In Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921), Ratna Pathak’s nuanced performance as the mother who has sacrificed her life for her family but aspires to something more, only to be betrayed by her husband, strikes a note with those who look back at their lives, wondering “if only”. Regrets define her life just as much as the joy of seeing her grown up sons.
Kapoor & Sons articulates, not the predicted love triangles which the posters and media have (perhaps deliberately) promoted, but the joys and pains, the struggles of women who know they are not perfect, but could be so much more. In centering the character of Ratna Pathak, the film enters a territory considerably less explored by Bollywood mainstream and thus allows for a more layered experience of middle class families with all their foibles, energies and disappointments.
Set in the southern town of Conoor, itself a statement on how little India remains an inspirational locale, the film revolves around the family, with parents (Rajat Kapoor and Ratna Pathak) and the grandfather (Rishi Kapoor) whose zest for life in all its scatological humour remains intact at 90. The Kapoors’ two 20-something sons (Sidharth Malhotra, Fawad Khan) come to visit their grandfather when he suffers a heart attack.
As the sons negotiate between their life-giving energy of their grandfather and the simmering tensions between their parents, the family unravels. Tia, played by Alia Bhatt is really a red herring in the plot, almost unnecessary but for being a catalyst in the relationship between the two brothers.
The real plot surrounds the parents, wife Sunita and husband Harsh whose 35-year-old marriage has resulted in an anniversary gift of a mixer. Old dreams remain, of starting a bakery based on old family recipes. The money saved up for that has been used by her husband to pay old dues as the business he started is not doing very well. Outlets for his pent up frustrations and guilt for not being successful are elsewhere.
Traditionally, the onus of picking up the pieces of this crumbling family would fall on Sunita, the nurturer, the rock of the family on whom the children, her husband and her father-in-law fall when in trouble (and for home food). Except that here, she is herself flawed.
Unable to hide her preference for one son over the other, she acts on that hubris. Unable to accept a difference in the son she had perceived as being perfect, she rejects him, blaming herself, somewhat typically, for what she sees as his flaw. Unable to retain the face of the perfect hostess, she ruins the much awaited ninetieth birthday party with a public display of anger.
“Sunita is flawed, because she is real.”
She is ambitious for herself, only to see those ambitions fail for lack of support. She is loving but her love is flawed. She is a wife whose capacity for forgiveness is tested. Sunita is flawed, because she is real. Struggling between imperfect people, she cannot see her own imperfections until forced against a wall.
She fails to see her sons other than through the lens of her own established worldview and for that, she pays a big price. Her learning curve is steep but even when she does, it is not an ‘aha’ moment couched in furious hugs and tears. Instead, it is in the form of a guilty, tentative stroke of the hand and an even more embarrassed hug.
Families are not perfect, but for women fulfilling multiple roles of mothers, wives and daughters-in-law, it is the imperfection which needs to be articulated — not as a limitation that needs correction but as an imperative aspect of the human experience.
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Sandhya Rao Mehta is an assistant professor in the department of English Language and Literature at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman.