Jaya Bhaduri and Anil Dhawan in Piya Ka Ghar (1972). Image Courtesy: The Hindu
A Sunday afternoon, as a child, was only complete with the matinee show we watched together as a family on the TV. Most often the films that played at the hour were the sappy family dramas, meant to be a complete entertainment package. Romance between the hero and heroine, some tension in the family, a whole lot of drama with lots of tears, laughter and occasionally a few action scenes added for the thriller enthusiasts made these films extremely popular with its audience. If one takes away the glitter from the films, it’s always a simple tale of the obstacles the families on screen went through.
Family is a place of belonging, a feeling of safety, a feeling of comfort everyone desires to return to at the end of the day. This means, we seldom think of it as an institution. Family governs an individual’s moral conduct in society as per the existing hierarchies that are legitimised through practiced traditions. The onset of “modern” (read: western) changes that supposedly threaten the family structure have always loomed over the Indian society, even before liberalisation occurred. Like any social phenomena that has a ripple effect in unthinkable ways, when India went through liberalisation in 1991 it refashioned the social fabric of daily life. Apart from a free market influx of MNCs, the Indian family system also went through the inevitable change fate awaited it. But these rifts and tensions did not appear with liberalisation, they had been present for decades prior. Popular Hindi cinema has in a range of ways depicted the tension our society underwent across decades. In this essay, I will look at a few notable family dramas from the 70s till the present times, attempt to map the changes they undergo.
Like any social phenomena that has a ripple effect in unthinkable ways, when India went through liberalisation in 1991 it refashioned the social fabric of daily life. Apart from a free market influx of MNCs, the Indian family system also went through the inevitable change fate awaited it. But these rifts and tensions did not appear with liberalisation, they had been present for decades prior.
One of the more interesting films in the genre is Piya Ka Ghar (Basu Chatterjee, 1972) which addresses the lack of space for the couple at home in a big city like Mumbai. In hindsight, perhaps, the city represented what was arriving- a new world, as it was for the protagonist Malti (Jaya Bhaduri). The lack of privacy for a newly married couple living with a large family in a small chawl pushes them to consider moving out. The film ultimately arrives at a happy ending with the family members’ small compromises to live together under the same roof.
The most common representation of the family in the genre has been a Hindu Joint Family, was duly noted by scholars and critics. A common thread that continues from here till the late 1980s was the anxiety of a disintegration of this structure. In Swarag Se Sunder (K. Bapayya, 1986), Vijay Kumar Chowdhury (Jeetendra) and his wife Laxmi (Jaya Prada) are childless, due to which Laxmi is taunted by other women in gatherings. His step-brother Ravi (Mithun Chakraborty) falls in love and marries the village businessman Milawat Ram’s (Kader Khan) daughter Lalitha (Padmini Kolhapure) through his bhabi’s help, who convinces his brother. The happy ending is delivered through the reunion of the two couples after they overcome the misunderstandings and obstacles laid in their way by malicious relatives.
One of the more interesting films in the genre is Piya Ke Ghar (Basu Chatterjee, 1972) which addresses the lack of space for the couple at home in a big city like Mumbai.
Until this point, the narrative of the more popular, successful films within the genre saw the source of destructive force as something external, which changes with Ghar Ghar Ki Kahani (Kalpataru, 1988). The film’s plot is driven by the suspicion Ram (by Rishi Kapoor) harbours for his wife Sita (Jaya Prada), who he thinks is having an affair with his younger brother Amar (Govinda). It’s Ram and Amar’s sister, Uma (Aruna Irani) that plants the seed to pit her brother against his wife, for no apparent reason! Meanwhile, Sita helps Amar in his love conquest, a secret they shared, which only fuels Ram's suspicion. The film ends with all doubts cleared and the family reuniting together. The destructive force for the family has entered within the household with the spiteful venom that both the mother and sister spew into the family. This duo is responsible for the torment of the bahu/bhabi and other family members in many of the films, with little or no logical explanations as to why.
Similar tropes are used in Ghar Ho Toh Aisa (Kalpataru, 1990), however, here everyone is abusive towards Sharda (Deepti Naval), the daughter in law, except her devar Amar (Anil Kapoor). With a little help from Seema (Meenakshi Sheshadri), Amar teaches his family a lesson, and the ever-forgiving saint of a bhabi lives happily ever after with the rest of the family as well as newly-married couple, Amar and Seema.
The bahu/bhabi is at the centre of all the conflict, and one of her closest and most supportive relationships is with her brother-in-law.
The bahu/bhabi is at the centre of all the conflict, and one of her closest and most supportive relationships is with her brother-in-law. The status of a bhabi has often been equated with that of a mother in so many of the films. At the same time, films like Ghar Ghar Ki Kahani add a dubious layer of infidelity to it amongst these characters. This insinuation moves beyond the cinematic world, but one can count these films as one of the sources to influence it. A bahu/bhabi is an outsider, so she has to prove her loyalty to the family to belong. All the stumbling blocks in the films like Ghar Ho Toh Aisa and Ghar Ghar Ki Kahani are used to arrive at the point where she endures the tests and her forgiving; sanskari nature allows her to be finally included within the family.
