s character is once again an alcoholic who doesn’t get along with his son. But when his son’s upcoming wedding is on the verge of collapse, the father is the one who plays peacemaker.
Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy (2019) sees Ranveer Singh’s rapper confront his father over his mother’s abuse. This action is shown as a necessary part of the hero’s emotional journey.
Anil Kapoor, who slaps Ranbir Kapoor’s character around in Animal, previously played a toxic father in Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do (2015). Kapoor’s character is a well-heeled cad who ill-treats his wife, bullies his son, and browbeats his daughter into staying in a bad marriage. This modern iteration of the dapper daddies of yore is offered the redemption that isn’t available to many of his counterparts. More convincing is the pater familias in Maju’s Malayalam-language Appan (2022), who is so despicable that his family eagerly awaits the day he will stop fuming by ceasing to breathe.