Thursday, August 6, 2009


In the Name of the Father

The rain pours incessantly as the doting father waits for his son to arrive. Unknown to him, he has already left this world. The pathos of this situation is explored with rare sensitivity by Shaji Karun in his acclaimed movie “Piravi”. Piravi was based on the real life story of “Rajan”, an engineering college student who died in police custody after being tortured on the suspicion of being a Naxalite. Prof Echara Warrier, Rajan’s father, went from pillar to post trying to locate his missing son and at the end of the draconian Emergency, found that his son would never return. It was a story that shook the state and the story told by Shaji, made waves internationally.

When asked as to why and how an incident that stemmed from a political situation in Kerala, made waves in Europe, a critic with a foreign newspaper observed that the appeal was much larger and was largely to do with the depth of the fathers affection for his child, which tugged at everyone’s heart. Shaji portrayed it with a poetic touch, with the incessant monsoons and its relentless beat providing the backdrop for the transient move to a world of make believe and memories, for the pining Father; far away from the firm, dry and harsh world of reality, which now offered him neither purpose, nor meaning.

When the Father’s Day went by this June, there was hardly any hype around it unlike the Mothers Day and this prompted me to look at popular culture to understand this “step- motherly” treatment to “Fathers” as a tribe!

Maternity is still a fact and Paternity is a faith even though DNA testing technologies would nowadays render that statement invalid. The maternal relationship is direct and one of nurture and support, while the paternal one is seen as that of a “protector” and “provider”. Naturally, most works of art and literature have to do with the Father protecting his family and fighting the “evil forces”.

The Mahabharata mentions the vow that Arjuna took to end his life, if he did not avenge his son’s death within the next day! The epic also documents the struggle of Dronacharya to provide his son Ashwathama, a decent lifestyle and to spare him the barbs that poverty brings with it. It even made him choose to stay with those who were in the wrong. Not surprisingly, Drona laid down his arms and gave up fighting and his life, when told that his son had been killed in battle! This theme finds an echo in a Sanjay Dutt starrer, where an indigent father takes an entire hospital hostage, to get a life saving operation done for his child. In “Virudh” an Amitabh Bachan, John Abraham starrer harped on the theme of retribution for the father who looses his son in a shootout, with the culprits walking free. In “Shool” (Hindi) there is a telling sequence where Manoj Bajpai struggles to protect his daughter from some anti-social elements. A scene which many say, is true of many small towns in North India.

“Bhoothakannadi”, (Malayalam) Lohita Das pens the insecurity that a father feels for his daughter and which magnifies itself into a paranoia that moves him into incarceration and loss of sanity. Given the horrendous culture and crime against women we see around us, we wonder if the Father’s concerns were misplaced. “Achan Urangatha Veedu” (Malayalam) sprang from the numerous sex rackets that kept hitting the Kerala media headlines. It is a poignant tale of a Father’s plight when his daughter becomes a victim. Once again it brought the dehumanizing nature of current society and hypocrisy that surrounds us. End of the day, every parent with a teenage child is on tenterhooks.

However there are many more facets to this relationship and we find some far and few instances where this takes centre stage.

In most societies, the property vests with the male, given that he is the one who has acquired it and protects it. Property is passed on by law to his heirs and these are his progeny. Moral codes have sought to ensure that the woman was monogamous and that the bloodline remained pure. The relationship with the Father therefore had a monetary angle to it. Drama in most cases centered around wealth and the means to acquire it. When there were many siblings, the Father’s affection was always questioned, put to the test and sometimes with tragic results.

Ramayana’s plot starts with the dilemma that Dasaratha has to face and the agony of having to send his first born to the forest, while his third son is anointed the ruler. Bhishma’s vow of celibacy to facilitate his fathers fancy for a fisherwoman is another story that is well known. The unquestioning obedience to the paternal wish is extolled here. This seems to be an Indian trait even now. Yes apparently, it is not in evidence at some leading business houses where we see succession battles that never seem to end!