At the same time, it is important to note the value that is attached to the sanskari bahu/bhabi, in some of the films - she is like a guardian angel to the devar and the rest of the younger members even, especially Uma in Sansar (T. Rama Rao, 1987), so much so that the entire family goes with her decision.
Dowry, a recurring topic in most of the films, is denounced in the narratives, but it acknowledges the prevailing practice in society. The concern for a bride to bring in dowry is attached to the class she belongs to. In films such as Biwi Ho Toh Aisi (J.K. Bihari, 1988) Rekha’s character marries rich without dowry, despite not belonging to the upper class herself, and meets with ill treatment from her mother-in-law (Bindu). The twist in the story is revealed when her character turns out to be an Oxford alumnus and was in cahoots with father-in-law (Kader Khan) to straighten her mother-in-law out.
When it comes to the genre, T. Rama Rao’s Sansar is one of the stand-out films in terms of the narrative and the interesting plot-points. An argument over finances occur between Vijay (Raj Babbar) the eldest son and his father Deendayal (Anupam Kher). Their argument separates the family while living under the same roof. Vijay’s wife Uma (Rekha) manages to reconcile the family with the help of other members. In the sub-plot, Rajni (Archana Joglekar), the daughter of the house, also causes tension in the family by going against her father to marry her Christian lover (Shekhar Suman). The happy ending that Sansar serves its audience is one of coming to terms with the changing times - Uma and Vijay decide to move out of the household as it is better to maintain harmony in the relationship while living separately than to bicker and hold grudges under the same roof. The anxiety of the disintegrating family stems from losing the Hindu moral values the family structure inculcates and propagates in society. Clearly a hierarchical structure of power, the traditions of upper caste Hindus are safeguarded within the joint family system. In response to the lack of representation of other communities in the genre, emerged the Muslim Social. It replicated similar tropes of family dramas, except within a world created with markers that are distinctly associated with Islamic culture and only Muslim characters. The patriarchal and hierarchical system existed within the Muslim social too, where the women were at the mercy of the men in her life.
The happy ending that Sansar serves its audience is one of coming to terms with the changing times - Uma and Vijay decide to move out of the household as it is better to maintain harmony in the relationship while living separately than to bicker and hold grudges under the same roof.
From the shift to nuclear families, to more agencies of the younger members of the family and women in life choices such as choosing partners and voicing desires, Sansar’s acceptance of the change in the social fabric was ahead of its time. The middle class but upper caste family in Sansar deal with real issues like lack of privacy in a joint family due to lack of space. Post liberalisation, Sooraj Barjatya, the master entertainer, used the tropes of the family drama genre and moulded it to play to the modernity vs. tradition debate by creating a world of excess and middle grounds. Barjatya’s films had rich families in huge houses with the characters’ modernity depicted in their clothes and educational degrees. Yet, the elaborate scenes with rituals become a marker for traditional values that are not to be traded off.
In his 1994 Hum Aapke Hain Koun...!, a film that documents upper caste North Indian wedding rituals elaborately, as well as an excessive depiction of wealth. This film was well received by audiences beyond prediction, as it brought back the middle class to cinema halls after the boom in VCR drove them to their homes for a period. The superstardom of Madhuri Dixit and the resurgence of Salman Khan, their jeans-clad modernity, the countless rituals and ceremonies, and the elaborate song and dance sequences also appealed to the nostalgic crowd of NRIs for whom it represented a connection to their homeland. The humongous success of the film proved the continued relevance of the family drama tropes. Another film that cannot be missed in the discussion of family dramas is Barjatya’s Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999). A modern retelling of the ‘Ramayana’, Hum Saath Saath Hain navigates filial love, brotherhood as the family navigates inheritance through sacrifices.
Post liberalisation, Sooraj Barjatya, the master entertainer, used the tropes of the family drama genre and moulded it to play to the modernity vs. tradition debate by creating a world of excess and middle grounds.
Following Barjatya's footsteps in making stars and family dramas of extraordinary budgets was Bollywood's favourite Karan Johar. The tagline to his massively successful film Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham was “It's all about loving your parents''. Yash Raichand (Amitabh Bachchan) disowns his eldest son Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) when he marries Anjali (Kajol), as she doesn’t belong to their social class. Years later, Rohan (Hrithik Roshan), the younger brother patches the family up, as Rahul and Anjali move back in with their parents with tearful apologies.
Apart from the spectacle of wealth in the film, one can also see individuality, to a certain extent, attached to Rahul’s character. Yet, the tradition that is crucial to the crux of the plot, which puts the parents on a god-like pedestal, requires him to not just reunite with the family, but also retain a hierarchical power in his household in London. Rahul as a patriarch of the household like his father is mostly relaxed except with his sister-in-law Pooja’s (Kareena Kapoor Khan) clothing choices. The women will always be governed by the male patriarch to regulate their ethical conduct in society.
