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.).
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.