Well, this turned into a whole thing! I started just wanting to establish Amrish’s character journey at this part in the film, and I just ended up going on and on until it went way beyond the usual Scene By Scene and turned into a screed on the tragedy and trauma of the immigrant (full index of DDLJ posts here)
Welcome to Amrish Puri week! Which may turn into Amrish Puri 2 weeks, since I have a lot to say about this section. Because Amrish is a difficult character, and this section here is what makes him most difficult.
I haven’t mentioned it much in the last few sections, because they were focused on Shahrukh, but in the first sections I talked a lot about my close friends in college who reminded me so much of Kajol’s character in this film. And now we can talk about Amrish Puri and how he reminds me of their fathers.
At first I didn’t know my friends enough to notice the difference in their families, or care about it. They liked to stay in the dorms instead of going out at night, so did I. They liked spending time with their family, so did I. They had no interest in drinking or dating, neither did I.
But then I started going home with them on weekends and meeting their family and it felt “different” somehow. There was this relief when they came home, and reluctance to go out, the ideal weekend was staying inside all together watching TV, maybe going out to a restaurant for dinner. On a really good weekend more relatives would come over and join us in sitting around watching TV or movies. Which wasn’t terribly different, I mean, I also like to watch movies. But somehow this feeling that this is the only/best thing they could possibly do felt different to me.
What began to feel really different was when we neared graduation. I was planning my life after school. Looking for jobs, looking for apartments. They were all planning to go to med school, but planning around family. A school that would also be close to their parents, or at least to another relative. Not as an added benefit, but as a qualification for even considering a school. And even years later after graduation, when I would meet them, they would talk about their parents’ new house or something as if it was still their “home”. Not a sentimental home they go back to on the holidays, but where real life occurred.
And this is a pattern I began to notice not just among desis, but among my other non-desi friends who also happened to be children of immigrants. So no, it is NOT “just the Indian culture”. The details of how this anxiety is expressed might vary culture to culture, food versus religion, encouragement of education versus discouragement of education, etc. etc. But the sense that “outsiders” cannot be trusted, that the family must stick tightly together, that was the same with everyone I knew, just to varying degrees. It is even a story I recognized from my own family a few generations back when we were immigrants.
(This is why I love this song, it is breaking down all those divisions, making all of America into “us”)
I should clarify that a large part of this was just because of the friends I had. They were the extreme edge of “good girl”. They had siblings who happily went to college very far from home, insisted on staying out late and otherwise doing wild activities, even had secret boyfriends and girlfriends, and so on and so on. And they weren’t cut out of the family for doing these things, no terrible punishment ensued, but they did have to fight for them. My friends were like me, not fighters, more the type who would always do what was expected of them. And what was expected was that you stay close to your family at all times, don’t trust “outsiders” or the outside world. And once I began to realize what was happening and that it was coming from their parents, I began to really resent their parents. Raising children who were unable to trust anyone but family, unable to make their own way in the world. It killed our friendships, eventually, they weren’t able to even go so far as to visit me in my apartment in the city, unless I was willing to travel all the way to their parents’ houses in the suburbs (where they spent all their free time), I would never see them. And in a million other small ways I began to realize that I was always going to be an “outsider” to them, when it came right down to it.
But then there was the second reaction. As I gained maturity and so on, I started being better able to understand why their parents were like this. All my friends were second generation immigrants, most of them desi, but a few non-desis as well. And the immigrant experience is terrifying. You truly do not know who to trust, cultural signs that are familiar to me and other people born and raised here are invisible to you. How can you know that, for instance, it is safer to travel on a commuter line than on an inner city train? Or that a waitress expecting a tip is reasonable, but a guy on the street corner saying he needs money because his wallet was stolen is probably ripping you off? If your only choice is to trust everyone one, then no one is the obvious solution. Even if you don’t start with that assumption, within a few weeks of moving to a new country, you will switch to it after being ripped off.
I fell victim to this myself, the first time I was in India. I was hideously over-charged for a rickshaw ride, I think I paid something like 400 rupees for a 15 minute ride. But see, in America, taxis are highly regulated, so I was trained to pay whatever I was charged without thinking about it. After I realized what had happened, suddenly I was confused and didn’t know who to trust any more. I started only going to places that reminded me of “home”. Major chain bookstores and supermarkets and of course McDonalds. They worked the way I was “used to”, so I could follow the system more or less and understand if it fell down. There were printed prices and credit card machines and receipts and it was all very reassuring.
I was being careful because I was worried about myself and my money. Imagine how much more careful you would be with your child! Of course someone living in a place that they had not been raised in would be extra cautious about letting their child into the world, trusting the world with their child. Of course they would do everything in their power to keep them to spaces that felt “safe” to them, Indian groceries, Indian cultural events, everything that was a little bit of India in America. If I were to travel in India with a child, I would probably never leave the hotel, I would be that scared. Not of the country, not exactly, but of my own ability to have sound judgement within the country, to avoid the dangers that are present everywhere without being familiar with them. And so, I came to realize, of course my friends’ parents wanted them to go to school and straight home, were nervous about them going off campus, about even building their own lives outside of the home at age 25. I could understand that. They weren’t being cruel or hateful, they were trying to protect their children as best they could. And they themselves were dealing with internal scars and difficulties far beyond what I could fathom. But then the question is, does understanding bring forgiveness?
