Dir. Shakun Batra
I have a good friend whose family is in the habit of lying to one another and keeping secrets. Don't tell my sister that my other sister's son is gay - it will kill her. Don't let your brother find out about that trip abroad you're planning - he will be furious. Don't tell mom I'm seeing someone - she will ask a million questions. This is their default mode of interaction, concealing the truth to stave off direct confrontation. And all too often when the truth does come out, it is that much more explosive for being compounded with deception.
This is not to criticize my friend's family - to paraphrase Tolstoy, each dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way, and more of us than not have something unhealthy in our families' interaction. But before the end credits of Kapoor and Sons were done, I had pulled out my phone and texted my friend. "You ought to see it," I said. Because this film is about a family where everyone keeps secrets from everyone else. Though it's clear from the start that the family bricks are held together by lots of love, the mortar is cracked and pitted. And when the secrets start pouring out, the entire structure crumbles.
The family gathers when its elderly patriarch (Rishi Kapoor) has a heart attack, and almost immediately the knives come out. The early scenes are staged effectively with brisk wit as barbs fly across their kitchen table. The marriage of Harsh (Rajat Kapoor) and Sunita (Ratna Pathak) is on the edge of a meltdown. The couple is dogged by money troubles, and Sunita openly accuses Harsh of having an affair. Of their sons, Rahul (Fawad Khan), a successful author living in London, is the golden boy who can do no wrong, while Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra), an aspiring author and bartender in New Jersey, is the family loser.
Even more than in the recent Dil Dhadakne Do, which also extracted comedy from family tensions, these characters - with the possible exception of Harsh - are deeply sympathetic and likable. Writers of fiction say that success requires being cruel to your characters even though you love them. Likewise, Kapoor and Sons makes you like its characters before doing awful things to them, and the result is deeply effective. Both young men chafe at their roles in the family hierarchy. Fawad Khan and Sidharth Malhotra are both very gentle and appealing as actors, and each renders his character with his own hue of vulnerability. Rahul is uncomfortable with his favored position in the family, and assuages the guilt of it with solicitousness toward his brother and with attempts to solve all the family's problems; he arranges one-on-one chats with each of his parents, imploring them to treat each other with more kindness and patience. When Harsh thoughtlessly invites the woman Sunita suspects is his lover to the family home for a party, Rahul attempts to defuse the fight by claiming responsibility for inviting her. For Arjun's part, he mistrusts his brother's offers of kindness, and takes his parents' constant critiques with adolescent petulance. Only once the depth of betrayal he perceives becomes too much to bear does his hurt become explosive.
Sunita, too, is affecting and sympathetic, the only woman in this tempest of masculine resentment. Sunita longs to establish a catering business, and Harsh's dismissal of the idea comes from a bitter mixture of financial fear, disrespect for Sunita's acumen, and wounded pride. Yet Sunita is not innocent; she hounds Harsh relentlessly, and her own pride causes a furious response when Harsh suggests borrowing money from his own brother. Sunita bears the most difficult burden as well, when the secrets begin to emerge; her own secret is perhaps the most terrible and damaging to the family foundation, and her reaction to Rahul's revelation is devastating. Is it the lie that hurts or the truth, Rahul asks Sunita, and there is no answer. Even in this film packed with engaging and emotional performances, Ratna Pathak is a show-stealer.
At a slight remove from the emerging disaster is the patriarch, Rahul and Arjun's Dadu, an adorably rakish old man. Dadu spends the first part of the film in the hospital, where Arjun shows him how to access porn on his iPad; he is not at home to witness the growing tension. Even on the day the family shit finally hits the fan, Dadu doesn't hear much of it; he sits perplexed on the lawn outside the house, waiting for the family to gather for the portrait he dreams of having taken, while the storm of Harsh and Sunita, Rahul and Arjun swirls through the rooms of the house. But Dadu is not so much marginal to the disagreements as he is above them. In the end, when Dadu implores the family to set aside their arguments and come together for his sake and theirs, he does not act as mediator or arbitrator. He never weighs in on the substance of their disagreements. Dadu is not there to say who is right or who should apologize to whom; he is there to say that none of it matters.
If you press me to find some flaws in the film - and it's not an easy task - I'd have to point to the moments when it veers a little too close to family-movie cliche; the sudden illness that brings the far-flung family together is a tired device, and the sudden tragedy toward the end even more so. And then there is the matter of Alia Bhatt, who is in fact a fine performer (someone pointed out to me how like she is to her mother, Soni Razdan), but through no fault of her own, still looks far too young, like a teenager playing with makeup. Here she has some sexual tension with both brothers, and she doesn't pair well opposite two men who look, and are, in their thirties. And for a final quibble, there is no need to obscure Rishi Kapoor's face behind effects makeup; he's old enough, and cute enough, to have played Dadu as he is. But these are minor, minor complaints. Kapoor and Sons is a lovely film. I can't wait to find out what my friend and her family think of it.