No, that title isn’t a typo. It was promoted as a father-son story, but there’s another layer to it. Oh, and it’s still worth watching even if you read the SPOILERS review just for the performances, but the plot will have more impact if you go in fresh. So, read the “no spoilers” review instead if you can!
Whole plot in two paragraphs:
Amitabh and Rishi are two elderly men, father and son, who live together in a comfortable old house in Bombay. Amitabh loves people and is an eternal optimist, Rishi is an eternal cautious pessimist. Amitabh announces that he will send Rishi to live at an old age home, unless Rishi cheers up, and sets him a series of conditions. And to help is the naive kind delivery boy at their pharmacy, Jimit Trivedi. The first few challenges are easy, writing a letter to his dead wife and promising not to visit his homeopath doctor all the time. But then Rishi is sent on a long journey through Bombay, remembering his childhood playground, then the church where he and his wife used to take their son when he was little, and finally to the bakery and on a carriage ride just like he and his wife used to do every year for their anniversary. Rishi is beginning to loosen up and enjoy life again, but Amitabh has another secret plan. INTERVAL
The real challenge is on Rishi’s birthday. Amitabh wants Rishi to officially throw his son out of his life. Rishi and his wife sacrificed everything to send him to good schools and finally overseas. They sent their retirement savings to him, and he has never come home once in 21 years, or even sent a photo of his children, or even called. Amitabh wants Rishi to stop waiting for him to come home. And at the same time, the son finally wants to come home, clearly just to get the family property and sell it. Rishi and Amitabh fight and fight, Rishi doesn’t even try to defend his son, just defends his choice to stand by him and take whatever abuse comes because it is worth it. Until, finally, Amitabh admits the truth. He is dying. He was diagnosed on the day that started the film, the old folks home was an empty threat, he just wanted Rishi to gain his smile back, to remember how to stand up straight like a man, before he died. Rishi doesn’t soften, goes to meet his son at the airport. And then, finally, stands up for himself. Shows his son an album of memories, ending with his mother’s urn of ashes, she waited for him to come home, and then they waited a year to immurse the ashes, and he never came. And now he can leave, Rishi doesn’t need him. The end of the film is Rishi and Amitabh happily dancing in the rain together, before fading in to Rishi and Jimit Trivedi sitting together by the sea, Amitabh is dead but Rishi is still smiling and living his life, like Amitabh wanted for him.
There is one line that sums up the true message of the film, a line that Amitabh repeats a couple of times to make sure we hear it “I will not let your son defeat my son!!!!!” This is the problem of families. Sometimes the person you love most in the world, will love someone else even more than themselves, and you have to protect them from that. Amitabh loves Rishi, wants him to be happy, and therefore wants to cut his grandson, Rishi’s son, out of their lives.
This is also one of those times when you get to find the line between human nature, and social conditioning. Social conditioning goes back to that post I did on the 4 phases of life. Amitabh is in the final stage, the wandering sage stage. Rishi is in the second to last stage, he is supposed to be the revered elder giving advice to the family. And the absent son is meant to be the “householder”, the one who is supposed to take on all the responsibility of the household, and keep it connected to the wider world. The lack of the son is a visible embarrassment, that is part of the pain that Rishi acknowledges at the end, that he is the father who must lower his head and beg his son to come home while the neighborhood laughs at him.
There’s also the social conditioning of Rishi continuing to acknowledge his father as the head of the family and owner of the house, even though Rishi has clearly been the main supporter for decades. And just the general focus on the generations, father-son-grandson, lined up in a row like that, is all based on the traditional concept of the combined family household. Women are removed, siblings are removed, it is all about generation to generation relationships between men.
(Generation after Generation after Generation. No women, no siblings)
But there is a difference between social conditioning surrounding a situation, and actually causing the situation. As the plot unfolds, it is less and less like these characters are feeling what society is telling them to feel, and more and more that this is just what these characters are like. Amitabh has a large loud personality, it makes sense that his son would always feel like he was in his shadow, would always feel like a little boy in front of him. And it’s just a natural progression of aging for some people to feel less and less tied to what they are “supposed” to do as time goes on, the way Amitabh has and the way the final stage of life is “supposed” to be. Most of all the way the relationship between Rishi and his son is handled acknowledges social expectations, but then digs deeper and makes it clear that this is about this particular relationship and nothing else.
I kept comparing this with an American family and American society (my basic frame of reference). In an American family, a son who doesn’t come home to visit wouldn’t be noticeable in the same way. Maybe at holidays you might need to brush past why they aren’t there, but otherwise it’s something you could easily hide on a day to day basis. And certainly there wouldn’t be an expectation that your children would send money back to you, would support you in your old age. Not to say some children don’t do that, but it’s not the default expectation. Might even be something you might want to hide, might be embarrassing that your children send you money.