Clash of personalities between the Father and Child in terms of a life partner and choice of profession has found itself as a sub-plot in many movies and novels. This has been staple Indian fare. The “Pyar Kiya Tho Darna Kya” song puts this clash into memorable focus with Madhubala as Anarkali , exhorting her lover, Prince Salim (Dilip Kumar), to declare his love and defy his Father.

Most of Big B’s movies of the seventies involved a strained father son relationship. The reasons varied from choice of career to the choice of a life partner. Ultimately the inability of the offspring to measure up to the Father’s expectation is the cause for disappointment and disharmony. “Shakti “ which was the remake of a Tamil movie “Thankapathakam” was a poignant tale of a father son relationship which went sour after the son is kidnapped and the Father sticks to his guns and refuses to pay the ransom. Even though he is saved, the son looses trust in his father and their lives spiral into a tragedy.

“Kireedam” (Malayalam) which acquired cult status in Kerala, highlighted the plight of a son, who in the course of defending his father from attacking goons, finds himself on the wrong side of the law. Faced with the wrath of those he took on and with the system unable to protect him, he finds that the choices he is left with have extinguished his fathers hopes and dreams for him and the family.

In “Taare Zameen Par” (Hindi)which explored dyslexia, the Father again is the negative character. His concerns however, are genuine. He is more concerned with the “future” of his offspring and whether he is equipped to compete and earn a livelihood. In the process of training his offspring, he alienates him!

“Santosh Subramaniam” a recent Tamil hit had the father son relationship as the theme. The loving, ambitious and protective, but oppressive and overbearing father was the unwitting villain. The fact that it was a hit indicates how much the youth identified with the movie. Selection of career, partner, clothes, lifestyle, all these were apparently matters of dispute! Generation gap is one way of naming it but somehow, Mother’s seem to accept this demand for autonomy a lot better than Dad’s do in conservative India.

"AgniNakshatram" a Manirathnam movie of a much earlier vintage was certainly not mainstream, though it did reasonably well. The "china veedu" or the practice of keeping a second house was the theme here. Rich and established men in Tamil Nadu have the habit of keeping a mistress and give her the status of a wife. Though it may be illegal and may constitute bigamy, it is accepted and tolerated in higher circles. The movie explored the angst that a man's two sons, one from the first wife and the other from the second wife, go through, as a consequence. As with most Tamil movies that do well, it ends happily with the two sons coming together as brothers and taking care of the father:). No, Arundathi Roy did not go into a fast to protest this movie or write a novel about it and neither did the Women's Commission take up the matter!

At the Delhi airport, the joke goes, an NRI was seen whipping his son with a belt and yelling “Now call 911”! A clear pointer to the difference in the way parenting happens probably in the two hemispheres. We also believe that family relationships are less intense in the West especially between Father and child. However, this is not so.

The bard explored this relationship in many of his works. In Hamlet, the son is pitted between the devotion to his father and the affection for his mother. Procrastination in the face of this choice makes for a tragedy. It is however clear that the son has to avenge the wrong done to his father.
In King Lear, the issue is the dividing of affection and wealth among the siblings. Akiro Kurosawa remade that classic with telling effect.

Hollywood is no stranger to this relationship. The recent Liam Neeson’s movie “Taken”, featured a father taking on an entire international human trafficking gang and saving his daughter single handed. Not surprising, that it is a world wide hit. “Ransom” was another hit movie which pitted the father (Mel Gibson) against the ever present threat of kidnapping. “Death Sentence” a lesser known movie featuring Kevin Bacon, also told the tale of retribution that a father who seeks his son shot dead by mobsters seeks when the system fails to deliver.

In “Kramer vs Kramer” a harried young father copes with his career and a wife who deserts him to look after his toddler. In “Pursuit of Happiness” the story has the same undercurrent, though the intensity of struggle for a livelihood and to make ends meet really puts it to the test. Will Smith turned in a brilliant performance in this movie of endurance grit and hope. "My Father Romulus" which starred Christian Bale, was also about a single parent bringing up his kid against all odds. The western cowboy movie “ 3.10 to Yuma “ was again unforgettable. The struggle and the sacrifice that a father makes to leave behind a name that his children can be proud of and provided for, made it an all time classic.

