Hindi Film 101: The 4 Stages of Life in India and How They Are in Movies

This is a strange little off-shoot of a discussion in the comments about Rani going back to work, and why this is so tough for her.  Which ended up relating back to how she is in the “householder” stage which is in fact the most restricted time of life, and then I realized that only makes sense if you know about the 4 Stages/Ashramas of life as expected in Indian society.

This is one of those “not really-really but sort of” kind of things to know about society.  It’s not like people in India are going about their day consciously thinking “now I am in the [blank] stage so I should do this”.  But it is sort of the underlying philosophy for how society is structured and the expectations placed on people that are different in Indian society from other societies.

Stage 1: Brahmacharya/Student:

The student is supposed to be completely dedicated to scholarship.  “Brahmacharya” is often used to mean “celibate”, but it’s more than that, it’s kind of all parts of life and relationships beyond scholarship which should be rejected while you are studying.

What this has been translated to in general in society/films is the idea that until you complete your final degree, you should be primarily dedicated to studying above all else.  You should not date, you should not have a part time job, you should not be expected to help take care of your younger siblings, you should study and that is IT.

Films often focus on this period because, besides the enormous studying pressure, it’s a remarkably free and light time of life.  You have no familial/social responsibilities at this point besides studying.  You are allowed to hang out with your age mates and do whatever you want, so long as your grades stay up.  College days are kind of awesome.

 

Stage 2: Householder/Grihastha

There is a ritual to mark the beginning and end of student life, a kind of unclear and obscure old ritual which doesn’t translate into general social markings exactly.  But there is a clear and obvious ritual marking the start of the “householder” life, one which is not just ancient and remote but everyday and always present: Marriage.  Once you are married, your “student” days are officially over.

As a householder, it is your responsibility to provide the material support for all those below you in stages (the “students” of your family meaning your own children and your younger siblings and nieces and nephews), and above you (the elders of your family in the next two stages I will get to in a second).  Think of Shahrukh and Kajol in the second half of Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Shahrukh is in charge of working long hours and somehow providing for not only his wife and son, but his adopted mother-in-law and his younger sister-in-law.  Meanwhile Kajol is in charge of getting up at dawn and running the household, taking care of all the children and her husband, cooking and praying and so on.

There aren’t many films that focus on the “householder” period because, frankly, it SUCKS!  You do all of the work (unlike the students who just have to focus on studying) and you have none of the power (unlike the generation right above who are now the revered elders and authorities of the household).  It’s an unrelenting grind with no end in sight until the generation below you, the “Students”, get married and you get to move up a notch to pleasant retired life. Not coincidentally, India leads the world in fatal heart attacks in men under 40, 12% of all heart attacks in men in India are under 40, and that number keeps climbing year by year.

 

Stage 3: Retired/Vanaprastha

The good time again!  You hand over the responsibilities of the household to the younger generation once they move up from “student” to “householder”, you step back and become the revered elder, no longer handling day to day decisions but consulted and respected in larger matters.

There is a problem sometimes with this stage of life, you are young enough to still want to be involved in the family and have a voice, but sometimes you can be shoved aside or forgotten by the busy generation below you.  And the expected practice of keeping the older generation within the same household as the younger of course opens up a whole variety of issues related to elder abuse.  A lot of films dive into this, give lessons about respecting your retired elders who live with you instead of ignoring them.  But usually the assumption is still that they are “retired”, they are leaning on the younger generation for support rather than supporting themselves.  And the “good thing” the films teach us is to respect and revere them rather than setting them aside, let them fully enjoy their earned golden years.

 

Stage 4: Renounced Life/Sannyasa

This is when you truly have no attachments left, no need for power in the family or care as to what happens in it.  In “olden times” it would mean actually giving away all your possessions and leaving to wander the earth.  In modern times it more means that your child has now moved up to the “retired” stage, taking on the authoritative role in the family, and so you step even further back, and provide a voice of objective philosophy, lose yourself in intellect and spiritual concerns.

