Last January, an incident took place on the campus of a prestigious U.S. college, the ripples of which are being felt on social media even today. Brock Turner, a then 19-year-old Stanford student, was caught sexually assaulting an unconscious woman and turned over to the police. The outcome of the trial, which concluded last fortnight with Turner being given a sentence of a mere six months, sent waves of outrage through America. But that wasn’t the end — Turner’s parents then wrote separate letters to the judge, waxing lyrical about what a fine boy their son was and how even this minor sentence would unfairly destroy his life. There was scarcely a word of apology to the victim; not a thought for how her life had been impacted.
Yes, this column is still about cinema, and I’ll come to the connection between the Turner case and Bollywood in a minute. The eloquent epistles written by the parents fiercely defending their rapist son brought to mind the Indian context where this kind of mindset, particularly among the uber-privileged, is disturbingly familiar. In India, family over principles is considered a virtue (Khushwant Singh puts the phenomenon succinctly in a paragraph in his Train To Pakistan ); and offspring, especially sons, are often spoiled rotten and their every sin condoned. Admittedly, it’s a tough call, but we’ve seen public examples of persons who’ve transgressed the law being brazenly shielded by family rather than given support in the appropriate way — by helping them face the consequences of their wrongdoing.
Art imitates life, and Hindi cinema, particularly older cinema, has largely gone along with society’s flow. However, interestingly, in this one context — family versus principles — films have often exhibited a high-mindedness that’s rarely found in real life. And the movie that stands out most on this count is Mehboob Khan’s 1957 classic, Mother India .
Mother India , which was a sort of allegory for the newly liberated nation, has as its protagonist a rural woman who single-handedly brings up her two sons in the face of great hardship and oppression. Despite her efforts, her younger, favourite, son goes astray and becomes a dacoit to take revenge on the powerful people who had ill-treated her. In the searing climax, he is about to make off with the local money-lender’s daughter kidnapped from her wedding when his mother blocks his path and threatens to shoot if he does not release the girl. Unheeding of her warnings, he gallops on. The mother then unflinchingly puts principles above personal compulsions and with a heavy heart shoots him.
Six years before Mother India , another film also embraced the justice-above-relationships principle albeit with more plausibility and in the more pedestrian setting of a courtroom. Raj Kapoor’s Awara has a lawyer who defends her lover charged with murder in the court of her foster-father judge who hates his guts. Admittedly, Awara wasn’t as clear-cut in its neutrality as Mother India — the young lawyer is as attached to her lover as her guardian — but its core ethic was the same.
Hindi cinema being prone to ‘inspiration’ and tributes, a fusion of the philosophy of Mother India and the courtroom-drama-climax format of Awara found its way into several later movies where the protagonists sacrificed family ties at the altar of justice or the larger social good. In B.R. Chopra’s Kanoon (1960), a young lawyer takes on his mentor and to-be father-in-law whom he believes is a murderer; in Pehchaan (2005), a female lawyer argues against her advocate father-in-law in court to get justice for her murdered college friend; and in Damini (1993), a woman testifies against her brother-in-law who’s sexually assaulted the domestic help. But the most direct tribute to Mother India has to be from screenwriters Salim-Javed in Deewar (1975), a film whose theme runs parallel to that of Mehboob Khan’s epic.
Deewar , like Mother India , has two brothers, one upright and the other wayward. While the theme of siblings on opposite sides of the law was a reprisal of another celebrated film, Ganga Jamuna (1961), the mother was clearly Mother India, conscientious and unafraid to do the right thing despite loving her son dearly. Nirupa Roy’s character does not shoot her outlaw son but it is she who hands the gun to his tormented and conflicted police officer brother when he asks for her blessings before leaving to nab his sibling. Looking him in the eye, she enunciates: “ Bhagwan kare goli chalaate waqt tere haath na kaanpe .” Roy’s character in this situation is also a female version of Krishna philosophising to Arjun in the Bhagavad Gita — a tome from where all such movie characters could have sprung, consciously or otherwise.
Besides Deewar , Salim-Javed wrote another film that explored a grey and chilling variation of the principles-over-personal relations theme. Here, the character almost sacrificed in the name of incorruptibility is an innocent child whose righteous police officer father refuses to trade his life for the freedom of the criminal he is pursuing. The strain this puts on their relations and the son’s subsequent loyalty to a lawbreaker who saved his life form the subject of the film. Shakti (1982) took the dilemma faced by people on the fine line between principle and familial love, and the personal consequences of their actions, to another level altogether.
A few months ago, I saw the crime thriller Drishyam (2015) whose protagonist embarks on an elaborate cover-up of a murder accidentally committed by his daughter in self-defence. At the end of the film, he tells the police officer whose son has been killed: “I can go to any extent for my family — when it comes to them, there’s nothing like right and wrong for me.” Though there’s a world of difference between the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ of Drishyam and Mother India , the very pointed dialogue struck me as a conscious negation of the latter’s ethic. Perhaps films are getting closer to real life in this aspect, replacing idealism with a pragmatism worthy of this age.