15 Indian Movies that Centre Around a Dysfunctional Family: “Family is a life jacket in the stormy sea of life.” – J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Is it, though? I think all of us reading this list know better than to look at our families through the rose-tinted glasses of unfailing love and appreciation. Let us accept it – no family is perfect; no household is the cradle of joy, and parents are not god-like. Thankfully, literature and films across the globe have come up with some of the most honest representations of dysfunctional families, typically a family in which the parent’s emotional needs take precedence over children who are then brought up under the guise of neglect, abuse, and/or denial.
In the last two decades, Indian films have also finally moved on from the Sooraj Barjatya kind of representation of families – a huge house populated with cajoling members of a joint family, ideally based on the values of upper-class upper-caste ‘sanskar’. More and more Indian films today have started portraying the family as a deeply flawed chasm from which they can’t seem to find a way out. No matter the level of dysfunctionality, every individual member is still held together by the idea of this unit – family – finding comfort in its reclusive exclusivity from the outside world.
In fact, Shakun Batra’s latest, Gehraiyan (2022), which promised to be a poetic exploration of infidelity, ultimately brings us round to the deep-seated trauma that the dysfunctionality of the family infuses into generations, interweaving their identities with the former through it. There has been a considerable number of Indian films in the past decade that successfully opened up the conversation about dysfunctionality in families among the commercial filmgoing audience.
Here’s a curation of the top 15 Indian movies since 2000 which have done their share in highlighting the truth behind the beguiling smiles in family photos. It is important to mention here that this list has been curated from a personal point of view, and I have not taken into consideration the popularity or the success of the movies so much. It is, after all, the theme of the portrayal of dysfunctionality in a family that I seek to talk about. If you think there are more films to add to this list, feel free to mention them below. Happy Reading!
Special Mention: Dear Zindagi (2016)
Directed by Gauri Shinde, this movie deals with the dysfunctionality of Kiara’s family, albeit, obtusely. Kiara, played by Alia Bhatt, realizes her fear of abandonment when her therapist, Dr. Jehangir Khan, played by the charming Shahrukh Khan, explains it to her after she opens up about her childhood when she was left at her grandparents’ house for years. She suffers from the direct impact of abandonment by her parents.
We learn, through her and Dr. Khan’s counseling sessions, that it is okay to not be able to forgive one’s parents in such a scenario but accept that human beings are capable of making mistakes. This is precisely the reason why this film I chose to mention the film separately. We learn more about the repercussions of the dysfunctionality of the family rather than a detailed insight into the family but is important to learn about how to deal with it.
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15. Family Drama (2021)
Directed by Meher Tej, this film revolves around a family, each of whose members has a secret they’d rather keep stored away unless it forcibly comes to the forefront of their conscience. Adding to this, they are equally reeling under the patriarch’s effects and mistrusting each other over a property dispute. Unfortunately, too many things happen accidentally in the course of the plot. What could have been a compelling thriller surrounding the dysfunctionality of the family, precipitates into soap opera aesthetics and B-grade horror. Yet, give this a watch because of the volatility of each character, for the better or worse.
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14. Mukti Bhawan (2016)
Written and Directed by Subhashish Bhutiani, in this film we see a reluctant son accompanying his father to the city of Varanasi. The dysfunctionality of the family seeks to come through the relationship shared between the son, Rajiv, played by Adil Hussain, and the father, played by Lalit Behl. A miscommunication between them lingers throughout the film. While Rajiv is a dissatisfied, troubled son, reeling under the weight of caregiving responsibilities for the first time in his life, his father seems to derive comfort in his realization that he is at the sunset of his life. The film primarily draws us into a conversation about death and reconciliation. The dysfunctional relationship between son and father, although forming a subplot, demands equal attention by the end of it.
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13. Tribhanga: Tedi Medhi Crazy (2021)
Directed by Renuka Shahane, this film tells the story of three generations of women belonging to one family, each affected by the choice of the older generation. Tanvi Azmi plays Nayan Apte, a famous writer in her death bed now. She chose to prioritize her writing career over taking care of her daughter, Anuradha, who grows up to be played by Kajol. Anuradha, who is an actor-dancer, is as feisty as a single mother as Nayan. Anuradha’s daughter, Masha, played by Mithali Palkar, as a result of the successive generations of trauma prevalent in her family, is willing to compromise on her freedoms to be able to experience the love of a family.
The plot tries to tie together the elements of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and professional ambitions over family duties on part of women. However, it is not as neat as the posture of a tribhanga. Despite the sloppy writing, the theme of dysfunctionality comes through, romanticizing it by the end. However, it can be a perfectly good starting point to understand the true nature of dysfunctionality in families.
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12. Monsoon Wedding (2001)
A Mira Nair direction, this film brings together a melting pot of family relations from all corners of India, and outside, to a typical, big, fat Indian wedding. While all seems happy and hearty during the celebrations, we are forced to confront some ugly truths in the process. Shefali Shah, who plays Ria, nails her performance as an older cousin, on the lookout for the ten-year-old Alisha as she unknowingly becomes the subject of Tej, their uncle’s pedophilic tendencies – the act which has, as we come to learn, already scarred Ria for life. However, the film is a buffet of themes, and an exploration of the family’s dysfunctionality is not given enough attention, although it forms one of the crises in the plot. By its end, everything is made peace with, and the entire focus is shifted back to the wedding celebrations.
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11. Samantaral (2017)
A Bengali-language drama directed by Partha Chakraborty, this film draws light upon the existing homophobia in Indian society. It takes us into the closeted life of a trans-woman, Suman, played by Parambrata Chatterjee. The film dilly dillaies around the life of his nephew, Arko, played by Riddhi Sen, who has come to live at his maternal uncle’s house in Kolkata for his education. It is through him that we come to slowly unravel the mystery around Suman’s presumed mental illness and subsequent reclusion.