In films, this character is often the “wild card”.  Going back to Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham again (the perfect example of this because Karan set out to show an “ideal” family and therefore had to include all 4 generations), there was Amitabh who was very concerned with his authority in directing the household while also looking forward to handing off the day to day tasks to Shahrukh.  But above Amitabh were the two grandmothers, who sat and observed the happenings of the family, without feeling the right or ability to direct them any more, but still finding ways to give their objective opinions on what was happening.

 

 

These stages effect what we see in films-a lot of focus on that very important moment of transition between “student” and “householder”, and general character types falling into these loose categories-but they also affect expectations that cause issues for the people working in films.

There is a lot of focus on actors and actresses getting married because there is no real template for someone who skips the “householder” step in terms of social expectations.  It’s unnatural to stay too long hesitating in the “student” period, like if you were to see a grown woman going around in pigtails or a grown man riding a skateboard, just odd.  For an actor, getting married is a sign that they are now “serious”, you can rely on them a bit more, expect them to work harder and smarter and longer.  Because now they have a family to support, not just their new wife, but their now-retired parents and everyone that their parents used to support (grandparents, younger siblings, family business, family servants, random associated relatives, etc. etc.).

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(After marriage, Shahid’s career kicked up a level to “serious” and he signed Udta Punjab, Rangoon, and Padmavat in quick succession.  Versus Shaandar, his last pre-marriage movie)

With actresses, they are never seen as “serious”.  Because they can only work during the “student” phase, not “householder”.  For a man, getting married means he will work 2 or 3 times as hard in order to support the vast number of people suddenly weighing him down.  For a woman, it means she has to stop working outside the home because she has to spend all of her time taking care of the vast number of people who have suddenly been handed over to her by her mother-in-law. At least, that is the underlying expectation which has to be overcome if you want to convince people you can still find the time to work after marriage.

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(After marriage, Vidya went from the sole lead in the twisted complicated Kahaani to the hero’s funny wife in Shaadi Ki Side Effects)

This is also why you see a surprising number of actors and actresses switch to a different kind of career once their children are grown.  They have now entered the Vanaprastham stage, they no longer have the pressure of supporting the household, they can do what they like and enjoy the respect they have now.  It might also be why there is this urge to push their children forward, once Tiger Shroff (for instance) has an established career, then Jackie Shroff can relax and enjoy life.

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(Ranbir Kapoor finally got a hit with Bachne Ae Haseeno, and his parents relaxed and did a funny cameo appearance in Love Aaj Kal)

 

There are also some flaws with this system which you see films (covertly) try to address.  Kal Ho Na Ho, for instance, shows the possibility of abuse by elders towards the younger generations, the behavior of Sushma Seth towards her daughter-in-law and granddaughter is truly unacceptable, not just unkind but actively abusive.  And yet Jaya (the “householder” who does all the work of the household) puts up with it and does not throw her out, because that is not her place, although she has all the responsibilities, Sushma must still be respected and her abusive behavior endured.

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(If you have to physically restrain your mother-in-law from beating your 6 year old daughter, it should be allowed to throw her out of the house.  Or at least give her some ultimatums and rules)

There is also the problem of the artificial deadline in moving from “student” to “householder”.  Ninnu Kori nodded towards this problem, with the hurry in getting the heroine married as soon as she finished her schooling.  And the impossibility of her marrying the hero if he had not yet finished his schooling.  You can’t be a student and married, and you can’t finish your “student” years and NOT get married.

And part of this parental rush towards marriage is a desire to escape their own “householder” status.  In 2 States, for instance, Amrita Singh said she has been looking forward to have a daughter-in-law her whole life, to have some status in the family, to have someone lower than her to abuse. It’s said in a lot of films jokingly, “son, bring me home a daughter-in-law so I can enjoy life” or a father saying to his son “when will you marry and settle down so I can stop worrying”, but that is the undercurrent, that getting the next generation married is the finish line for the previous generations’ householder period.

