Throughout the history of Bollywood, films have portrayed fathers as larger than life figures, either overbearing and scary, controlling their children’s lives, or extremely god-fearing and sanskaari. Both had the same tone that runs through our society — there are traditional rules and roles, and children must obey and follow on those paths.
Even the few “cool” dads on-screen were anomalies, more for humour than for effect. Blockbusters like Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge stamped the “obey or face my wrath” fathers, while Hum Saath Saath Hain and Vivah catered to the stereotype of the god-fearing, conservative patriarch who would go to any lengths to preserve his izzat.
The narrative is clear — obey, fear, follow, and don’t question your father.
Of course, there are always exceptions. And especially in recent times, there is a shift in how men are being portrayed on screen. We are seeing fathers in Bollywood, who are progressive and walking hand-in-hand with their daughters, smashing the patriarchy and dismissing age-old mindsets.
Here are a few feminist dads of Bollywood, who are ushering in change and can serve as role-models to fathers all over India.
The father who does not associate gender with ambition
In Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, Gunjan’s father (played by Pankaj Tripathi) tells her “plane ladka udaye ya lakdi, dono ko pilot hi bolte hain” reminding her that there’s no dream she can’t pursue because she is a girl. In Anup Saxena (played flawlessly by Pankaj Tripathi), we find an ever-supporting father who acknowledges the difficulties that girls have to face while pursuing their dreams, but at the same time tells his daughter that “shutting yourself in a cage is not the solution, in fact she should fly higher to achieve what she wants.”
Gunjan’s father believes in her and is a rock solid support in times of failure, self doubt and confusion. We see him teaching his daughter the true meaning of being patriotic, he helps her in achieving her fitness goals to crack the entrance exam for the IAF, and in a defining scene of the film when Gunjan wants to give up everything and “settle down”, Anup reminds his daughter the importance of not conforming to the rules that the society has laid down for girls.
Also read: The review of Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl
Champak Ghasiteram (played by the late Irrfan Khan) in Angrezi Medium has never stepped out of the conservative alleys of Udaipur. He has been brought up in a family where women have to hide their faces behind veils. He has a hard time wooing foreigner customers to buy sweetmeats from his sweet shop due to his broken English.
But all this does not stop Champak from celebrating the birth of his daughter Tarika (played by Radhika Madan), while everyone else in his family are crestfallen. He is a doting single parent even after his wife passes away, without any patriarchal trappings.
But most importantly, Champak aces the ultimate test of being a feminist dad by doing everything in his power to fulfil his daughter’s dream of studying in London. He has no qualms about standing in the middle of the street to apologise to Tarika’s school principal for having exposed the latter’s corrupt husband so that her scholarship is not retracted. All he wants to do is ensure she gets admitted to her dream college, follow her passion, and build the life she wants — gender no bar.
The father who believed that ‘just a slap’ is enough
In India, domestic abuse is something to be swept under the rug. It is a “family matter” that has no business in being discussed openly. If a husband is abusing his wife, rules of marriage dictate that he is right, and she has failed them. In fact, the other prevalent idea is that it has to be extreme to even qualify as abuse — in short, you have to beaten within an inch of your life to be taken seriously. As a result, women facing abuse in a relationship or a marriage often have a hard time walking out or even talking about it. The culture dictates that the sanctity of marriage is above everything else.
Art imitates life, and so it is hardly surprising that Bollywood has mirrored the same sentiment. However, Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad (2020) gave us a rare glimpse of a father acknowledging that a man slapping his wife — even if it was a one-off incident — is enough for a woman to walk out.
When Amrita (played by Taapsee Pannu) is forced to question her marriage when he slaps her in front of their family and friends, several scenarios play out. The mother and the mother-in-law are quick to tell her to compose herself, and see that these things can happen in a marriage. After all, they say, it’s just a slap.
It is only her father (played by Kumud Mishra) who does not belittle the seriousness of the issue. When his son-in-law attempts to placate Amrita by pointing that most Indian women go through worse in their marriages, the father does not mince his words and reminds him of the absurdness of this justification. He stands by his daughter even when she discovers she is pregnant and tells her to follow her heart.
