Trying to run away from your family is like trying to run away from the tree whose bark is tied to you by a strong rope. You may think that you are breaking free; you may think that you’ve become bigger than your problems; you may even blindfold yourself and pretend that that tree doesn’t exist. But eventually you’ll only be running around in circles, getting angry, frustrated, and tired — and, after a point, exhausted — because you can never really run away. An unhappy family, perpetually blanketed by shame and guilt, prizes suppressing emotions, because that’s the only way to cope, for what’s real is painful and what’s painful must be ignored; otherwise even the normal business of going through the day becomes unbearable.
The titular family of Shakun Batra’s latest, Kapoor & Sons, is one such unit, a group of people that is looking for just one excuse to break into an ugly disagreement. They may seem like an odd bunch, fighting over seemingly trivial things in the present, but they are not. They’re trying to seek closure, for unsettled grievances of the past, for a few missteps that, over the years, became bigger than the sum total of themselves. The Kapoors are stuck in time, and they don’t know it yet.
The two sons of the family, Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra) and Rahul (Fawad Khan), stay away from their parents. Rahul’s a renowned novelist based in London, while Arjun, trying to get his first novel published without much success, struggles as a bartender in New Jersey. The film draws neat parallels between the two brothers: Rahul’s settled and successful, Arjun’s trying to make ends meet; Rahul’s a little stuck up, Arjun’s much more fun; Rahul gets attention, Arjun makes do with indifference. These distinctions would have felt obvious, even superfluous, in a lesser film, but Kapoor & Sons is not trying to slot its characters. Most importantly, these characters carry their inadequacies with them all the time, like an invisible wall that’s squashed them for space — their insecurities, always buried never addressed, come out in flashes.
Take, for example, the scene where Arjun is rolling a joint in Tia’s (Alia Bhatt) house, and she tells him that he’s shown up uninvited to her place; he meekly replies that his friend had called him over. But when she tells him to leave (she’s kidding, of course, something he doesn’t know), he promptly apologises and heads towards the door. He can’t even bear to tell her that he’s having a good time, that so what if she doesn’t know him, can he not hang around for a bit? But Arjun can’t, because he’s always been made to believe that he’s somehow less worthy, less deserving; his family has always shut him up and shut him out. Rahul, on the other hand, by no means, lives a perfect life. Sure, he’s professionally successful, but he’s, for years, lived a parallel life, literally away from the eyes of his parents and brother, living with a sense of shame that can only come from truly knowing yourself.
Arjun and Rahul have come home after five years, because their grandfather (Rishi Kappor) has suffered a heart attack. Kapoor & Sons, however, is not just about the unresolved differences between the brothers. It’s also about their parents (played by Rajat Kapoor and Ratna Pathak Shah), whose marriage has gone sour, tainted by their failures as individuals and as a couple. It’s also about the relationship between a mother and her sons, exacerbated by her innate inability to see who they really are. It’s also about the relationship between two young men and their grandfather, desperately clinging on to fragments of time, who sees them as people capable of being happy, fooling around with them over conversations centered on porn, women, and weed. It’s also about the relationship between Tia and Arjun, two young folks trying to get a measure of their sadness by sharing their stories — a bonding that’s not necessarily bracketed by Friendship or Love.
Batra shows a keen understanding of the dynamics of this family — in fact, of any family — of the fact that the family is a machine, that it can work well (or, rather, live happily) only if all the individual members can truly accept each other. Unlike Karan Johar, the producer of Kapoor & Sons, who often treats the family as a single entity in his films, Batra tells us that many families exist within a single household: the families of brothers, of mother and sons, of father and sons. The Kapoors are dysfunctional and angry, for sure, but they’re also funny, confused, and endearing. Just like its individual members, we see this family a whole, not feeling only one particular way about them at all times. What’s even more important: the relationships between the different family members keep crisscrossing each other, but they never burden and suffocate the film, allowing us the luxury of not only knowing the characters but also understanding them, seeing where they’ve come from and where they’ll possibly go. So many films empower us with the ability to empathise, and while Kapoor & Sons does that wonderfully well, too, it also leaves us with a greater gift: the ability to absorb.
Kapoor & Sons doesn’t do the writing for its audience, it allows them to fill in their own stories, their own words, like a transparent bottle filled with spherical balls, which can accommodate plenty of sand. This is evident in a scene in the film’s second half, where the extended family has gathered for getting a group photo clicked. It’s a nice, agreeable evening in the Kapoor household for a change; people are being generous with wine and stories, and at one point they break into an old Mukesh song, Chand Si Mehbooba. Everyone’s singing along to the tunes of the guitar; however, Harsh (Rajat Kapoor) is more animated than usual, and he inches close to his wife with a rose in his hand. The new tune of the same song now coaxes them to sing a different line, but they’ve forgotten the lyrics, and hence keep humming the generic “Tara-rara-ra”, but it’s okay, no one’s complaining, everyone continues having a good time, because sometimes it’s less about what people actually say, and more about what they make us feel.
This review was first published on the Wire.