The Coppolla classic “Godfather”, was about the son who reluctantly took on his father’s responsibility, though his chosen path was probably different. In the process, he avenges an attack on his Father. “Dead Poets Society” examined the tragic consequences of a Father’s ambition clashing with his son’s aspiration. On a lighter note, in the comedy, “Father of the Bride”, one finds the Father’s situation caricatured. There is also a hint of the “Electra complex” that Freud (who else?)  mentioned.

The juxtaposition of father and step father has been the theme in many European films and the high rate of divorces and remarriages can possibly be the reason. Susan Brier’s “After the Wedding” pitted a biological father against an adoptive father. Interesting was the final denouement, which is that most children accept the genuine protector who is present for them as the paternal parent. The biological father does seem to command an instinctive affection, curiosity even, but the surrogate Father has his own place when he has been true to the role. This again comes to brutal display in the movie “Last Chance Harvey” where the biological father (Dustin Hoffman) accepts his place in the scheme of things and acknowledges that another man probably deserved to give his daughter away in marriage since she always saw him as a Father.

Malayalam films too have examined the role of an adoptive parent. Blessy’s “Kazhcha” had the affection between a Malayali man who adopts a Gujarathi refugee boy into his family and the relationship that develops between them. It transcends language, culture and geographies. Worth a watch, even with sub- titles.

While the motion pictures seem to have many instances of the paternal story and emotions, there seem to be few instances of this having inspired music. There are a few fabulous exceptions.

There is a Malayalam song which goes “Achanaye yannu enniku ishtam”. This is sung by a child to her Father.

Eric Clapton’s “Tears in heaven” was an ode to his son who died tragically in an accident. For those who felt that familial ties and paternal affection were not in the emotional map of rock musicians, this was a revelation!

Advertising where this relationship has been leveraged seem to be again far and few. Probably because most advertising professionals hardly have time to play father!!!

A HDFC Standard Life commercial where a son is teased by his father’s friend that his father may not be “there”, is reassured by the father that he would be “always there for him”, the insurance product finding a nice and apt platform.
The role of the Father having to be the provider has been the theme in most of their TVCs, be it finding the money to support his child’s dreams or a more immediate scholarship for the teenager. The emotional payoff of being proud of having done one’s dharma as a Father, is clearly the story here.

Volvo had this unforgettable TVC where a daughter lisps “My Daddy loves me so much… he bought himself a VOLVO”, drawing on Volvo’s unmistakable association with safety!!

A lot of my friends have moved from being recalcitrant sons to responsible Fathers and with it have shown symptoms of amnesia when it comes to boyhood pranks and escapades:)At a recent get together of my alumni, a classmate requested me "boss, if my son asks you about a match winning catch that I took in a cricket match in the Institute, please answer in the affirmative!" I was glad he warned me, because all I remember was some tasteless sledging by the bugger when he was keeping wickets, all the while ensuring that the byes and wides outscored all the runs we put together! It also reminded me of a joke in Readers Digest "Boy to Dad: Here is my report card for you to sign and by the way, here is one of yours I found in the attic" :)

My father was a tad upset that I never became a doctor or an engineer. But I guess he has come to terms with it. This note is to make him happy. I am sure if I had been a doctor I would have had time to write this, I would written about piles, prostrate or something completely banal and as far as engineering goes … well this would have been a schematic diagram I suppose 

An unholy (works in advertising) son

Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven
Will it be the same
If I saw you in heaven
I must be strong, and carry on
Cause I know I don't belong
Here in heaven

Would you hold my hand
If I saw you in heaven
Would you help me stand
If I saw you in heaven
I'll find my way, through night and day
Cause I know I just can't stay
Here in heaven

Time can bring you down
Time can bend your knee
Time can break your heart
Have you begging please
Begging please


Beyond the door
There's peace I'm sure.
And I know there'll be no more...
Tears in heaven

Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven
Will it be the same
If I saw you in heaven
I must be strong, and carry on
Cause I know I don't belong
Here in heaven

Cause I know I don't belong
Here in heaven

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