Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921) is a 2016 Hindi film about a middle-class family in Coonoor, Tamil Nadu. The film turns five this March (but most importantly the titular lineage turns a hundred). In Kapoor & Sons, writer-director Shakun Batra uses the framework of the Bollywood family drama and stretches it to its most authentic limits. This treatment exposes the contradictions of the traditional Bollywood formula while updating it for a new milieu and sensibilities.
Kapoor & Sons starts off unsettling, with death and tragedy looming in the air. This is unlike the traditional family drama because there aren't any pleasantries inviting us in. The script doesn't want us to root for the Kapoors, it wants us to understand them. The Kapoors have warmth and cordiality among themselves but they aren't a functional familial unit. There's friction whenever the parents and sons are in the same room. Over time, their issues pile up until they break out in explosive confrontations. There are three such feuds, which are the film's highlights. They're written, performed, and choreographed with clinical precision. The characters say horrible things at the worst moments.
The film mainly follows Sidharth Malhotra's (hilariously named) Arjun Kapoor. Arjun is the least interesting of the Kapoors and works as a blank slate to understand the rest of his family. Fawad Khan's Rahul Kapoor, Arjun's brother, is the soul of the film. Rahul is composed, responsible, and tries the most to keep his family together. He isn't evasive like his angsty brother or egoistic father. He's more diplomatic than his mother Sunita, who loves him as the 'perfect son'. But this impossible task wears him down, Rahul tells Sunita in a heartbreaking scene. Rahul is the deconstruction of the 'perfect child' and the 'perfect Bollywood hero'. Family, society and culture expect him to be the vessel for prescribed virtues at the cost of being himself. Vulnerable and strong, Rahul remains a landmark in LGBTQIA+ representation for Indian cinema.
Ratna Pathak Shah's Sunita brings the film together. She has the trickiest role of them all. When it comes to her feelings and aspirations, Sunita is constantly belittled by her husband. She feels insignificant when he takes money from her savings. Then there are the anxieties of his adultery that made her a victim in her marriage. But Sunita feels just as victimised when she finds out Rahul's secret. She calls her family liars while visibly disgusted by Rahul. Again, it's very hard to sympathise with the Kapoors. It's only when Arjun confronts her for the horrible thing she did to him, that Sunita finds some levelheadedness to introspect. This is undercut by a tragedy that leaves her heavily wounded. Yet she perseveres and finds peace with time. Like Rahul, Sunita is trapped by expectations to be the perfect mother and homemaker, which take a heavy toll on her. It's heartwarming to see her smile at the end.
Harsh Kapoor (Rajat Kapoor), Sunita's husband, isn't a beacon of warmth and wisdom that movies make out fathers to be. He has to be the staunch figurehead of the family but Harsh can barely keep their finances together. Harsh finds it shameful to borrow money from his brother for their father's medical expenses. We see this sentiment with Arjun when he refuses Rahul's money. Being the 'lesser' sibling almost consumes Arjun. Thankfully, Arjun sorts things out with Rahul because he properly communicates. But the pressure Harsh puts on himself to be the sole provider inspires further insecurities and eventually drives him to adultery. Harsh isn't presented as sympathetic when caught in the act. He's a sad, broken man asking for forgiveness, but it's a bit too late for him. Harsh's death is tragic because nothing is resolved or forgiven. It's quick and cruel.
Kapoor & Sons is about image and pretence. The plot is driven by grandfather Amarjeet's (Rishi Kapoor) wish to have a happy family portrait. But as Sunita says during the photo shoot, "this drama has been a bit too much" and she's tired of pretending. The charming yet problematic Amarjeet is a relic of a bygone Bollywood who has to witness those ancient tropes perish. It's an Indian staple for dutiful sons to take up their father's mantles. In this film, Amarjeet plans his perfect final days yet he has to bear the pain of burying his son. Death isn't peaceful or honourable as the army veteran wants it to be. It's messy and painful and Amarjeet has to join his family in their loss. This is somewhat of a recurring theme in the film. Tia (Alia Bhatt) lost her parents in a plane crash and she heavily regrets being angry at them at their last meeting. Eventually, she heals, as do the Kapoors.
By the end, life hasn't gone the way the Kapoors wanted. Amarjeet didn't get a perfect picture – but he has a real family. They all have each other. That's all that matters.