The Child is the father of the Man
The writer ruminates on Don and Puzhu to talk about the uncanny resemblance between the two stories of fathers and sons that were released on the same day
In a country, which prides itself on its intrinsic ability to follow the phrase, 'Matha pitha guru dheivam', it is almost impossible to not deify our parents. With deifying comes the superpower of infallibility. What do we tell parents who have spent most of their adult life in the seemingly “wrong” belief that their way of parenting is the only right way? More importantly, do we ever get a chance to tell them? Now, in this modern age and time, we know of labels for a lot of behavioural patterns, but growing up in the pre-millennial era, there was just one line (read excuse) that encompassed what many parents did in the name of discipline… “I did it for your good.”
Fathers in our films are either superheroes who can do no wrong or are “misunderstood” men who can’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. If the former is utopia, the latter is superficial. With the representation of fathers, it is always a tightrope walk for our filmmakers. Where do we slot them? Are they superheroes who can do no wrong? Are they supervillains who only do wrong? Are they misunderstood men who can’t wear their hearts on their sleeves?
Neenga nallavara kettavara?
Puzhu’s Kuttan might be a supervillain in the eyes of his Kichu, but in the former’s opinion, he is a model father. Kuttan is the “sympathetic” dad who never remarried to ensure his focus is only on his child. Kuttan is the “on-hands” dad who is completely aware of what his child is doing in school, home, or otherwise. However, unlike a Puzhu where the gaze is entirely on Kuttan and what he does in his life, Don’s Ganesan is more a peripheral character for most of the film’s runtime. Although Don begins with Chakaravarthy’s (Sivakarthikeyan) voiceover calling his onscreen dad a supervillain, we wait till the final act for his origin story.
While watching Puzhu, a sense of uneasiness reaches our hearts whenever Mammootty’s Kuttan walks into the house with the droll greeting of “Good evening, Kichu”. Similarly, whenever we see Samuthirakani’s Ganesan appear in Don, we know the protagonist is in trouble. There is never a sense of calm when either of these fathers appears on screen. Not all of us might really understand the psyche of either Kichu or Chakaravarthy, but we do get an inexplicable sense of being antsy around the fathers. We recognise the toxicity. It is direct in one case, and a bit subtle in the other… but we know. But do they know that they are toxic?
Honey… I toxified the kids
The thing about toxic parenting is that societies, Indian in specific, have allowed it to evolve into the monster it is now. No one ever stopped to gauge the effects it had on the children. Scarring the children for life is legitimised by the usage of useless idioms like 'Spare the rod, spoil the child' or 'Only the rock that can take pressure turns into a diamond.'
Kichu knows he is being incessantly tormented by the constancy of his casteist father. Every single moment of his life is orchestrated by his father, and the slightest of missteps makes him panicky. Do we see him being clobbered by his father? Nope. But the fear of the strike happening at any time, or being given punishments that affect his psyche is troubling. No wonder, Kichu looks at his father’s picture, placed in a way that it looks down on him even there, and shoots at it using a toy gun. Kichu hates Kuttan. But he has no place to hide or confide because people will simply say, “He is doing it for your good.”
There is no such ambiguity in the relationship between Chakaravarthy and Ganesan. The former hates the latter from the core of his being. Why wouldn’t he? Who will love a father who goes around slapping his son in public? Who will even begin to try understanding a father who only asks his son about his education prospects, and admonishes him every single time the latter falters. Be it repeatedly tonsuring the son’s head for failing in exams, forcing a career down his throat, or being a tyrant at home that makes the son lie about his adolescent love, there is never a moment where Chakaravarthy is truly happy around his father. We have seen such Chakaravarthys in our lives… in fact, we could be one too. Even then, the Ganesans are not pulled up to task because… 'He did it for your good…'
The Bad, The Worse, and The Ugly
In most cases, the parents never really face the consequences of toxic parenting. For instance, Kuttan tries to reason out with Kichu that, unlike the former’s father who used to physically abuse him in the name of discipline, Kichu has it easy. The grandfather’s toxic parenting is taken out on the grandson. While we don’t really see the aftereffects of Ganesan’s toxic parenting, it is clear that Chakaravarthy is scarred for the rest of his life. If there ever was a Sivakarthikeyan character that needed therapy, it clearly is Chakaravarthy.
