Parents: Stepladder or Living Roots?

Earlier this week I chanced upon the Bollywood 2003 movie Baghban showing on TV, when it was nearing its end.

Several friends and relatives (ladies in particular) who had seen the film had told me about it, recommending that I see it too. I am not one to sit through a film non-stop when in front of a TV – compared to being in a movie hall when there is no choice – so it took me a few of occasions in as many years to view the complete picture, and I retained the more appealing aspects, especially the spoken words.

This time round the address by Amitabh Bachchan during the launching of his book (in the movie) by the same name, that is Baghban in which he narrates his life experiences that resonate with the audience, caught my attention because of the masterly delivery by this wonderful actor and the powerful messages it conveyed. And I thought the gist is worth sharing.

Baghban means gardener, who tends to and protects a garden; by extension it therefore means the head of a family who raises, through great sacrifices, his children and protects them not only as they are growing up in their tender and vulnerable years, but also – and even – later in their lives. For the parents, children ever remain so whatever their age: unfortunately, in these times, the reverse is not necessarily true in an alarmingly increasing percentage of cases – children do not reciprocate with the protection that their parents selflessly provided to them. And it can get worse, for various reasons: property matters, sheer indifference, lack of love and respect which leads to neglect, and so on.

The cases of unclaimed bodies having to be disposed of by homes for the elderly or in hospitals that have recently come to the surface rang a bell. It affects all communities, everywhere in the world, as a recent article that I read about an abandoned cemetery in Brooklyn, New York detailed. I recall one case a few years ago where a lady tourist from Eastern Europe died in Mauritius. Contacted, her children said that they had long since been alienated with their mother and had no interest in getting her body back, leaving it to the Mauritian authorities to dispose of it as they pleased. Fortunately we have an established, decent procedure to do so based on our public health legislation, and this was accordingly followed.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Bollywood decided to make Baghban, for the issue of looking after the elderly in India has become an acute one. As in many other countries of course, and it was no surprise when I learnt that Baghban was based – like several movies made in India – on Make Way for Tomorrow, which was produced in Hollywood and released as long back as 1937. The latter has been described as ‘one of the great unsung Hollywood masterpieces, an enormously moving Depression-era depiction of the frustrations of family, aging, and the generation gap… Make Way for Tomorrow is among American cinema’s purest tearjerkers, it would make a stone cry…’

I understand from my informers that many of them too could not stop their eyes from overflowing when they were watching Baghban. The character roles of the elderly parents, Raj and Pooja Malhotra, are admirably and touchingly played by veteran actors Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini. Facing the loss of their corporate-allocated house when Raj retires, he and Pooja end up having to live separately in the houses of two of their four sons who won’t take both parents in simultaneously, reluctantly accepting this 6-monthly exchange arrangement of accommodating alternately mother and father. They both suffer painful humiliations at the hands of their sons and daughters-in-laws.

Among other things the mother is treated as an old hag who has no understanding of the younger generation and is told in as many words by her daughter-in-law that she should not interfere in the parents’ handling of their children, especially the libertarian teenage daughter. Late one night, however, when she is facing violence from the boyfriend who comes to drop her, it is the nani who ably comes to her rescue, and sends the young man, stunned by the stern nani’s firm slap, taking to his heels.

On the other hand, when the father’s spectacles fall and get damaged his son refuses to get him a new pair. He bluntly tells him that he’ll have to wait till the next month at least as he has other more important commitments, which is a lie because he clearly has more than enough means. And the father is practically blind without his glasses, and can’t even read the letter his wife sends him despite much straining of the eyes in trying to do so.

In his monologue to the audience which includes all his four sons and their families, and also his adopted son with his wife who both adore him as no less than God, Raj alludes to this incident. What right, he asks, do children think they have, to deprive the one who led them on their first faltering steps the benefit of eyesight? Are parents, he further questions, but the rungs of a stepladder which children think they can climb, and then dump like junk in the kabarkhana, the junkyard, along with other stuff like chairs and things that have become old and useless?

No, he says, parents are the living roots which bring life to the branches and leaves: the family, without which they will wither and waste away. And thank you very much, he concludes, I can jolly well look after myself because I have the one support who has seen me through it all, my wife. Turning towards her, seated, he utters: Pooja mein tumse behat mohabbat karta hun – and their eyes water simultaneously.

As Kishore kumar sang:

Zindagi ka safar hai ye kaisa safar

Koi samjha nahin koi jaana nahin…

* Published in print edition on 25 April 2014

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