We Need to Talk About Our Toxic Fathers

Social Commentary

We Need to Talk About Our Toxic Fathers

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

J“aa Simran, jee le apni zindagi.”

Ask any Hindi film aficionado and they’ll tell you how this line theatrically uttered by Baldev Singh Chowdhury — one of the greatest patriarchs Bollywood has ever known  — became the clarion call of a generation.

Over the years, this line has coalesced into every Indian daughter’s cry for independence and their cue to a happily-ever-after. It even assumed a greater meaning in our cultural lexicon by becoming the ultimate marker of parental validation.

In fact, in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, this dialogue predicted two things: One, the joyful reunion of Raj and Simran, and two, the erasure of Baldev’s toxic parenting.

In the film, Baldev is a typical, uptight Indian father. He loves his daughter Simran but barely knows her. He relies on the classic “intimidation and silence” tactic of parenting and vehemently believes that fatherhood magically gifts him the authority to dictate his wishes on Simran. He equates his daughter asserting independence over her own life as rebellion and most importantly, a threat (so he gets goons to beat her lover to a pulp). Yet, like every Indian daughter, Simran is taught to love this patriarch because it’s her own baoji.

In the film’s climax, when he has a change of heart and “allows” his daughter to marry the man she loves, all his previous transgressions are comfortably forgotten. In real life, however, helpless Simrans and their irate fathers are hardly afforded a relationship makeover as grand and comfortable as DDLJ. Unlike movies, which gloss over the regressive mindsets of desi dads, the cruelty of real life doesn’t afford the luxury of skimming through. It’s something us daughters have to wrestle with every second of the day. As a result, a father-daughter relationship is often fraught, simmering with unending tension.

Why are we so enveloped by the fear of hurting our fathers when they cultivate a hobby of hurting us?

Take me for instance. My 21-year-old feminist brain cringes at some of my father’s antics, but turns a blind eye to them all the same. The problem isn’t that we don’t recognise their problematic mindsets, chide them, or distance ourselves from them. But that we return to them, despite it all, willingly letting them off the hook.

A few years ago, when Gillette was yet to wreck our sense of security with ridiculously priced blades, I remember Baba’s discomfort when he came face-to-face with my shorts-clad unshaved legs. According to him, “the forest” growing all over my legs was “unladylike” (Except, I still don’t know what makes a lady).

Flummoxed, I took his jibe to heart and waxed my legs (not before I wondered if Baba had ever looked at the mirror himself). As my sensitive skin developed rashes, I was reminded of Vivah, where Krishnakant regularly ignores his daughter Rajni because of her dark complexion. Like Rajni, I had not questioned the Krishnakant in my life. Like Rajni, I hankered for the attention of a man to whom affection came with conditions. And, like Rajni, I was made to believe that fathers could be patriarchs, but they were not the kind we should be revolting against.

If a friend or a lover had behaved with me the way my father sometimes does, I would have promptly hit back. But with Baba, I find an apology painlessly crawling up my throat. I justify this misplaced silence by telling myself that I’m only doing it to prevent a conflict. But the truth is, I am afraid to confront his transgressions and articulate my hurt. But, more importantly, I’m unwilling to accept the reality of my complaints inevitably being dismissed. I’d rather take the easy way out and bury the memory of his problematic behaviour. Once, twice, a million times, growing smaller and smaller outside, but angrier within.

In real life, however, helpless Simrans and their irate fathers are hardly afforded a relationship makeover as grand and comfortable as DDLJ.

It doesn’t help that our movies are splattered with the worst iterations of toxic fathers whose actions are inexplicably justified. On one hand, there’s Amitabh Bachchan’s Raj Narayan in Mohabbatein, who remains so trapped by his ego that it leads to his daughter killing herself. And on the other, there’s Anil Kapoor’s Kamal Mehra in Dil Dhadakne Do, who refuses to look at his daughter as anything other than a married woman.

It scares me how sometimes Baba ends up channelling a few of their traits. Like them, my Baba is a disciplinarian at heart. He openly dislikes things being out of their place and secretly hates being threatened by “new-age” ideas like feminism. He might not dictate the clothes I wear, but will expect me to make tea when there are guests in the house. He’s not alone; I have often noticed many fathers having similar expectations from their daughters. They shield their stubbornness under a cloak of “This will not be allowed under my roof”. What makes it their roof, despite two (or more) other people co-existing with them is a mystery I am yet to solve.

It also makes me wonder whether Indian fathers are even capable of having a normal relationship with their daughters which doesn’t hinge on toxicity. It doesn’t help that they metamorphose into the ideal parent, friend, and agony aunt when it comes to their sons, even while putting their daughters in the sidelines. But, what is it that stops them from treating us as equals? Like Baldev, Baba too loves me, but is yet to know me. For daughters, the bond with our fathers, in most cases, is restricted to cold formality. Loving a father who checks every behaviour that you’d otherwise detest and distance from is like willingly taking a dagger to your heart. No one wins, yet you lose the hardest.

But if you ask Bollywood, this behaviour is nothing but a healthy dose of “Akhir baap toh baap hota hai”. There you have it, the stamp of eternal bail our fathers wear on their forehead. If Bollywood is to believed, we should risk clinical depression, forego our dreams, and perhaps even kill ourselves, instead of having a heart-to-heart with our fathers.

It makes me wonder, why are we so enveloped by the fear of hurting our fathers when they cultivate a hobby of hurting us?

If there’s one thing I’ve realised, it’s that with our fathers, the grand declarations hardly mean shit. There’s no point waiting for our own “Jaa Simran, jee le apni zindagi moment”. As daughters, we should only be impressed when they stop getting away with merely parenting us, instead of being our father.