I HAVE a confession to make today. I am old enough to have grown up in the days when the angry young man ruled the world of film and fantasy next door, and here thanks to the VCR. Films were meant to be predictable back then and very few appreciated anything ‘zara hat ke’ (different). Film watching was a journey into the familiar, like a family meal — the dishes, their taste and perhaps even the conversation rarely sprang a surprise. And in this world, a familiar trope was what was called the lost-and-found formula. The members of a nuclear family would be torn apart through accident or the villain’s machinations, only to be reunited at the end, where the big bad guys would also get their comeuppance.
This lost-and-found theme was of course based on the idea of blood being stronger than water (clichés galore but then I am speaking of masala films). Children could have been brought up in the toughest of circumstances, even make a living from crime but they were intrinsically good — because they had been born to good people — and would realise it the moment they identified their ‘real’ family.
So one brother could be a thief while the other a policeman and they would continue to clash during the first half of the film but towards the end, once their true identities were revealed to each other, they’d join hands against the true evil, vanquish him — it was nearly always a him — and then live happily ever after (their different upbringing, education and professions, all having been rendered irrelevant because they are family, after all). As Orson Welles once said, a happy ending depends on where one ends a story.
There was Amar Akbar Anthony, where the three sons are separated and brought up in not just different economic circumstances but also different religions — Christian, Muslim and Hindu, with professions ranging from a qawwal to a police inspector. (On a side note, it is one of the few masala films which has become the subject of considerable academic research.)
There was another, Suhaag, in which one becomes a police officer and the other (Amitabh of course) is a petty criminal. Foes turn into best friends to the point that the thief joins the force once his brother/friend becomes blind! By the end of course all is well, including the blindness.
The family trumped everything else — upbringing, religion, ideology, education — and it always led to a happy ending, as long as the brothers came together.
In Trishul, for example, an unacknowledged, illegitimate son wreaks havoc in the family and business of his estranged father only to reunite with his half-siblings, once the dying father (who risks his own life to save the son) asks for forgiveness. And once again they all live happily ever after.
Admittedly, these are all Bachchan films but this is not to say the trope ended once his reign in Bollywood came to an end. At my age, it’s just easier to remember the plots of the kitschy films one watched in one’s youth. The films watched later tend to be a mish-mash of memories, including their unmemorable plots, especially if they were potboilers.
But the theme continued to be done to death. There was Ram Lakhan with Anil Kapoor and Jackie Shroff — where the brothers weren’t separated but one was honest as only film heroes can be while the other was as straight as a jalebi but by the end … well, the naughty one is also transformed (the details are hard to remember) and the real villains are defeated so the family can live happily ever after. Essentially, it was no different from what came a generation earlier. The trope has become less popular with time but it hasn’t disappeared altogether. It is just presented differently now.
However, now as I look back, it is hard not to note, that this ‘family’, which always came together despite trials and separation was always the nuclear family. For all of the subcontinent’s tendency to romanticise the extended family, it is the nuclear family and the brothers’ unity which is celebrated. It is they who are always to come together, and the ones to share a common destiny, against the ‘other’.
The first cousins don’t prove this lucky or appealing to the film-maker. Indeed, it is hard to remember if films ever glamorised the relationship between first cousins. In fact, in many films the cousin is this rather jealous being, plotting and planning to rob the protagonist of his (or her) good fortune. And if not evil, they are at best just the sidekick, whose name also slips one’s mind after the film has ended. I can’t remember a single film with a memorable role of a cousin. There was Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Aamir Khan’s debut film as a hero, in which the cousin is a good guy whose only role is to be the sidekick, without any life of his own.
But even in this the poor chap doesn’t do too well. By the end, when the star-crossed lovers have run away, it doesn’t take long for the cousin to reveal their plan to the angry parents. He just doesn’t have the spine to stand up to them. Whether or not this indirectly leads to the lovers’ untimely death, who can remember, honestly. But die they do!
Postscript: This essay is simply on random and even unintelligent thoughts about Bollywood films and has nothing to do with the current political scene in Pakistan, which is usually what this column space is wasted on. It especially has nothing to do with certain political rumours which were doing the rounds last week. As the standard film disclaimer goes: