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Research Into The Traditional Hindu Family




The construction of the family in Hindi film is idealized even as it explores and attempts to resolve the contemporary problems of incorporating social change into older belief systems. In fact, as outlined by Derne, the social roles depicted in film have the vital function of instructing and modeling the negotiation of social change - showing moviegoers how to perform their roles. Derne notes that cinema halls in India are "male-dominated" spaces, and that the audiences tend to identify with male heroes who shape young men's understanding of sexuality and sexual roles. The 'instruction' provided by cinema often directly relates to family gender roles. The idealized family depicted in Hindi film has gender roles that are rigidly prescribed. However, at the same time, insofar as the possibility of change is negotiated, there is some possibility for variation regarding elements of the performance of gender, even while gender identity remains static. In Kabhi Khushi Kahbie Gham, this careful negotiation of change versus homogeneity is explored in the relationship between family members. The mother's role is key to the change that is depicted in the film, and there are alternative resources within Hinduism and the Hindu cinematic tradition which allow for the expanded performance and importance of the mother's role.

The most common configuration of the traditional Hindu family is that of the 'joint family', a form of extended family. Within the family structure, marriage is sacred, and the eldest male holds the highest level of authority as a patriarch. The power differential between family members clearly favors the male. The ideal Hindu family is a collectivist social structure, such that adherence e to common values and the patriarch's authority enhances its coherence, whereas dissent is problematic and threatens the family's integrity. Sinha describes the traditional family ethic and dynamic as follows: "common value agreed upon and followed ... are often esteemed as ideals. Any accent on individual values leads to strain and tends to break the joint structure." Sinha also specifies that the joint family as described above is more frequent among the higher Hindu castes (20), and that an objective of the family seems to be to replicate or expand itself through marriage. Marriage is, in fact, the foundation of the present, past and future of the family, as the respect for one's parents and grandparents is a dominant ethic, the stability and sanctity of the marriage is the foundation for family life, and the eventual marriage of the children is embedded in the values, social connections, and overall functioning of the family. The arrangement of marriage for one's children "...through personal negotiations or family references" is "Invariably... a function of the traditional joint family." Through this mechanism, the sanctity and the ideals of the family are perpetuated rather than ruptured or interrupted when the children of the family grow up. There is a sense of continuity of behavior, values and social structures through the generations. Even though, as the author notes, social change occurred following Independence and will likely continue "... until Indian society assumes total change or modernization" (Sinha, 13), there is also a deep cultural resistance to this change. For example, Malhotra and Tavishi note that, since the 1990s, the cinematic depiction of the Hindu family has been "monolithic", "Hindu, wealthy and patriarchal" (19) - a description that certainly describes the family depicted in Kabhi Khushi Kahbie Gham and which may reflect a conservative resistance to change such as is described by Sinha. Malhotra and Tavishi express concern that the 'new' cinematic family in Indian film significantly narrows the diversity observed in previous generations. The family depicted in Kabhi Khushi Kahbie Gham reflects many of the values discussed in Sinha's sociological account of the Hindu family as well as Mahotra and Tavishi's description of the cinematic ideal family. Moreover, both the sociological account and the fictionalized account of the family perpetuate a traditional, reliable and conservative construction of gender.

The family structure in Kabhi Khushi Kahbie Gham is similar to that described by Sinha, with the high caste joint family in which the oldest male, Yash, is the primary authority figure. The 'common values' of the family are clearly upheld over the values of the individual, as expressed through Yash's sincere hurt when Rahul tells him of his wish to marry Anjali. It is not simply that Yash is opposed to the match; he is actually wounded by it, because he sees it as a repudiation of the familial values that are central to this identity. The collective identity, to all members of the family, is more important than individual feelings or even individual values. The dissonance between R's choices and Yash's values causes pain to both of them because it literally threatens the collective identity of the family, the importance of which transcends the individual.

The construction of gender is an integral part of the values of the traditional Hindi family as depicted in the film. Moreover, it is a durable construction, persisting despite the rupture between Yash and Rahul. Butler, a feminist theorist building upon the ideas of Foucault, Lacan, Kristeva and others, views gender as "the cultural meanings that that sexed body assumes" (13). In other words, although 'sex' is based on biological fact, it is completely distinct from 'gender', a social construction that is created and perpetuated through a series of cultural performances. Sometimes subjects are coerced to perpetuate these performances, which contribute o the creation of cultural meaning. Because these characteristics that we commonly associate with gender are consistent and predictable through a population, the appearance of universalism may be created, but if so, it is fundamentally illusory. Gender exists only as a socially mediated construction. These concepts are based on the work of Michel Foucault, who argued, also, that the construction of gender "...functions to disguise the productive operation of power in relation to sexuality" (Armstrong). Moreover, as Butler argues, because gender identity is "constructed as a relationship among sex, gender, sexual practices and desire", the result of the construction of gender is "compulsory heterosexuality" (24). Gender is constructed as a performance in relation to other individuals within the context of the social structure as a whole. Therefore, given that heterosexual relationships and eventual marriage and procreation are values of that society, gender is constructed within a predictable set of parameters joining and governing the relationships between individuals.

In Kabhi Khushi Kahbie Gham, gender is constructed within romantic and familial relationships. This is particularly pronounced with regard to the women's roles. Nandini is presented to the audience in relationship to those around her. She is first depicted as a loving mother, repeatedly embracing her young son, always in the home or private realm, as the son, more dynamic, is depicted as venturing into the world and then returning to her embrace, sometimes with trophies or objects that he has won. In her relationship to her children, Nandini is uniformly loving, calm and dedicated. In relationship with her husband, Yash, she is subservient, allowing her sentiments and views to become subsumed by his. The performance of these relational roles contributes to the overall picture of a woman who is essentially more loving, more emotional, gentler, and less dominant than the family's patriarch. All of these characteristics are expressed in relationship to and in contrast to the opposite construction of the male.

In the case of Anjali, the construction of gender is more dramatic because it is variable; in fact, one can literally see that stages and the changes in the construction of gender and their relevance to the family, the most important social structure represented in this film. Anjali is transformed through the course of the film. Specifically, she undergoes a transformation to become a romantic figure and to become a member of the family. At the beginning of the film, she is neither of these things; in fact, she is (as Yash asserts) fundamentally unsuited to membership in the idealized family depicted in this film. She has social agency, working in a shop. She is boisterous rather than being subservient and quiet, and is a somewhat comic rather than an idealized romantic figure. She expresses surprise when Rahul pays attention to her, assuming that he is after her shop. Her own identity as a woman within the context of the family and the dominant culture presented in the film is not well established at this point. She lacks the characteristics that Nandini has, for example, and that will make her valuable within the context of the family depicted. In other words, when we first encounter her, Anjali does not specifically 'perform' gender. Therefore, the idea that Rahul is romantically interested in her is initially surprising.

However, in the scene at the fair, during which R declares his love, Anjali is transformed. Subjected to the male gaze and within the context of heterosexual interaction, she suddenly takes on previously unaccustomed characteristics. It is interesting that Rahul, in expressing his romantic interest in Anjali, speaks of different kinds of 'bonds', as this idea has a resonance with the notion of social 'coercion' as outlined by Butler. The 'bonds' that are coming into being between Rahul and Anjali will indeed bind her and coerce her, and as though to illustrate this point, Rahul is physically coercive when he speaks of them. He grasps Anjali's wrist and eventually bends her arm behind her, essentially holding her captive. This is (presumably) accepted as courting behavior and an indication of the strength of Rahul's feelings, even though it clearly puts the normally assertive young woman in the position of a captive. Perhaps it is precisely because Anjali is normally such an assertive and boisterous girl that she needs to be 'tamed' in this manner before she can be seen as a romantic rather than comic figure, according to the conventional construction of gender identity in cinema. The 'taming' is effective, and after it is known that she is loved by Rahul and is constructed as a romantic figure, the elements that make her unsuitable for membership in the idealized family structure gradually diminish. Her appearance is romanticized (her hair is down, whereas previously it was tied back), she becomes visibly more attractive, more emotional, and her voice becomes softer and quieter. She adheres to the standard of beauty which, according to Runkle, have recently become a standard in Indian film which "cross[es] class boundaries" (49). By the time she and Nandini interact over the phone when Anjali and Rahul live in London, the two are virtually interchangeable with regard to their manner, style of dress and presentation of appearance, emotionality, and virtually all other visible or discernable aspects of their respective personas. Through love, which promises her membership in the family, Anjali has been socialized and her female gender identity, previously not fully delineated, has been created. This occurs rather rapidly, and by the time Anjali is presented to the family, Yash's objections to her on the basis of values, background and demeanor are made to appear absurd; Anjali stands quietly beside Rahul, just as her mother-in-law does. She appears eminently suitable for member ship in the family, although the previous incarnation of Anjali, the loud, comic girl with hair tied back, would presumably not have been suitable.