DDLJ understands Amrish Puri’s character in a way no other Hindi film about the diaspora really had before. The loneliness of walking to work every day across a deserted city feeling like the pigeons are your only friends, dreaming of home for 20 years without seeing it. In an earlier draft of the script Aditya wrote in an explanation that Amrish was conned out of his money by a friend when they arrived in London, thus his lonely exile for years trying to earn back the money and feeling too ashamed to return home. And also his general dislike and distrust for the British or Britishized desis. That explanation is no longer in the script, but it doesn’t really have to be. Most immigrants have something like that, something which breaks and then hardens their heart.
And so Amrish is lonely. And scared. And, most of all, rigid. He trusts nothing, not even himself, and so he clings to the rules and traditions he learned as a youth. He feels weak, and therefore refuses to reveal weakness. It’s a tragedy and a sad character and I want him to be happy. This sequence here reveals all of that. His fear and strength dropping away as he finally returns to the happy youth he was in the Punjab before he moved into “enemy territory” and felt he must always be on guard and guard those under his protection. A willingness to reveal love, joy, all the emotions that were locked away while he was in London. We’ve seen glimpses of it before in the moments with his mother, but it was always hidden again in front of his wife and children, even his friends.
He is driven by fear, fear of losing status, of his family being in danger, his family going hungry, if any one thing goes wrong. And now, for the first time, he feels fearless, happy, free, in love and young and joyful. This is the magic of his daughter’s wedding, it spells to him that he has accomplished everything he feared he couldn’t. He is respected in the community, he has the money to host this large affair, and his family has been safely protected from those who would harm it until he can bring them back to safety. His goal is in sight.
And this is what he thought he had lost when he learned of Kajol’s love affair with Shahrukh in Europe. She had been corrupted, lost, to the West. Amrish sees the world in terms of “us” and “them”, very strongly, and he has to protect “us” from “them” or else “us” will become “them”. When he learns that Kajol has fallen in love instead of waiting for her arranged marriage, he believes she is on the verge of becoming “them”. His outsize reaction, his anger and tyranny, through out this section, it is an effort to protect her. He believes that the worst possible thing that could happen would be for her to marry for love. It means he has failed to protect her, to bring her safely to this happy ending of a good marriage with someone he can trust. Now, finally, seeing her smiling and happy and with the joy of the engagement being completed, he is enjoying his victory party, his success party. His purpose has been fulfilled, he can now relax.
All of this, I can understand. Because it is a good film and it draws a character that I can understand. But can I forgive? At what point does fear stop being an excuse?
(The film itself offers a counter argument, another aging immigrant from the Punjab in Anupam Kher, but one who was open to change. Who kept India in his heart, and taught his son to keep it in his heart, but wasn’t afraid to let in a little light from this new country too. Which is also something I have seen in the real world, many times. Just not from the kind of people who raise “Kajol” types that then become my friends)
Amrish Puri is afraid, is hurt, is scarred. And he has a right to all of that. And I am happy that he is happy here at his daughter’s engagement, finally able to break through to happiness. But he did not have a right to purchase his own happiness at the price of cutting his daughter off from hers, even just at the cost of POSSIBLY cutting his daughter off from her happiness. He is right, Shahrukh might not be trustworthy, might be just using Kajol. She could be letting herself in for a life of lonely misery. But he does not even pause to consider that she might also be in love with someone worthy of her love, that she might be able to make a decision for herself. That she might have the right to make a decision for herself. He just lets his fear, and the anger that comes from his fear, drive him.
(And this is the result, paying the pain forward)
And now here is Amrish, singing to his wife, clearly he loves her and she loves him and he has within him the capability of love and empathy. It makes you like him. But then it follows that if he is capable of love and empathy, then he might be culpable for choosing not to utilize his love and empathy when dealing with his daughter. Was fear a choice? A decision to ignore the feelings of the people around him at other times because they made him afraid?
Let us jump to the end of this film. Amrish Puri, eventually, does choose love over fear. After being gently brought there by Shahrukh proving, over and over again, that his fears are groundless. And so he smiles and let’s Kajol go with a cheerful thumbs up.
He lets her go. That is the happy ending. Ignore the “let” part of it, and look at the “go” part of it. Once he gives in to the same love and understanding he shows in this section when he joins the singing, he discovers that the best thing he can do for Kajol is put her far away from himself. He tells her “Go, take your life”. He is giving up any right over her, which means both that he is rejecting the idea that he has a right to her life, but also the idea that he is a good judge of how to control her life. He is acknowledging that his way was not the right way. He was living his life, and forcing her to live her life, in a way that would lead to unhappiness. Shahrukh has rescued both Amrish and Kajol, in the end.
And I leave it up to you, the real life issue I am still grappling with and the issue for this character, does Amrish deserve to be rescued? At which point is fear a choice rather than an unthinking reaction?