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(Amrita giving Alia a look, deciding if this is the daughter-in-law she wants to live with)

The flip side of this is that you will notice the unspoken undercurrent that a “happy” ending for our hero and heroine involves avoiding the worst version of the “householder” life.  Combined families are wonderful (in films) but most often the hero and heroine are the younger siblings of that family, not the ones fully in charge (Salman in Hum Aapke Hain Koun, Abhay in Socha Na Tha, etc. etc.).  And even more often, the family is the bare minimum, Shahrukh and his father in DDLJ, Salman and his two parents in Maine Pyar Kiya, that is the dream.  Aiyyaa came close to being explicit about it, in the montage of Rani meeting potential grooms, the happy ideal was an only son who lived alone with his parents, no numerous elders to care for and no younger siblings either.

Another concern is the sort of “retirement planning” aspect of raising children in this system.  When a big deal is made in films of a father banishing his “only” son, or a son abandoning his parents, it’s not just because they are a family and love each other.  It is that the parent generation most likely has no resource or support for their old age.  All your money would have been sunk into your children’s education, that is your 401K, and you are counting on the dividends to support you the rest of your life.

Even something like your child choosing a less secure career can feel like a threat to you personally.  We see this in films all the time as well, some variation of “how dare you do [blank] when I have spent so much money to get you educated!”  It mostly means “I spent a lot of money and now you are insulting me and I am worried about you because I love you” but it is also a little bit of “I wanted to invest in the blue chip stock of an Engineer, and now you are asking me to take a risk on the unproven new venture of an advertising executive.”

(When Ranbir goes to his father after the end of this song and gives him money from his first pay check, it is the traditional gesture of respect to a father, and also a reassurance that his investment will pay off after all)

 

One final note, none of this means that families in their hearts are in any way different in one place than they are in another.  Every place in the world has families where that middle generation shoulders an inordinate amount of burdens, and every place in the world (including India) has people who happily avoid responsibility their whole lives.  Children who live off of their parents, and parents who refuse to take money from their children under any circumstances.  All these social structures mean is that it is easier to explain to others, it is more expected, it is the way things are “supposed” to be, you have to fight if you want to break the pattern, but not how everyone necessarily is family by family.

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22 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: The 4 Stages of Life in India and How They Are in Movies

    • Hey, if several billion people do it, it IS normal!!!!

      (also, did I depress you so much that you don’t want to get married now? Because I sure don’t)

      On Wed, Mar 28, 2018 at 11:55 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I’m just wondering what the next part of my rebellion would be. I HAVE to get married. To legally have kids and be done with that. Stupid white people have made adoption so mainstream that THAT can’t be the rebellion!! So I HAVE to get married!

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        • The obvious rebellion is to flip the householder gender roles. Go out and work 80 hour weeks and get a stress heart attack while your husband stays home and gets up before dawn to make everyone individual breakfasts and prepare the kids’ homework and the grandparents’ pills and all of that.

          On Wed, Mar 28, 2018 at 12:08 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • He already does the taking care of my mom and my family and his own parents’ meds and needs etc and I don’t have any days off except public holidays. So yeah! Living the rebellion. And it fucking sucks!!!

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          • Adopt 12 year olds and make them support you within the next ten years so your “householder” period is as short as possible?

            Honestly, it feels like in movies sometimes that is part of the “honest orphan from the street” adoption, creating a joint family from scratch because it is just too hard to do it all by yourself.

            Or, put the Moms back to work! Make them share the burden! It’s not like EVERYONE IN THE WORLD would judge you for that, right?

            On Wed, Mar 28, 2018 at 12:20 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Heck, make them do everything! You and husband sit around eating bon bons, one Mom does all the housework and the other goes out and hits the streets all day every day to bring in that money.