The change in Anjali's gender construction is a necessary aspect of the dynamic explored in the storyline - a narrative which tentatively embraces change if it is ultimately coherent with the strengthening and perpetuating of family values. The main conflict that occurs in the film is between two men, the father and son. The conflict functions on several levels at once. On the one hand, it is a conflict between older social values (which restrict marriage choices based on the family's background and coherence with the social space the family occupies) and between collectivism and the needs of the individual, as outlined by Sinha. On the other hand, the conflict is also between two men, a conflict which, according to the patriarchal values which state that the family is headed by the authority of its oldest male, is an inevitable part of the progression of male gender construction as it intersects with age and development. In fact, as gender construction is ultimately limiting to the perpetuation of its most important social institution, the ideal family, this conflict illustrates the need for change within the familial structure.

According to socially sanctioned gender construction, there is a power differential between the man and the woman. The man is dominant, while the woman is subservient. However, a conflict occurs when Rahul, clearly socialized as a male, comes into direct conflict with Yash. In fact, the conflict that ensues is irresolvable, and culminates in an impasse. The dynamic is initiated through a variation in situational roles. Rahul, a young (but socially mature) male, is highly resourced and enjoys a competent, even dominant position in the outside world. His social and gender-based dominance is demonstrated, for example, by the way he dominates Anjali. Within the family, as long as Rahul maintains the behavior and attitudes sanctioned by his father, his demeanor and fundamental identity do not change. However, once Rahul comes into conflict with his father over his relationship with Anjali, he seems to lose the position afforded to him by his gender identity. In the scene in which Rahul first expresses to Yash his wish to marry Anjali, the differential in power between them suddenly becomes very apparent. The scene is filmed in such a way that Yash towers over his son, and Rahul seems small and humble, eventually kneeling at his father's feet, quiet and overcome by emotion. Much of his socially constructed gender identity is stripped away, simply because there may not be room for two fully actualized males, both espousing different viewpoints, to co-exist in the same social unit. The full expression of gender identity by one of these males precludes a similar expression in the other, leading to an untenable level of tension and conflict. This is, perhaps, the central flaw in a social structure which relies on this specific construction of gender.

The tension created by the conflicting desires of Yash and Rahul is resolved, temporarily, in the only way it can be, given the importance of gender construction. Both males can retain the position conferred by their gender-produced dominant identity if they separate and establish alternate domains. This is what, in fact, occurs. It is interesting to note that during the subsequent scene, Rahul approaches Yash quite boldly, and the scene is filmed so that no size differential is apparent. Ironically, in being stripped of any power that would have come from his family's privilege, Rahul seems to discover a kind of power that comes from autonomy and social agency. He establishes his own household- essentially his own family - in London, and he is the undisputed head of this family. Anjali continues to play the socially prescribed gender role, and the relationship between her a Rahul - loving and close, and with strictly delineated gender roles - echoes the relationship between Yash and Nandini. This state of affairs is stable and acceptable in terms of socially constructed gender and familial roles. The sanctity of the joint family has undergone a rupture, but within each nuclear family, gender roles remain stable. This stable but fragmented condition, a result of the intrinsic weakness of social construction, would presumably have remained static were it not for the intervention of another category of gender and family values. Sinha notes the existence of two types of families within Hindi culture, the patrilineal and the matrilineal family, noting, however, that the two are quite similar in construction and functioning. Nevertheless, the importance of the female role is presented here as an alternative to the dominance of the male and a vehicle through which change can come about. This does not, for the most part, involve a transformation of the female role as it relates to that of the male, but merely an increased importance placed upon it. Specifically, it is the feminine expression of love and connection - a connection that transcends the specific importance of blood, a dominant concern in the patriarchal society originally depicted - which brings about a rejoining of the two parts of the ruptured family.

