Beyond Sanju, a look at father-son relationships on screen, from Bicycle Thieves to Mukti Bhawan
Like Sanju, the father-son equations cover a gamut of emotions to tell compelling cinematic stories in international cinema and Hindi films.
Remembering his father on his death anniversary this year, Sanjay Dutt had tweeted, “Wish you could see me as a free man…love you, miss you.”
Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju is hinged on this complex father-son relationship that Sanjay shared with his father, the late Sunil Dutt. A self-made man, who graduated from being a respected, handsome movie star to being a popular politician from Mumbai, Sunil had set the benchmark high. As the film’s glimpses , trailer and songs show so far, Sanju is affected by his father’s opinion on his acting abilities and often fights with him. When his drug addiction threatens to take over his life, he hangs on to his father and asks for help. Sunil rushed his son to rehab in the USA; and it took four years for Sanjay to heal and give up on drugs. His relationship with his father was uneven and had defining impact on his life.
Dutt’s relationship with his father exemplifies a very strong influence in some great films made over time. The father-son relationship has inspired entertaining and engaging classics worthy of remembrance. In international cinema and Hindi films, father-son equations cover a gamut of emotions to tell compelling cinematic stories. While this is not a comprehensive list, here are a few that we love to watch again and remember.
Bicycle Thieves, the 1948 classic by Vittorio De Sica, will remain an eternal classic for the empathy that a young son, Bruno, feels for his desperately needy father, Antonio. In the course of this classic with sparse dialogues, set in post-World War II depression-hit Italy; Bruno accompanies his father on his job of pasting advertising bills across Rome. When his father’s bicycle, for which his mother has pawned the family’s last assets, is stolen, both go searching for the thief across the city, facing defeat. In despair, when Antonio tries to steal another’s bicycle, his son’s tears save him from punishment and also bring alive the child’s compassion for the father’s plight.
Set decades apart, but beautiful and funny, is Mike Mills’ Beginners (2010). Christopher Plummer holds the record for the oldest actor to win an Oscar for his performance as Hal, a father that comes out to his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) as gay. He is honest about this after his wife’s death. This film goes beyond legacies to focus on acceptance and evolution of a father-son relationship.
Compassion is also at the heart of the powerful Jim Sheridan classic, In the Name of the Father. Daniel Day-Lewis, as Gerry Conlon, goes to prison wrongfully on terrorism charges; when his father, Guiseppe (Pete Postlethwaithe) is also arrested, setting his son free with the help of an activist lawyer becomes his sole focus. Their bitter, angsty relationship turns to one of empathy and understanding. The film remains a British gem, reminiscent of injustice and powers of a father’s affection.
The Godfather tops this aspect of the father-son relationship. In a family where the youngest, Michael (Al Pacino) is handpicked for a respectable future, the impact of a life threatening attack on his father, the patriarch’s life makes him a reluctant successor to the Mafia empire. The Godfather has authentic, simple moments that make this a unique family film. The scene where Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) plays in the vineyard garden with his grand son, or conversations that the Corleones have with their daughter, Connie, Coppola’s classic is about family legacies taking precedence over all else.
A somewhat different medium but one that is equally powerful is The Lion King. Here, Simmba returns to his legacy of taking his place as king of the jungle in the circle of life, thanks to memories of his father. Despite being an animated film, The Lion King is built upon this classic theme of taking a father’s legacy forward.
A complex story of taking legacies forward, dark and bloody is Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. In the film, the lead character of Daniel (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his adopted son, HW (Russell Harvard) battle over the legacy of prospecting oil wells. Estrangement from his son over his legacy becomes a turning point in Daniel’s life, making him savage and bitter.
Of Grudges and Conflict
Surprisingly, two of Hindi cinema’s fine father-son films thrive on conflict and unresolved grudges. Shakti, starring Amitabh Bachchan and Dilip Kumar, beautifully creates the uneven relationship that son and father share, with the mother (Raakhee Gulzar) stuck between both. Their relationship never outgrows a deep-rooted grudge. Similarly, Udaan, directed by Vikramaditya Motwane rests on a bullying, heartless father pushing his pliant teenage son hard enough for him to take flight. Unresolved issues and unspoken conversations are at the crux of both these films.
The father of Wake Up Sid (also starring Ranbir Kapoor) is an angry, disappointed father (Anupam Kher). Feroz Abbas Khan’s Gandhi, My Father draws from a sad historical truth of the Mahatma’s strained relationship with his son. The father’s anger and ire turning a son against him seems to be the most resonant theme in Hindi cinema till date. Some, like Shekhar Kapur’s Masoom and Aamir Khan’s Taaren Zameen Par have dealt with themes of estrangement and misunderstanding that young boys face in a paternal relationship where culturally, the father figure, is not akin to showing love or empathy.
In international cinema, the complex space of an absentee and misunderstood father takes central space in some Steven Spielberg films. Primarily drawing from the trauma of his parents’ divorce, the legendary filmmaker has channelised the most impactful father-son equation in Catch Me If You Can (2002). In the film, Frank Abagnale Jr (Leonardo Di Caprio) constantly seeks validation from his father (played by Christopher Walken). He hurts from the lack of his father’s role as disciplinarian who will not question his son’s errant behavior, all the while ruing over his failed marriage and troubles with the taxman. It is a sad, unfulfilled relationship that drives Frank to keep at his cons, hoping to fix things with his broken family like a confused young boy.
An inadequate father is also at the heart of the 2015 film Steve Jobs. Michael Fassbender is brilliant at the tech legend that turns out to be a poor father who thinks financial payoffs and delegating parenthood is an option. In the end, he finds his peace by reconciling with his daughter.
In recent memory, the touching and compelling Mukti Bhawan has addressed reconciliation and love for one’s father, deeply embedded in the Indian consciousness masterfully. While the father-son relationship and also the father-daughter bond are evolving narratives in our films, there is room for a lot more storytelling within this theme. Hopefully, Sanju will throw up a complicated yet relatable facet of the parent-child bond on its release.
Produced by Dinesh Vijan, Bhediya will release in cinemas in April 2022
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