The biggest difference is the NRI situation. Rishi and his wife spent everything to send their son overseas, and then kept sending him money while he stayed there, and he never even sent back photos of his kids. Or introduced them to his wife. He never returned even once, and only got in touch when he wanted money.
At first this made me itchy under the skin, because I didn’t want it to be a “moving to America turns you into a monster” situation. But as we learned more about the son and what he had done, it stopped feeling like that, and more just that he was a monster all along. It’s not an anti-NRI movie, it’s an anti-bad son movie. Which is much more complicated.
(Still don’t know how/why all these kids turned out so terrible. Something in the water at their house?)
Going back to my first thought, the “I will not let your son defeat my son” line, this is just something that can happen in families, and you have to choose who you love more. Sometimes people are just born wrong, and that’s all there is to it. It’s not that they were raised wrong, or became addicts, or had some terrible trauma, they were just born that way. And at a certain point, you have to cut them out of your lives, even if you love them, even if they are your family, you have to do it because it becomes them or you. And often the only thing that will give you the strength to do that is the support of someone else you love in your life.
I am still waiting for the Indian film that suggests this “just cut them out of your life because they are born wrong” solution for elders in the family, but even doing it this way for a child is still pretty good. Because it’s not a matter of the son “disrespecting” them or lowering the honor of the family, or marrying the wrong person, or any of that, any of those simple breaking-the-rules kind of situations. It is simply an acknowledgement that in some situations family is not a blessing, but a curse. And that it’s okay to let people go out of your lives in that situation, even if they are family.
(Aamir Khan got into a legal battle with his father for custody of his mentally ill brother. I don’t know all the ins and outs of that situation, and I’m not saying it is the same as this at all, but I am saying that families are complicated and sometimes a court case is the result, even if movies try to make it sound perfect)
The family heirarchy has a special meaning here. It’s just a fact of life, you will always put your child above yourself. That’s how the human race continues, that urge. And so Amitabh loves Rishi more than anything else in the world. And he also knows that Rishi loves his son more than anything else in the world, including his own father. Amitabh has to save Rishi from his own heart, knowing that the same power of love which he feels for Rishi is what he is fighting against from Rishi towards his own son.
And the only thing that can defeat love, is love. Amitabh wants to teach Rishi again how to love himself, making him wake up out of his routines, sending him on that journey around the city to remember his past and who he is now and was then. But it’s not enough, Amitabh tries to argue with Rishi that his son will only destroy him, and Rishi doesn’t care. He will happily sacrifice himself for his son. Just as Amitabh will happily sacrifice everything for his son.
There has to be more than that to tip the scales. It’s when Rishi starts to remember the pain of his wife, the person he loved who his son hurt, that he begins to weaken. And it is when he learns that Amitabh is dying, and wants to spend his last few months making sure he leaves Rishi free and happy, that he remembers he loves his father too. And finally all that love is enough to give Rishi the strength to throw his son out of his life.
And that’s what the final scene between Amitabh and Rishi is about. They are together, Rishi lovingly taking care of him, and Amitabh tells him that whenever he thinks about how his terrible son is in the world, he should remember that Jimit Trivedi is in the world too. In other words, for every broken wrong person who is incapable of love even for their own father who sacrificed everything for them, there is another truly good person in the world who loves all people as though they are family. It’s okay to give up on family, because you will be able to find love elsewhere, there is enough love for everybody.
(Baghban again! Boy, there really are only a few ways this kind of story can play out)
There’s one other thing I want to acknowledge, this film has an entirely male cast, there are no female speaking parts at all. But I’m okay with that. It’s a story of father’s and sons, so not just Amitabh and Rishi, but also Rishi’s son and even Jimit Trivedi all need to be male. And more importantly, as the story goes on, we realize that part of the sadness in Rishi and Amitabh’s life is the loss of the women they loved. Those women weren’t just erased from the film, as the film goes on it becomes clear that the only reason they weren’t mentioned was because it was too painful. Rishi had cut out all memories of his wife because he couldn’t bare to remember her. That was one of the greatest gifts Amitabh gave him, to let him remember his wife with happiness, to listen to their old records together and celebrate their anniversary instead of pretending she had never existed. So, it’s okay to me for this one film to be all male. Because that’s part of the tragedy of growing older, alone, that your beloved wife might die before you and your world becomes that much smaller.
(also, even though I know it is totally not true, I had a small voice in my head saying “a daughter would NEVER abandon her father like that, that’s an evil boy thing”)