Familial love within a feminine social/personal construction is a dominant feature in this film. In fact, it is a value that the film actively and explicitly promotes. Moreover, this is a value that is bolstered by resources from within the Hindu tradition. As mentioned before, the film opens with repeated scenes in which Nandini embraces her young son. The construction of these scenes reinforces rather than belies gender identity, for all the reasons described earlier: Nandini is pictured in the home sphere, while her son comes and goes. She is gentle, loving, quiet and archetypically feminine. However, it later becomes apparent that these early scenes had an importance which was not evident as they were being played out, because it is the strength of the mother's love which eventually brings the family together, and even causes Nandini to step outside of her subservient feminine role in order to stand up to her husband. Despite this assertiveness, Nandini is not ultimately liberated from her gender role. Rather, the importance of the love it entails is brought to the forefront.

Another emissary who plays a vital role in re-joining the two quarrelling males is Rahul's younger brother, Rohan. The prototype for this dynamic is mythological; as Dwyer points out, the story of two sons who have been separated and ultimately are reunited is based on the traditional story of Karan and Arjun from Mahabharata. However, in terms of gender construction, it is a singular variation of the dominant prototype. Specifically, Rohan is not presented as aggressively male. He displays an emotional vulnerability that is far more reminiscent of the feminine construction. In several shots, this is extremely apparent; his eyes fill with tears in talking about the importance of the extended family, and, facing the camera, he takes on a decidedly feminine, 'pretty' appearance. It is also significant that his machinations for family reunion occur furtively rather than openly. He does not assert his values or his dominance, as Rahul and Yash do. Rather, he is subservient, and works patiently behind the scenes to bring about reconciliation.

The construction of gender, in film as in society, is often expressed as an opposition of two countervailing personas, the masculine and the feminine. In the family structure, it is generally accepted that only one of these can predominate. However, this dualistic model is intrinsically flawed. The construction of the male persona, its dominance being an integral part of the Hindi family structure, can lead to a resistance to change and makes the patriarchal family inflexible, ultimately threatening the integrity of the multi-generational family unit. Kabhi Khushi Kahbie Gham offers a blueprint for transcending and avoiding the rupture potentially caused by a rigid patriarchal social and gender construction. This transcendence comes from within, and consists of an increased focus and dependence on the specifically feminine values that are sometimes overlooked in the examination of the all-important construction of the male. These values, also, are well integrated in Hindi film and culture. One is reminded of Butler's summation of Julia Kristeva's work on semiotics, uncovering the specifically 'female' meaning through components of (supposedly male constructed) language. Butler states: "poetic language is the recovery of the maternal body within the terms of language, one that has the potential to disrupt, subvert and displace the paternal law" (Butler, 102). According to this concept, the presence of song (and therefore poetry), which Jha regards as having been "subversively rewritten as a domestic sphere" (51), in Hindi film can be viewed as a powerful marker of the presence of feminine, maternal values within the patriarch structure.

Sources:

Armstrong, Aurelia. "Power, the Body and Sexuality" In "Foucault and Feminism". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Derne, Steve.."Constructing Sexuality and Male Dominance". In Movies, Masculinity, and Modernity:An Ethnography of Men's Filmgoing in India. Praeger Publishing.

Dwyer, Rachel. Filming the Gods: Religion and Indian Cinema. New York: Routledge.

Jha, Priya. "Lyrical Nationalism: Gender, Friendship and Excess in 1970s Hindi Cinema". The Velvet Light Trap Vol. 51.

Kabhi Khushi Kahbie Gham Malhotra, Sheena and Tavishi, Alagh. "Dreaming the Nation: Domestic dramas in Hindi films post-1990". South Asian Popular Culture, Volume 2.

Runkle, Susan. "Bollywood Beauty and the Corporate Construction of 'International Standards' in Post-Liberation Bombay". SAGAR South Asian Graduate Research Journal Vol 11.

Sinha, Raghuvir.. Dynamics of Change in the Modern Hindu Family. New Dehli: Concept Publishing Company.