            On Wed, Mar 28, 2018 at 12:33 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Be item dancers! Helen’s retired, there’s an opening for pleasant old lady dancers in the Hindi industry.

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          • Around 7 years ago we were at our village and it was Christmas and my cousins were home from boarding school. And we were dancing (secretly drunk) and we spiked my mom’s juice. So she danced to chiggi wiggi like she was a sufi mystic!!!

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  1. I want to congratulate you, Margaret, on getting the nuances of complex aspects of Indian culture right. Since you say you went to India only twice, and spent most of your time being sick, I am curious about what your source material was to get this information. I ask this because nowadays most of the “information” on the internet is highly skewed by various political agenda.

    I would just add that the responsibilities of the “householder” stage are not limited to just one’s own household, but also include responsibilities toward the society as a whole. Thus one has social responsibilities such as supporting the arts, giving to charity, helping the unfortunate, obeying just laws, challenging unjust ones, holding the ruler/government to account to make sure they are following dharma, keep the economy going by not only working oneself, but employing others, etc. No wonder one needs to retire after doing all that!

    Two other things also need to be said. The first is that not everyone needs to go on the full four stages journey. If a person is ready (mentally and spiritually) to go to the final sanyasi stage, even in childhood, it is accepted, because that is the ultimate goal for everyone. The second is that one doesn’t need to be married to enter the “householder” stage and fulfill all those responsibilities. The best example of this in Hindi cinema is Salman Khan, who, though not married, is stuck with all these duties because of his misfortune of being born the eldest son. I used to be very annoyed by Salim Khan (and still am, actually) because of his proclamations that Salman is finally taking is career “seriously” after he embarked on his current blockbuster streak. I was annoyed because these films are not that great cinematically, and Salman was actually doing more interesting films and roles before that. I used to wonder why Salim, as such an acclaimed screenwriter, couldn’t appreciate the artistic quality of the earlier films, even if they flopped. But now you’ve clarified it by putting this perspective forward. Salim had been pushed out of the “householder” role by market forces (his writing career was over when Salman was still a teenager), and he expected Salman to take on all his duties of providing for the family — and it didn’t matter that Salman was bringing in oodles of moolah, Salim wanted him to maximized his earnings, and not do films because he liked the story, or he wanted to help someone out. And this example also underlines your calling this concept an aspect of “Indian” culture, though it is actually an aspect of Hindu philosophy. It is in the genes of everyone born in or living in India, no matter what their official religious affiliation might be.

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    • Thank you for the congratulations! As for how I got it right, well it kind of goes back to your last comment. It’s not about Hindu or Muslim, it’s just Indian. And that Indian identity doesn’t go away when you leave India. I spent my college years rooming with desis, and it was so strange to me how none of them had part time jobs, none of them volunteered, or played sports, or did anything but study study study. They certainly didn’t date (at least, not without keeping it a deep dark secret). They didn’t even take classes outside of their major! And now at my age, I have more and more friends who are desi, or married to desis, who are trying to start families in the US and get established, at the same time they are trying to save money to send home to support their parents, their younger siblings, their cousins and nieces and nephews and everyone else. The traditional 4 generation household may not be as common in NRI households, but the sort of feel for these stages is still present, isn’t it?

      Your point about Salman is reminding me of Dilip Kumar as well. Reading his autobiography it became clear that, similar to Salman, part of the reason he didn’t feel the need to get married was because he was already the head of a large difficult household. His parents died when he was a young man and he was the oldest son still at home, so he became the “householder” in charge of raising all his siblings. I assume with the same heart attack statistic I quoted that it can’t be uncommon at all levels of society in India for the father to die young and the oldest son suddenly to inherit all that status and responsibility without warning. Or, like in Salman’s case, for the father to become unable to be the primary earner for whatever reason even if he is still alive.

