By Rohini Banerjee:
To be very honest, when I entered the theatre to watch ‘Kapoor And Sons‘, I pretty much went in blind. I hadn’t seen many promos (barring the trailer and that party song which is suddenly a hit), so I went in expecting what almost anyone would from a Dharma Productions film focussing on family relations — for it to be sappy and cliché-ridden. But boy, was I proved utterly wrong (and I’m so glad).
‘Kapoor And Sons‘ brings never-before-seen (at least in mainstream Bollywood) nuance and complexity to the dysfunctional family genre. It focuses on the Kapoors—a whimsical grandfather obsessed with dying, his world-weary accountant son and long-suffering wife dealing with a marriage that’s fast disintegrating and their sons, one of them a successful novelist and considered the “perfect son” and the other a struggling novelist and drifter who’s grappling with being “second best”. The dynamics between each and every character is delved into with great sensitivity — most notably the relationship between Mother and Sons, and Brother and Brother —but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to talk about one particular character.
About halfway into the film, there is a scene where the two brothers are discussing love interests. One of the brothers expresses his interest in a certain girl and asks whether the other brother is also interested in her. Brother#2 jokes at first, but then admits that he’s already happy in a stable relationship of his own. In typical sibling-teasing fashion, Brother#1 asks what this mystery significant other is like. Brother#2 blushes, and says, “She’s…good.” It’s an extremely subtle reaction—and you might not even notice unless you’re looking really closely — but he stumbles the slightest bit over “she”. This is just one among all the extremely subtle, yet very prominent once you think about it, hints that lead up to the final moments of the film, where in a scene of intense familial tension, it is revealed that he’s queer and his significant other is actually a man.
In mainstream Bollywood films—hell, in Dharma films themselves (remember the horrifying ‘Dostana‘?)—one hardly sees queerness at all, and when we do, it’s riddled with horrible, harmful stereotypes. ‘Margarita With A Straw‘ and ‘Aligarh‘ were important steps in the positive direction when it came to portrayals of queer lives, but even then, they were never really as mainstream as a Dharma Productions film. So, for ‘Kapoor And Sons‘ to have a gay character who has zero stereotypes associated with him, is fleshed out superlatively, and whose sexuality does not define his character — i.e., his character’s motivations and role in the plot does not revolve around his sexuality — is something truly revolutionary.
The movie profoundly encapsulates the struggle of a queer person in the closet. In a space which is as complex and (often) conservative as the Indian middle-class family, coming out is a struggle that’s incredibly harsh. The Kapoor Brother’s struggle in remaining within the closet for nearly all his life, in living up to his mother’s constant expectations of “perfection” is articulated with great sensitivity.
The hints about his sexual orientation, subtle at first, reach a crescendo in the emotionally raw climax. You can see him fray at the edges — tired of hiding who he is, of keeping up the ruse of being the ‘perfect son’. He scrambles to complete his next novel, smokes in secret, and, in a painfully candid moment, tells his brother that he would give anything to trade places with him (of being the “second best” with no expectations attached to him). Being in the closet, lying about who you are to the people you love the most is perhaps one of the hardest things a queer person has to go through, and ‘Kapoor And Sons‘ articulates it with remarkable sensitivity. His outburst towards the end is years of sexual and emotional suppression which comes to the fore. What this film essentially tries to say is that while the family can be a safe, supportive space, it can simultaneously also be an extremely repressive sphere.
The definitive scene, the veritable climax, is the coming out—which takes place amidst a whirlwind of simultaneous family revelations. When his mother confronts him, berates him for lying, and finally, plays the ‘how could you? You are soiling the family name!‘ card, things could have easily gone down differently. This could have become yet another Bollywood film, with the guy in question apologizing for his actions, being ashamed of his sexuality. But Kapoor and Sons completely flies in the face of that, and does something incredibly brave. The Kapoor Brother says, “I apologize for the lying, but I won’t apologize for who I am.”
This, right here, is a milestone for conversations about homosexuality in mainstream Indian cinema. He refuses to apologize for being queer, and in fact, challenges her homophobia. He asks her to love and accept him the way he is, because this is his reality and he is tired of hiding it. This is a sea-change from the shame and stigma usually associated with queer characters in Indian cinema (case in point, ‘My Brother Nikhil‘) and something that deserves to be lauded.
Another important, and deeply nuanced moment, is when months later, he comes home again, and his mother hesitantly asks him how his boyfriend is — except, she can’t say the word “boyfriend” or “partner” out loud, and ends up saying “tumhara dost” (your friend) instead. This is a telling moment, symbolic of how deeply we deal in euphemisms in middle-class families—how saying the very words ‘queer’ or ‘same-sex partner’ out loud is a struggle. True to this, the film never openly uses the word ‘gay’. Even when he comes out to his brother, he speaks in euphemisms—telling him that he hasn’t ever been, and would never be romantically interested in girls—and in an instant, without having to spell it out, the brother understands what he means.
At first, I took issue with this very thing. I kept thinking, why doesn’t he openly say it? Why doesn’t he just say ‘I’m gay, and I’m dating a man’, and in fact, why are both his mother and brother hesitant to say it out loud? But then I thought of my own mother, and realised why. In middle-class families, open discussions surrounding these issues are an utter rarity, and that’s exactly what this film is trying to question and even change.
This film does a lot of great things, especially when it comes to queer representation—and the least of it is having an actor who’s universally adored (and with an extensive female fan following) play a gay character, essentially breaking the stigma that mainstream heroes can’t play gay roles without their careers being affected. But more than that, this film starts conversations about sexuality — especially in the middle-class family structure — that are hardly addressed, and are sorely needed.
Yes, it still leaves something to be desired, because the queer identity is not as single-mindedly explored (because there are many other characters with subplots of their own which get equal focus) as I would want it to be, but it’s still an amazing start. Hopefully, with ‘Kapoor And Sons’ following closely at the heels of ‘Aligarh’, the conversation about sexuality in Indian cinema is finally maturing.