“Okay, papa. Let’s play a game. I’m the father and you’re the son.”
The official trailer of director Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Animal (2023) opens with Ranvijay (Ranbir Kapoor) narrating a childhood incident to his father (Anil Kapoor). This scene shows up right at the end of the film, tacked on almost like an afterthought even though it encapsulates the conflict that is very much at the core of the film. When the trailer dropped, the charged exchange between father and son, which shows how some wounds don’t heal, resonated deeply with many. There is a frenetic energy to Ranvijay’s speech and mannerisms, his gaze pained and imploring as he confronts the man who has hurt him time after time, and yet whom Ranvijay loves to the ends of the earth. As Ranvijay begins to re-enact his father’s abusive behaviour towards his younger self in a deeply unsettling scene, it is Anil Kapoor’s expression of raw fear and remorse that anchors the moment.
Meet the Bad Dad, the OG grump and the man whose rigidity is the root cause of all suffering.
The patriarch in Bollywood is usually depicted as a gentle, positive presence in his children’s lives, from the Alok Nath-shaped loving fathers in films like Hum Aapke Hai Koun..! (1994) and Hum Saath-Saath Hain (1999) to Anupam Kher’s take on cool dads in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ, 1995) and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). Traditionally, the cinematic father wields his authority judiciously, acting as a benevolent, protective figure for his family.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Amrish Puri’s Chaudhary Baldev Singh in DDLJ rules over the household with an iron fist and staunchly denies his daughter her right to choose whom she will marry. With his gruff voice, perma-scowl and eyes bulging with rage, his is a forbidding figure. Similarly, Amitabh Bachchan’s autocratic patriarch Yashvardhan Raichand from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) disowns his son for marrying “beneath his station”, throwing Rahul’s (Shah Rukh Khan) adopted status in his face and cutting off all contact. “Keh diya, na? Bas keh diya (I’ve said it once and that’s it)” is his most famous dialogue from the film, a definitive statement that brooks no argument. In Mohabbatein (2000), Bachchan plays Narayan Shankar, the tyrannical principal of Gurukul whose rigid stance on love and hard-hearted lack of understanding pushes his daughter to suicide. These are all men who embody an old guard. They stand for unyielding tradition, which is ultimately forced to bend to the ways of the young.
Often, for a protagonist to truly come into their own, they need a foil and the bad dad is just that. Vipin Sharma as Ishaan’s hostile father in Taare Zameen Par (2007), Ronit Roy as the violently abusive father in Udaan (2010), and Ram Kapoor as the father who constantly undermines his younger son in Student of The Year (2012) are prominent examples of this archetype. The extent of abuse and toxicity in these films varies. Some are physically abusive towards their children, others are emotionally abusive. What unites these characters is the absolute authority they exercise over their children, stifling their freedom and stunting their sense of self. Within the narrative of the film, the bad dad stands as an obstacle in the way of his children’s happiness. These men are also overtly misogynistic. Their wives, who might come to their children’s defence on occasion, are ultimately silenced by the patriarch. At the end of the film, however, the bad dad is invariably vanquished — he is either redeemed in coming to accept his children or is cast aside entirely — in favour of a happy ending.
In Zoya Akhtar’s ensemble family drama Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), Anil Kapoor delivered a standout performance as billionaire businessman Kamal Mehra who, for most of the film, is as bad as a dad can get. He alienates his family with his self-serving ways; he repeatedly cheats on his wife, deceitfully separates his daughter from her first love, and refuses to support his son’s dreams. Later in the film, after disappointing everyone, Kamal earns his redemption. He regretfully owns up to his infidelity. As realisation of his daughter’s unhappiness finally dawns on him, he recognises he has made a big mistake and tries to set things right. In a powerful scene, Kamal leaps to his daughter’s defence with a roar, pinning her abusive husband to the wall. By this point, the audience is firmly on his side, thanks to Kapoor’s performance. Kamal goes on to apologise to his daughter. The words are clearly hard for him to articulate but no less heartfelt. Kapoor has shared in an interview that this apology was his favourite moment during the shooting of the film.
Strip Kamal of his charm and smooth urbanity, and you get the menacing Balbir of Animal. The blood-soaked father-son conflict is at the heart of this narrative, which casts Balbir as an absentee father extraordinaire. A leading industrialist who runs “an international business across three time zones”, he has no time for his children. Ranvijay, aka Vijay, hero-worships Balbir and declares that he is the best father in the world, never mind that Vijay has been nursing heartbreak for not getting to spend time with his father for as long as Vijay has been sentient. Vijay fancies himself “the man of the house” in his father’s absence and as a boy, wants to be known as Balbir II. As a teenager, he tries to step in to the role of a protector when he learns that his elder sister is being harassed. He strides into her college, dragging her behind him, and demands she identify her tormentors. When the older students laugh at this uniformed boy trying to be macho, Vijay terrorises everyone present by shooting a machine gun in the classroom and battering the boys who harassed his sister. An appalled Balbir brands his son a criminal and throws him into boarding school. The distance between the two men only widens as Vijay grows up, especially when Vijay chooses his own bride and settles in America.
Years later, when there is an attempt to assassinate Balbir, Vijay returns home and takes it upon himself to wage war on those who targeted his father. This time, a visibly fragile Balbir poses no challenge to Vijay. All he can do is step back while registering a nominal protest that he doesn’t approve of his son’s ways. Vijay commits heinous crimes and sacrifices his personal well-being — but none of this is for himself, according to Animal. It’s all for his father’s sake. Balbir, meanwhile, walks a bemused tightrope between wilful indifference and outright disapproval. He draws a line between himself and his son, separating himself from Vijay’s criminal behaviour.
In the first half of the film, Anil Kapoor imbues the character with the necessary temper, danger always simmering beneath the surface. As Vijay grows increasingly unhinged, Balbir begins to come across as lost and confused. Where most movie kids typically exhibit a spark of rebellion when their fathers’ oppression becomes too much to bear (like Simran deciding to elope with Raj in DDLJ, and Rohan leaving his family home in Student of The Year), Vijay doubles down on his irrational idolisation of his father, willing to “set the world on fire” if anyone lays a finger on Balbir. It is the father now who feels wrongfooted, helpless to watch his son get drunk on power and revenge. When questioned about his decisions, Vijay informs his father that he is now in charge and Balbir needs to follow his lead. This role-reversal comes full circle in the aforementioned scene from the trailer, when Vijay forces Balbir to relive his boyhood trauma. By this time, both father and son know that Balbir’s days are numbered (he’s been diagnosed with late-stage leukaemia). An emotional Balbir acknowledges that he has not been a good father. Having effectively been sentenced to death, the patriarch is punished by the film, though Kapoor’s performance leaves you feeling almost sympathetic for Balbir.
Perhaps this is what makes Bollywood’s bad dad trope so compelling. As satisfying as it is to see a cruel man face his comeuppance, it is gratifying still to see a powerful man genuinely accept his wrongdoings and attempt to make it up to his loved ones. At the end of Karan Johar’s Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani (2023), uber-misogynistic patriarch Tijori Randhawa (Aamir Bashir) is forced to confront his flaws, and make an effort to unlearn what he terms as “mard hone ka khokla ahankar (the hollow arrogance of being a man)”. Narayan Shankar gracefully acknowledges defeat in the fight against Raj Aryan (Shah Rukh Khan) and love. Yashvardhan Raichand tearfully apologises to his son, welcoming his estranged family back home with open arms. And who can forget that iconic climax of DDLJ, when Baldev Singh finally lets go of Simran’s arm and urges her to live her life on her own terms. These films manifest what may be a pipe dream for many in the real world — a heartless patriarch who swallows his pride and strives to be a better person for his family.
Despite Balbir’s long-overdue apology to his son and a star actor like Anil Kapoor in the role of the patriarch, Animal does not give its bad dad the chance for redemption. The film closes to the haunting strains of “Papa Meri Jaan”, with Vijay lovingly embracing his son — a promise, we hope, that he will not repeat his father’s mistakes. (Vijay’s daughter appears to have been forgotten entirely.) With his daddy issues finally dealt with, Vijay can now begin to work through the laundry list of other issues that make him an insufferable menace to those around him.