      Also with Dilip, it wasn’t just him who became “householder” without marriage, the oldest daughter ended up being the lady of the house, in charge of running everything, and never married. Which also seems like something that must happen fairly often, an oldest daughter/sister finding herself responsible for the whole family after the death or illness of the mother.

      On Wed, Mar 28, 2018 at 8:39 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • The heart attack statistics you quote (men around 40 succumbing to heart attacks) are fairly recent and more urban focused. Of course in earlier days life expectancy was lower, so it is possible that some men died around 40 (though 50 is more likely several decades ag0 — I’m talking 1930’s or earlier). The reason for the current heart attack trend has to do with rapid lifestyle changes, including dietary changes. Briefly, it is now the “in” thing for people, especially in urban areas and who are aspiring to be upwardly mobile, to drink a lot, and also go more non-vegetarian in their food. Hence there is a skyrocketing increase in both diabetes and heart attacks. Plus of course there is more stress as everyone competes to “keep up with the Joneses”, the Joneses in this case being the designer brand wearing, ultra rich, pseudo-“western” life promoted in all advertising*. A similar thing happened in Japan in the 1970’s and 1980’s, as the population moved from a traditional Japanese diet (high in seafood and vegetables) to a more American one (much more red meat, like burgers, and little vegetables).

        *(I read one appalling article a few years ago on how young professional workers in Mumbai are basically starving to death — because they only want to be seen eating at the “trendy” places and eating “trendy” food — like sandwiches at an upscale restaurant which cost, let us say, Rs.500 each, — which they can only afford for one or two meals a week. Now if they spent that kind of money on simple Indian food, they could eat hearty for the whole month, but no, that is too “downmarket”. The result is that these people, who are otherwise making a decent salary, are essentially starving to death. Quite a few of them collapse from hunger, or develop other illnesses due to malnutrition.)

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      • On how you learned about this concept — you learned it by being exposed to it in authentic practice, hence you got it right. 🙂 That makes sense. It is not always the oldest child who steps up when the primary breadwinner is no longer there. Quite often the mother takes over. Sometimes the oldest son is irresponsible, or uncaring, or incompetent, and then the next, or the next, takes over. Then that person becomes the “householder”, with responsibility for everyone, even the family members who are older (as Shahrukh Khan is responsible for his older sister, not just because he was the son of the family, but because she became incompetent to care for herself). And yes, it can be the eldest daughter who steps up to the plate, too. In all these cases, whether Dilip, or Salman, or Dilip’s sister, it’s not so much that they didn’t “feel the need” to get married, as that they didn’t have the opportunity. They had all the responsibilities of marriage, but none of its pleasures, in the way of having a caring, supportive partner to share the burden. Well, Dilip eventually managed to get a wife, though not his sister (from our summary of his biography, though, it seems to me that there was quite an element of choice in her case, too). It remains to be seen what happens with Salman. I have seen some people speculating that his family prevents him from marrying, as they don’t want to lose access to his money. Cynical, maybe, but possible.

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        • Dilip’s sister is an interesting case, because she sounds so unpleasant that they probably couldn’t have found a groom for her. So if she wanted her own household, her only option was taking charge of Dilip and the younger siblings. And she was very unhappy when Saira came in to “replace” her, it ended up with Saira not really taking control of the household until the sister died (if you read between the lines).

          On Thu, Mar 29, 2018 at 5:27 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. Newton is a very good example of passing from student to householder. The title character is very very strict with the rules and stuff, so the day he finds a job, he forces his father to retire, even if the father is still quite young and capable. Soon after the parents start looking for a bride, because they want somebody who will take care of them now when they both are in “retire” phase.

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    • But in Newton, it wasn’t so much that he wanted his father to go on to the next “stage”, wasn’t it due to some cockeyed principle about one family not having more than one government job? I can’t remember the details now, but I think it was something like this.

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      • I remember only that durning “seeing the bride” scene Newton’s father says his son forced him to take early retirement when he got a job, but I’m not sure if in some other scene they don’t talk more about it.

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