In both the films, the special status of the adopted child highlights the primary status blood relation takes in upholding the so-called Hindu family values. It is implicit that blood relations supersede alternative forms of constituting a family.
Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham raises the question of the role blood relation plays in constituting a family. A similar concern is raised in another Bachchan film Baghban (Ravi Chopra, 2003). After retiring, an older couple Raj (Amitabh Bachchan) and Pooja Malhotra (Hema Malini) are separated by their children who take them in their custody separately for six months. The children and their spouses’ dismissive and brusque treatments are too painful to bear for both of them; on top of that, they are also yearning for the comfort of each other’s company. They finally find love and care from their adopted son Alok (Salman Khan) later in the film. An attempt to depict filial love and adoption positively, yet the film somehow carries the trace of exclusivity. The adopted son is still seen with a different lens, a special status. This can also be seen in Avtaar (Mohan Kumar, 1983) and later in Swarg (David Dhawan, 1990).
In both the films, the special status of the adopted child highlights the primary status blood relation takes in upholding the so-called Hindu family values. It is implicit that blood relations supersede alternative forms of constituting a family. LGBTQ+ discourse has shown us different forms of families with individuals that are not blood related but form on the basis of a support system, yet the assumed legal papers deny the adopted characters in these films the inclusivity of a family. (It is interesting to note that Karan Johar is now himself a father to two children conceived through surrogacy.)
A recurring thematic element which appears throughout these films is the representation of the upper caste, upper class Hindu family. Apart from a few, such as Piya Ke Ghar and Sansar, a majority of the families live in lavish houses, which doesn’t suffocate their personal space which can be very likely in a joint family.
The couple, a main ingredient of the family drama, is depicted differently in comparison with other romance films. Of course, amidst all these family dramas, from the beginning lies the romantic love story of the couples. But what's interesting is, the couple is consumed within the family system in these films. Take for instance, Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! where Rajesh (Monish Bahl) and Pooja’s (Renuka Shahane) union was a blend of arranged cum love marriage - a perfect middle ground achieved by the film. After Pooja’s death, Nisha almost gets married to Rajesh sacrificing her love for Prem is the epitome of how the couple’s romance carries the shadow of the family.
While most of the coital couples in family dramas have had arranged marriages, and their relationship is seen through the lenses of a household and influences of other members, post liberalisation film characters have love marriages. The tiny jump from arranged to love marriage was directly connected to the power dynamics within the family and the shift in moral values. The women in these films are the binding force in the family while also playing one half of the romantic pair. Usually associated with the compromising, understanding and forgiving leading lady, Karan Johar changes the game with Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006). Although it’s not classified as a family drama immediately, one can claim to see it within the same category for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the film deals with Dev (Shah Rukh Khan) and Maya's (Rani Mukherjee) adulterous relationship, in which their families are entangled. Both Dev and Maya's spouses-- Rhea (Preeti Zinta) and Rishi (Abhishek Bachchan) - also collaborate professionally. There's an overcast of the other family members - spouses, children, parent and in-laws in their relationship throughout their romance.
The tiny jump from arranged to love marriage was directly connected to the power dynamics within the family and the shift in moral values.
Maybe due to the setting of the film in a city like New York which represents the epitome of western modernity, the couple’s decisions and desires are not mediated by the familial logic of earlier films. The most interesting part is the change in the concept of the happy ending - for all the previous films, the families reunite despite abuse and unbearable treatment/behaviour. In KANK, the adulterous couple end up together after being divorced by their respective partners. Perhaps, it emulates modernity that was highly inspired from its location, or it was a depiction of a slight shift in the moral values of a upper class Hindu family on screen that would appeal to both the NRI and home audience.
The trend of family dramas in mainstream Hindi cinema has continued with more or less the same anchor to hold onto - an upper caste North Indian family. But there have been changes too, the shift in focus in terms of class is interesting to note, with a lot of new family dramas based on the middle class. A lot of them wouldn’t be put under the category of family drama but instead romance, but genre is anything but rigid, and always an evolving idea. In Kapoor & Sons (Shakun Batra, 2016) the story of a dysfunctional family has an allegiance to similar elements from the older generation of family drama, but is made in a different model. The suspicions of the mother (Ratna Pathak) of an adulterous father (Rajat Kapoor) creates a lot of hair-splitting coupled with the underlying conflict between the two brothers (Fawad Khan and Siddharth Malhotra). The model of the joint family has changed, but carries forward a strain of the similar elements of drama. With the recent release of Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020) that navigates a homosexual couple’s acceptance by the family –especially the patriarchs. It is apparent from this that societal ethics is still mediated through earlier familial codes, although the fractures in them grow more perceptible every day.