If that wasn’t enough for him to be lauded as a father to aspire to be, he also reprimands his son when he misbehaves with his girlfriend, asking him to seek her forgiveness.
Also read: The review of Taapsee Pannu’s Thappad
The father who shares cigarettes with his daughter
Narottam Mishra (played by Pankaj Tripathi) in Bareilly Ki Barfi is very well-aware that his daughter Bitti smokes cigarettes. One fine morning, when he realises that he is out of cigarettes, he nonchalantly asks his wife to check if Bitti (played by Kriti Sanon) has any, announcing sans any judgement, “Wo Peeti Hai!” (she smokes).
While Bitti’s mother (played by Seema Pahwa) has a hard time accepting her daughter’s rebellious streak, her father is unencumbered by her idiosyncrasies. He patiently listens to his daughter cribbing about the weight of gender expectations, he is proud of her career, and does not feel the societal pressure of her inability to find a suitor.
Narottam Mishra’s character showed us that a small-town confectioner can unconditionally support a dangerously rebellious daughter. Despite Bitti’s mother thinking that her daughter’s ‘boyish’ traits need to change and her independence be curtailed to increase her chances of finding a suitor, Narottam voices no such opinions. He lets his daughter wait for her dream man – a man who would treat her as an equal.
The father who helped his daughters ‘wrestle’ patriarchy
Mahavir Singh Phogat (played by Aamir Khan) in Dangal is a wrestler whose dreams of making it to the Olympics are crushed when he caves into the societal pressure of getting married and having a stable job. When his wife conceives, he prays and hopes desperately for a son who can fulfil his lost wrestling dreams.
Unfortunately for him, the couple keeps having one daughter after the other, and his hopes and dreams appear to be crushed. But when Mahavir’s daughters Geeta and Babita beat up two boys, the germ of an idea erupts. He realises that his daughters have the potential to wrestle at the Olympics with the right training.
Hence begins the war. Mahavir starts to train them, displaying an undeterred resolve despite the villagers poking fun at his attempts at training women to wrestle, which patriarchy deems a male sport.
Although one can argue that the film perpetuated some problematic notions, it is important to see that while the girls lacked agency with respect to what they wanted to do in their lives, one cannot deny that Mahavir’s faith in his daughters’ abilities is rare.
The father who tells his daughter marrying is stupid
Piku’s protagonist may be Deepika Padukone but it is 70-year-old Bhaskor Banerjee (played by Amitabh Bachchan) who wins us over. With no inhibitions, Bhaskor’s honest and no-nonsense relationship with his daughter left us in awe and in splits. From describing his bowel movement to telling a potential suitor that she isn’t subservient enough to be the ideal wife and not a virgin, Bhaskor is the ultimate cool dad.
He also stresses upon the importance of women being independent and rejecting the theory of marriage being their ultimate goal or success. Bhaskor even respects his daughter’s decisions to indulge in casual sex and says she doesn’t need a serious relationship.
Most importantly, he never appears to be shocked or insulted even when she loses her cool and yells back at him. Their banter is truly of equals.
Then, there are fathers who don’t really start as feminist but evolve their thinking gradually. Take Anupam Kher in Kya Kehna (2000) for example. Initially shocked and dismayed at his unmarried and pregnant daughter (played by Priety Zinta), he even goes to the house of the father of the baby (played by Saif Ali Khan) to beg him to marry his daughter and save her from disgrace. However, he soon realises that his daughter is strong enough to raise the child by herself, and not only embraces her and her unborn baby with open arms, but is also a big support throughout the pregnancy.
Anil Kapoor in Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) is shown as a shallow, egomaniac father and husband. He not only keeps his daughter out of the family business despite her proving that she has what it takes to run an empire, but also doesn’t understand why she would want divorce the guy he chose for her. He even proclaims that no one in his family would ever go through a divorce. But over the course of the movie, he truly begins to understand their point of view, and accepts his daughter’s decision, becoming a changed man by the end.
After all, isn’t that what most of us are hoping for? If you have a feminist dad, not only are you lucky but you are also a minority. When Bollywood can change, can our fathers stay far behind?
(Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta)