Ranbir Kapoor recently confessed his exhaustion with the perennially lost man-child character he has played in several films, including the July 14 release Jagga Jasoos. But he appears to be at his melancholic best in Phir Wahi, one of the many songs from Anurag Basu’s musical. The shimmering layer of angst in Amitabh Bhattacharya’s lyrics is compounded by Kapoor’s expressions as he is swamped by the memory of his missing father.

Jagga Jasoos is the latest in a long line of characters whose story arcs are influenced by their fathers. It is hardly rare for men in Hindi films to be plagued by serious daddy issues, even when the father is nowhere in the picture. Although Vijay has no paternal figure to influence him in Deewar (1975), he is galvanised by a permanent tattoo proclaiming his father to be a thief. In Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), stockbroker Arjun’s life decisions are influenced by the death of his debt-ridden father.

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Phir Wahi, Jagga Jasoos (2017).

Psychoanalyst James Herzog coined the term ‘father hunger’ to describe the persistent longing for a paternal figure experienced by sons with absent fathers. Screen fathers are casualties of ‘son hunger’ too. Their longing is made even more pathetically desperate with allusions to mythological characters. In Hum Saath Saath Hai (1999), when the eldest son decides to leave the family home to respect his stepmother’s desire, the pining father is compared to King Dashrath of Ramanyana, who was forced to exile his saintly son.

On the other hand, when fathers go missing, sons seek them out inside themselves, conjuring them up out of thin air like Jagga in Phir Wahi. The internalised father in these men often makes his way on screen in several forms. In Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013), a distraught Kabir finds comfort in the memory of his father. When Akash loses his father in Armaan (2003), he sees him pop up and offer a magnificently unhelpful summary of his moral dilemma. A less overt manifestation of Akash’s internalised father is his behavior towards his wife Sonia, whom he treats with detached, paternal affection.

In Titli (2014), a conspicuously quiet father is present, but largely ineffectual. While the eldest of his three sons assumes the mantle of patriarch, the youngest son Titli seethes in silent rebellion. After he finds a way to escape the violent overreach of his elder brothers, Titli also rejects the claim of authority that his father attempts to stake on him, preferring the absence of a paternal figure over the presence of an abusive or dysfunctional one.

When fathers are both physically and emotionally present, they catalyse a journey of self-discovery within their sons, particularly helping them understand the potential of their bodies. Most songs about father-son bonding, such as the sweetly endearing title track from Akele Hum Akele Tum (1995), the dreadfully dry Phool Yeh Kahan Se from Kaash (1987), and the emotionally dense Tumse Naraaz Nahi Zindagi from Masoom (1983), portray fathers and sons engaged in robustly physical outdoor activities like camping, sailing and hiking.

Fathers are generally regarded as the parent who finally enables the entry of the child into the larger world, and they are particularly instrumental in shaping their sons’ worldviews. It is unsurprising, therefore, that when sons are doubtful about their paternity, they face immense personal crises. Consider Imran in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, who hopes to find his biological father in the hope that he may discover himself.

While screen mothers mostly cosset and coddle, fathers show sons how to be masculine and navigate through life. But they develop their own definitions of masculinity as they grow up, leading to tremendous conflict with their fathers. Characters like Krish in 2 States (2014) clash with their fathers more strongly when they see their mothers bearing the weight of their fathers’ antiquated ideas of masculinity.

The conflict between the divergent ideas of adulthood and masculinity among fathers and sons resolves itself in several different ways. In Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Shakti (1982), fathers understand their sons’ dilemma, but cannot relax their principles. In more recent films, including Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) and Tamasha (2015), authoritative fathers learn to bend their ideas of masculinity and responsibility, but only after their sons prove their mettle. On the other hand, in Virasat (1997) and Waqt (2005), young sons embrace their fathers’ ideas of responsibility and dedication.

Mughal-e-Azam (1960). Image credit: Upperstall.com.
Mughal-e-Azam (1960). Image credit: Upperstall.com.

When the differences are irreconcilable, one of the two is summarily removed from the picture. In Parineeta (2005), the father’s opinion is publicly invalidated in a famously ridiculous climax sequence. In Rang De Basanti (2006), Karan mortally harms his corrupt father, while the long-suffering father disowns his biological sons in Baghban (2003). In Udaan (2010), Rohan’s abusive father is disdainful of his son’s sensitivity, and hopes to whip him into shape by taking him on daily runs. Eventually, Rohan shakes off his father’s emotional grasp over him, learns to care for his young stepbrother, and literally and metaphorically outpaces his hyper-masculine father.

The gradual transformation in the characterisation of a father-figure in Hindi films is particularly instructive. In a newly decolonised India, the struggle between fathers and sons was largely moral and ethical, reflective of a country on the cusp of a massive cultural change. While the son was liberal, the father clung on to his ideas of culture and tradition. Consider Bawarchi (1972), in which the crusty patriarch asks his young son to translate “Good morning daddy” into “Namaste pitaji” in the song Bhor Aayi.

The post-modern father, however, is equipped with a measure of cool himself. This rebooted dad comes in varying degrees of absurdity and caricaturishness. Consider the permanently-on-a-sugar-rush Pops in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995), the believably freewheeling Vidyadhar in Viruddh (2005) and the impossibly libidinous Sexy Sam in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006). The modern father’s coolness is actually ratified in Chaahat (1996) with the blissfully inane song Daddy Cool.

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Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006).

While fathers lay down the law, mothers and sisters serve as shock absorbers in the eternal father-son conflict. Unlike mothers, fathers do not often perform great, heroic acts of sacrifice. They do not freely rhapsodise about their sons in lilting melodies. Instead, they are portrayed as silent warriors, who sacrifice a great deal on an everyday basis and silently love their sons. Ek Phool Do Mali (1969) offers an interesting exception on both counts. Not only does Kailash sacrifice his life for his adoptive son, he also sings Mera Naam Karega Roshan in anticipation of the man he will turn out to be.

Aa Chal Ke Tujhe from Door Gagan Ki Chaaon Mein (1964) offers an evocative summary of paternal aspirations with its idealistic and unabashedly loving lyrics. When an army officer is cajoled by his mute son into singing, he croons about his hopeful yearning to ensconce his traumatised son in a utopic world. With the lines “koi bair na ho, koi gair naa ho, sab mil ke yun chalte chale” the song reflects the battle-weary father’s uncomplicated need for a harmonious relationship with his son and with the world around them.

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Aa Chal Ke Tujhe, Door Gagan Ki Chaaon Mein (1964).