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In frame: The Dysfunctional Family- Cinema express

In frame: The Dysfunctional Family

For years, cinema has tried to show perfectly functional families and equating parents as flawless people. But what if they aren’t as faultless as they seem to be?

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Published: 12th August 2022

Fourteen years back, two films were released within weeks of each other that redefined perfect families and doting parents to an entire generation of the Tamil cinema audience. Both Vaaranam Aayiram and Abhiyum Naanum had progressive fathers, supportive and caring mothers, and almost made families seem like a flawless unit. Incidentally, the same year also saw Santhosh Subramaniam, a story of an overbearing father and son, but still nested within a perfect joint family with a happy ending.

For years, cinema has tried to show perfectly functional families and took pleasure in equating parents with faultless individuals. But what if they aren’t as flawless as they seem to be, and are riddled with dysfunctionalities? Is the ‘ideal’ family the only representation that needs to be done?

Inclusiveness and representation matters

In Aelay (2012), Halitha Shameem’s very first script and third feature film, she explored the rocky relationship between a notorious ice-cream vendor and his son in her attempt to normalise dysfunctional families. While Halitha did enjoy watching films like Vaaranam Aayiram and Thavamai Thavamirundhu, her boarding school days made her aware of the prevalence of troubled families. “As a teen, I remember seeing films featuring cool parents and being embarrassed by our own parents for not being like them.”

However, Halitha understands that the parenting binary of good and bad comes from the limitations of every person, and of course, circumstances. “During Aelay promotions, I was suggested to approach Gautham Menon to talk about fathers. But I was hesitant because the way he represents a father is very different from what I have shown. In fact, foreign language films that show dysfunctional families seem more relatable. Vaaranam Aayiram is truthful to Gautham Menon’s vision, but it is important to showcase the other kinds of families too. Parenting is a myriad spectrum, and diversification of representation is very important for normalisation,” she says.

This sort of representation was recently seen in the Amazon Prime Video series Suzhal (2022). While the main plot revolves around a murder mystery, it also elaborates on a dysfunctional family where estranged parents and their polarising beliefs on theism deeply affect their two daughters. 

Pushkar, who co-wrote Suzhal, says that the idea was to show people who were more layered. “People in real life have multiple needs and interests, and we generally end up stereotyping them. Everybody could be having an independent life that is not completely centered on family,” he adds.

Chance to write flawed characters

Portraying dysfunctional families also gives us the opportunity to take our oh-so-godly parents as fundamentally flawed characters with grey shades.

When Sivakarthikeyan’s Don (2022) hit the screens, the film stood divided among audience. Even as the comic portions were exalted, the father-son relationship was at the receiving end of criticism over the glorification of toxic parenting. Don director Cibi Chakravarthi says that showing flawed parents is a way of showing reality. “Every parent would not know how to raise a child in the beginning. Just as the child changes as they grow, the parents too are forced to adapt and change accordingly. Obviously, they make mistakes and sacrifices. In Don, everyone would have made a mistake and realised it at a later point. In fact, there is not a single character in Don that is not flawed,” he opines.

Even if the characters in Don are flawed, it doesn’t take away concerns about the portrayal of the parenting style finding takers among even the most discerning of audience. However, Cibi has a point. “How can one show repentance before showing what went wrong? At one point, the father accepts that he got parenting wrong, and makes amends. It is hard to write grey characters, but their multi-dimensional nature is what keeps things interesting.”

The grey zone is always intriguing, and penning such roles is a compelling exercise for the writers, and a series like Suzhal seems to thrive in creating the right space for such characters. “In long-form storytelling, we have time to explore these dimensions. In cinema, not every character gets the space to be properly fleshed out. There are a lot of broad strokes in cinema, which can become more specific in longer formats that allow characters to not always behave with easily identifiable or associable markers,” says Pushkar.

The gender angle

What are families, if not the women? Often in films, mothers play the second fiddle, timidly nodding to their husbands, and wanting to side with children, during conflicts. They don’t really have their own agency and standing. However, in the 2021 Hindi film, Tribhanga (2021), we saw a dysfunctional family of three working women and their unconventional life choices. The film talks about working women, predominantly having a colourful public life, which often translated to ‘unconventional’ or ‘bold’ life choices.

Renuka Shahane, who made her directorial debut with Tribhanga, says, “I always felt that if women make unconventional choices in certain areas that are traditionally not considered as jobs of mothers, it challenges the established way of looking at families.” We also see how the onus of keeping families functional or dysfunctional often falls on the women. With Tribhanga, Renuka explores how familial upbringing and consequences of choices are more profound for women, who are forced to be a lot of things they aren’t to ensure someone else can be what they want to be. The filmmaker further opines that there are a lot of unconventional people in conventional families, and says, “I wanted to see this generational passing of perceived dysfunctionality, and I say perceived because I don’t think it is dysfunctional in the truest sense. I find that families that don’t allow people to dream or aspire are more dysfunctional than those who break the conventional mode for fulfilling their dreams.” 

An unconventional take on one of the most conventional relationships in cinema was seen in the Malayalam film Bhootakalam (2022). The Rahul Sadasivan directorial explores the dysfunctional relationship between an adult son and mother, who have mental health issues, and are trapped in a haunted house. Rahul strongly believes that he didn’t want to show the mother as a flawed parent but as an independent individual with issues of her own. “This is why I didn’t emphasise on the father. The son’s character arc and his substance abuse problems could be slotted in either nature or nurture. I wanted to keep that ambiguity because it is wrong to fault the mother for the behavioural issues of their children.”

However, Rahul didn’t shy away from making love an important element of this family. “The mother’s character has built a boundary by keeping her son close to her and away from social situations. But the end is a bit metaphorical, where we wanted to explore the power of love, and how it has the potential to conquer any obstacle.”

Love could indeed be that all-powerful weapon in not just an individual’s arsenal but for families too, but it is very important to understand that nobody and nothing can be perfect. As Halitha succinctly puts it, “We cannot be perfect, but by showing these imperfections, we offer opportunities for the audience to explore the human psyche and be inclusive.” If standing by each other even when the odds are against one of them isn’t what family is all about, then what could it be?

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