From Gully Boy to Manzil, the father-child conflict in cinema is a commentary on the State's relationship with its citizens

Akshay Manwani

Feb 20, 2019 10:15:52 IST

In filmmaker Zoya Akhtar’s recently released film Gully Boy, the protagonist Murad, played by Ranveer Singh, simmers with pent-up rage as his ambition to make it as a rap artist faces a number of seemingly insurmountable challenges. First up, there is his lack of exposure or inexperience with the medium even though he has the words to describe the volcano of emotions he is experiencing. Then there are his class-related, self-perpetuating, penurious circumstances that force him to moonlight as a chauffeur. His own uncle (Vijay Maurya) tells him that his aspirations are pointless since, ‘Tera abbu ek driver hai. Naukar ka beta naukar banega, yeh fitrat hai.’ (Your father is a chauffeur. A chauffeur’s son also ends up a chauffeur. That is the natural order of things.) But none of these compare to the disapproving, menacing attitude his own father, the character Aftab played by Vijay Raaz, harbours towards Murad’s artistic pursuits. ‘Yeh kantaapa kar raha hai yeh. Agli baar, agar dekh liya mainey, toh samajh lena’ (This is the rubbish you are up to. If I catch you one more time, you’ve had it), he warns Murad, rather diabolically, after discovering his son’s latest video that is gaining traction on social media.

Aftab’s brutal takedown of his son’s creative outpourings should not be put down to a simple generational gap that exists between him and his son or viewed merely as a class-oriented matter. It is, instead, part of a larger uncomfortable attitude that patriarchal power structures have exhibited forever towards music and poetry in Hindi cinema. In Akhtar’s film, Aftab’s humiliating assertiveness is explained towards the end of the film as a father wanting a more secure future for his son, since the ordinariness of his own life is the only thing Aftab knows. This same condescending attitude towards music was also seen in a lesser-known Dev Anand film, the 1960 release Manzil. In that film, Dev Anand’s character, having studied music overseas, and very much a part of the aristocratic, feudal upper class, is told by both his father (KN Singh) and prospective father-in-law (Manmohan Krishna), that music ‘shareefon ka kaam nahin hai’ (is not a profession for respectable people).

From Gully Boy to Manzil, the father-child conflict in cinema is a commentary on the States relationship with its citizens

Still from Gully Boy. Screengrab from YouTube

We’ve seen this contemptuous stance towards the fine arts in other Hindi films too. Gulzar’s Parichay (1972) and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Alaap (1977), both films, had this tension between a father and son play out over the latter’s devotion to sangeet as integral to their respective plotlines. But at the heart of all these conflicts, which are masked by bringing up the all-to-familiar ghoul of ‘baap-daada ki izzat’, one suspects that male parental figures, exercising totalitarian control in these films, view music and lyrics as a threat to their unchallenged supremacy. In Gully Boy for instance, Aftab senses that if he does not clamp down on Murad’s dreams now, which are in direct conflict with the path he has ordained for Murad, who knows when the lad will stand up to the father for bringing home a much younger, second wife, a situation that Murad’s mother is absolutely and correctly disgusted about. Pran’s character in Parichay validates this assumption when he asks his son to leave because he does not like others exercising their choice in his own house. ‘Iss mein doosre ki marzi main nahin chalney deta,’ he tells his son Nilesh (Sanjeev Kumar).

Viewed from this lens, this conflict between father and child over geet-sangeet and sher-o-shaayari in Hindi cinema may be seen as a meta comment about the relationship between the State and its citizens. The State does not wish to have its diktats challenged in any way, but the embrace of such art forms by a younger, newer generation, who have scant regard for established power centers and are unafraid of challenging the status quo through their artistic expressions, threatens to throw into chaos the very pliant society that the State has ruled over for decades.

Interestingly, perhaps, this is why some of Hindi cinema’s greatest music characters have flourished because of no immediate ‘father’ around them. Teesri Manzil’s (1966) Rocky (Shammi Kapoor) is a character devoid of any real filial ties while Karz’s Monty (Rishi Kapoor) finds it easy enough to break away from the man (Pinchoo Kapoor) who adopted and raised him because he is not his real father. Another third-generation Kapoor, Ranbir Kapoor, find his way and niche in life after he breaks away from his family and overbearing brothers (who stand in for a tyrannical father figure) to become a cult rock-’n’-roll star as Jordan aka Janardhan Jakhar in Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar (2011). Something similar happens with Vijay (Guru Dutt) in Pyaasa (1957), who is thrown out of his home by his own brothers because they have no time or patience for his poetic pursuits.

But there is one significant difference between the musical protagonists of Pyaasa, Parichay and Alaap and Gully Boy’s Murad. While the characters of the 1960s and 70s Hindi cinema resigned themselves to their fate, often willingly courting death, Murad is definitely the voice of a newer, self-confident generation. ‘Yeh shabdon ka jwaala, meri bediyaan pighlaayega’, chants Murad with gusto and open defiance. The imagery of him breaking free of the shackles imposed on him by his father, and by extension, the State, through his writing, should not be lost upon us here.

In recent years, there has been a spate of such films where the younger generation, cutting across gender and social class lines, is not just questioning what is expected of them, but openly rebelling against tyrannical power. Vikramaditya Motwane’s 2010 film Udaan and the Aamir Khan-produced Secret Superstar, which released a few years ago, are both suitable examples in this regard. It is again not without coincidence that both Udaan and Gully Boy have a song around ‘azaadi’ (in Udaan it is ‘Azaadiyaan’ to be specific) in their soundtrack. There is a fire that rages within all the central characters of these films. They will not be stopped from saying what they feel and experience. There is visceral anger inside them, but which does not want to burn up the world (unlike ‘jalaa do, jalaa do, phunk daalo yeh duniya’ from Pyaasa). Instead, they will carpe diem and strive for success. ‘Har raastey ko cheerengey, hum kaamyaabi chheenengey,’ says Murad.

More power to him.

Akshay Manwani is the author of Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet and Music, Masti, Modernity: The Cinema of Nasir Husain. He tweets @AkshayManwani

Updated Date: Feb 22, 2019 10:16:08 IST