Kichu won’t be a walk in the park for any therapist either. Imagine realising that the last thing your gaslighting father told you before being murdered was that “People will say bad things about me, but you know right… that your father was a good man who only loved you.” Even before retaliating at the casteist and toxic nature of his father, Kichu is asked to mourn his loss. Now, it would be tough to mourn the loss knowing what he truly was. But, it would be tougher not to do so, because it was a dying man’s last words. Wow! That will be more than just a few intense sessions of therapy.
Similarly, imagine living with the fact that the last words you uttered to your gaslighting and abusive father were “You are a sadist…” only for your mother to come and narrate to you the story of how the father was only abusive in the streets but a lovely human being otherwise. The mother waxes eloquently on how Ganesan put up this facade of being extremely strict so that Chakaravarthy pursues education and becomes a respectable addition to the judgmental society around him. Chakaravarthy is done for life. Despite having a loving mother, supportive friends, and an understanding girlfriend, Chakaravarthy would always be ridden by guilt that he let his father down. I am pretty sure Chakaravarthy wakes up in the middle of the night with flashes of his last words to his father, which are intercut with the frame of his father’s feet. There is no point hiding behind the 'I don’t know how to express love' facade if the reality revolves around the son growing up yearning for love and attention in every other place. No wonder Chakaravarthy becomes such a people pleaser.
Imagine having a father, who used a never-ending cycle of abuse and toxicity to discipline his child. And at the first sign of rebellion, the mother does an information dump on the son to make him feel repentant about standing up for himself. In most cases, such behaviour by one parent is often encouraged by the other in a weird melange of love and hate. At least, in a similar father-son film like Santhosh Subramaniam and Em Magan, the mother knows the son is suffering and there is a scene or two where she lets either the father or son know that the former is wrong. Here, there is no such spotlight on the mother, and she only serves as an instrument of gaslight.
Father of the year... or not
Comparing both Puzhu and Don, it is easier to call one father the villain because the character of Kuttan, even if stacked up with various layers, is essentially painted with broad strokes. Unlike a Ganesan, there is nothing redemptive about his arc. But let’s take a small step back and quickly analyse the intent of both these fathers.
Both Kuttan and Ganesan believe what they are doing is right. However, there is one slight difference. Kuttan is doing what he is doing because he truly believes there is a sense of right to his actions. When Kichu shows the first sign of displeasure, he immediately takes it upon himself to prove to his son that he truly loves him. But it is not at the cost of thinking bad about himself. However, Ganesan does understand the kind of impact his behaviour has on Chakaravarthy. Pretty sure Ganesan cries himself to sleep a la the father from 7G Rainbow Colony. But unlike an ignorant Kuttan, who really doesn’t understand the wrong he is doing, Ganesan knew better. He had it in him to be better. He had it in him to shower his son with the love that he deserved. So… it begs the all-important question… Who was more toxic? Was it Kuttan or Ganesan? Each of us might have a different answer, but our hearts will always go out for the Chakaravarthys and Kichus around us.
While Puzhu ends with Kuttan meeting a form of justice that he had coming, Don has Ganesan deified by everyone around him. In fact, Don ends with this quote that has since been doing the rounds on social media…
“Celebrate your parents when they are with you”
Well, even here, the onus is thrust on the children who not only face toxic parenting but are forced to retaliate in a way that is not of their own doing. Sentiment, empathy, love, and redemption are expected off the children who were at the receiving end of none of these elements.
So… can such adults take actual responsibility, and instead of pushing kids far away from them, actually express what they feel instead of hiding under a facade and… well…
“Love and respect your children when they are with you…”