It’s been a strange day here in New York. It has rained non-stop (no, that’s not the strange part), and I have sat here and watched all of Baghban (2003), Viruddh…Family Comes First (2005), and am now, midway through Baabul (2006). But what has brought about this slew of early-00s ‘Amitabh as Grieving Father With Social Message’ films? I suspect it is my mother.
As I watch these films, darkness thicker outside, and my mother, some eight thousand miles away, awaits COVID test results. The burden of the impending question is not unknown to either of us. If the result is less than desirable, I will not be able to be with her and help her out. The earliest I can reach after flying across the Atlantic and self-quarantining is after at least a week. In my absence, her only caregiver would be my seventy year old father.
Is there anything more tragic than these lives that we have chosen for ourselves and managed to convince ourselves that this is for the best, I wonder. And, because I cannot go into a red phone box and sing “Main yahaan tu yahaan, zindagi hain kahaan?…” at my mother quite as convincingly as Mr Bachchan, I watch him do it to distract myself, and think back to the times when Ma and I watched him sing together.
In the early 2000s, I was first a pre-teen and then a teen with an alarming proclivity towards Bollywood. My mother, out of some strange Bengali bhadralok elitism about high art and low art, had managed to raise me without much Hindi commercial cinema in the first decade of my life. In the second decade, and ever since, I exacted revenge for this. I liked other things too, but nothing made quite as much sense as the Khans and the Kapoors and the Bachchans did (I even didn’t seem to mind Abhishek quite as much as my friends did). I understand now the irony of saying that nothing made as much sense as Bollywood, but back then I was too busy dreaming of running away to Mumbai and being one half of a Salim-Javed-esque duo.
My mother realized that if she couldn’t really turn me away from Hindi cinema, she would have to find a way to instrumentalize it to get me to work: the deal we struck was that for every six chapters of any subject that I studied to her satisfaction, I’d get to watch a film. Ever the poor strategist, I picked the shortest chapters first, and got to watch a new film every other day. To my mother’s credit, she never said anything, no doubt assured by the fact that eventually the short ones would run out and be replaced by long chapters on Shahjahan and Photosynthesis and Irrigation Systems, and the intervals between the viewings would increase. Five years into my PhD program, dare I say her system worked? Hindi cinema is what I work on, and what I reward—and on days like this, distract—myself with. It was during this period that my mother and I saw some of the early-00s classics (cult or otherwise).
I remember slowly sliding down the seat, unable to control my laughter when Amitabh Bachchan sang to Hema Malini in that phone booth. Why is everything so dramatic, I thought. My mother directed offended glares at me as if I am the one who separated these two helpless people from each other. Today, oddly, I found myself getting misty-eyed at the song. Embarrassed, I took a break, and went to make myself tea, and wondered if this is some sort of emotional growth that I can now feel empathy for these characters who had seemed ridiculous to before, or have I become a softy? Or is it simply that nearly a couple of decades later, I understand what the pain of distance can do to people. Or do I simply cry for the uncomplicated days when if I just read six chapters, Ma and I could buy some popcorn and watch Baghban at a single screen that has since been demolished and made into a shopping complex.
It’s hard to see the all-too-familiar phone call scenes in Viruddh, where a mother and a father wait for word from their son in a far away land and wait for his return. What is harder still is the scene where the elderly couple (played by Mr Bachchan again and a superb Sharmila Tagore) stare into space, lying next to each other all afternoon.
My retired parents have been largely locked at home for the past many months. I ask them to watch shows I’m watching on Netflix or Amazon Prime; I discuss book recommendations and suggest the extended family get on Zoom calls; I try and call every day during the IPL match to share their little excitements and disappointments about the teams; yet, I can see they struggle to fill up their time through the day. I wonder if like Tagore and Bachchan’s character, they too sometimes run out of words to fill their time. They haven’t experienced grief like the characters in the film, of course, but the existential dread of being alive in 2020 must be catching up to them as well. Hardest to watch somehow are the daily conversations about diabetes and blood pressure between Tagore and Bachchan. Just like my parents, I think. Just like my parents, aging at the speed of light, so far away from me. It’s hard to defend these films sometimes, I agree.
What job did Salman get while studying in Europe in Baghban that allowed him to take a transfer to India and work as a manager in a car showroom? What is the bizarre ‘buddy’ nonsense between Salman and Amitabh Bachchan in Baabul? Why is there a cringeworthy scene with Rani dancing with her dead husband’s shirt while Amitabh watches on? Why is there a whole Nerolac ad (jingle and all) placed inside Viruddh?
However, there is also surprisingly positive messaging in these films that I do not think I appreciated when I first saw them in the early-00s. All three of them normalize desire in mature couples in remarkable ways. In Baghban particularly, what emerged as significant for me was its treatment of geriatric loneliness. Baabul, despite occasional patriarchal overtones, is about widow remarriage. Viruddh is about seeking justice against socially powerful forces working against one. It almost makes me wonder if these films would get trolled on Twitter for one reason or another if they had released now. My mother might say I am overthinking these films. But this strange capacity to feel empathy towards anyone (even John Abraham with his early-00s straightened hair) is something I get from her. She taught me to empathize and to be kind above all in life; she unlearned her own biases about art and watched the most commercial of Hindi films with me; she even tried to not to judge me when I cried as Abhishek Bachchan’s character died in LOC Kargil (2003).
When I watch these films and sip intermittent tea between bouts of sniffles while it pours outside in Manhattan, what I seek even more than the occasional surprising positive messaging in these films is her by my side. Ma’s COVID results will take another day to arrive. I might even get the time to watch Ek Rishtaa: The Bond of Love (2001) and Waqt: The Race Against Time (2005).
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.