Barely a self-proclaimed thriller, the film turns out to be quite thrilling by its end, amusing and scaring the audience by the nature of the truth – the family knew about Suman’s queerness along but wanted to keep it under the wraps because they were ashamed of it. The collective dysfunctionality of the family, then, procures as trauma in Suman. By the time we come to this, sadly, two-thirds of the film, and our attention, has been wasted upon the trivialities.
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10. Karkhanisanchi Waari (2021)
Directed by Mangesh Joshi, this is a quintessential road trip film involving a large family trying to respect a dying Purushottam’s last wish. The slow pace of the film can be off-putting, but the characters and a sliver of black humor that runs throughout circumscribe our attention to the dysfunctionality of the family. Each of the members in this film seems to be burdened under the weight of familial problems – wealth distribution, frustration about job and girlfriend, the emotional duress of the death, among others.
Each of the Karkhanis is passive-aggressive in their approach with one another, ready to slit throats but letting their pitchfork tongues do the work for them. None of them is palatable, yet you are driven t0 keep watching the film in the pursuit of what this honest hatred will ultimately lead to. Unfortunately or not, there’s no remarkable epiphany about dysfunctional families to fall back upon by the end of it.
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9. Dil Dhadakne Do (2015)
A Zoya Akhtar direction, this film centers around a family of four – mother, father, son, and daughter, and commits entirely to the exploration of the dysfunctionality of this extremely rich Mehra family. The idea is – rich people have real-world problems too. How real are these problems for the audience to feel dearly for them? The film does a commendable job at it. The children are passive-aggressive in their expressions in front of their parents because the father, Kamal Mehra, played by Anil Kapoor, is the family patriarch who loves to rule over their family.
Their dysfunctionality is put to test as the four of them are brought in close quarters on a holiday cruise, pushed to their breaking point, and amply made fun of by the charming Kabir, played by Farhan Akhtar. What renders a memorable quality to this film is the light-hearted fun beneath it all, rendering the characters with a likable quality despite their flaws.
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8. Bhoothakalam (2022)
Directed by Rahul Sadasivam, the film revolves around a family consisting of a mother, son, and a grandmother, who is bedridden and passes away right at the start of the film. Soon enough, we learn that the relationship between the son and the mother is strained under the weight of their past experiences, unstable mental health, and the recurring trauma of caregiving for a long time.
A portion of the scare in this horror film is generated by the joint effect of this dysfunctional bond and the hauntings at their place, doubled by the already existing rift between them. It pushes them both to their breaking points at the same time, escalated by the fact that tensions between mother and son also peak during these scenes. Apart from the focus on dysfunctionality, the finely wound plot, along with stellar performances, makes this a movie worth every bit of appreciation it has been receiving off-late.
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7. Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram Leela (2013)
One of the many Indian film adaptations of the Shakespearean tragedy “Romeo and Juliet”, this Sanjay Leela Bhansali directorial venture sheds better light upon the curious case of the rival families by allotting it more screen time and making the spiteful, selfish actions of the family members directly affect the fate of love birds – protagonists Ram (played by Ranveer Singh) and Leela (played by Deepika Padukone).
The two warring families are always out on the street, ready to kill each other at the drop of their hat. The direct impact of this dysfunctionality is seen in Leela, who is gracefully in love but at the same time coiled up in familial responsibilities. You should also look out for Supriya Pathak Kapur’s performance in the role of Dhanokar Sanera, Leela’s mother.
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6. Joji (2021)
Directed by Dileesh Pothan and heavily inspired by the Malayalam superhit, Irakal (1985), and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, this film follows the story of a family of three sons living under the patriarchal hood of a dominating father, Kuttappan. Joji, played by Fahadh Fasil, is an engineering dropout. His relations with his father have soured because of his unsuccessful financial experiments, culminating in a streak of abuse.
The murder of Kuttappan forces us to fathom the depths of dysfunctionality in the household. Joji’s relationship with her sister-in-law and her brothers are so polar opposite that you’d think they are two distinct parts of his life. The exchanges between the family members never conclude, escalating into abuses and anger midway through it. The entire film throbs with tension because you can never be too sure of the actions of these family members, especially since each one is driven by their selfish motives.
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5. Dhanak (2014)
Directed by Nagesh Kukunoor, the dysfunctionality in this family is not quite apparent. We embark on a journey with Pari and Chotu who have fled from home, where they live with their maternal uncle and his wife, in search of Shah Rukh Khan. Chotu is temporarily blind in both eyes, and Pari believes that it is with Shah Rukh Khan’s help that Chotu can have his vision restored. Where does the dysfunctionality come in then, you ask?
We learn quite late in the film that Pari and Chotu’s parents passed away in a historic earthquake and were resentfully adopted by their aunt, who is disdainful towards the children at all times. Chotu’s blindness is a direct result of the aunt’s actions. After I watched the film, I thought the dysfunctionality of the foster parents, together with their extreme poverty, drove the children to imagine their journey across the deserts. They are replenished only by the hope of a miracle – a quite grim realization for a film that only makes you beam with tearful smiles.
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4. A Death in the Gunj (2016)
Konkona Sen Sharma’s debut directorial film is a breeding ground of dysfunctionality as it seems to exist between an extended family and their friends. Shutu, played by Vikrant Massey (who is the cousin to Nandu, played by Gulshan Devaiah) is alienated, becomes a butt of jokes, and is seemingly troubled since the recent demise of his father. I was more troubled by Nandu’s daughter, Tina’s reaction to Shutu’s shift in attention from her to their family friend, Mimi, played by Kalki Koechlin.
Every thread is woven into the plot with just enough attention to detail, without overstressing the point. As a result, we are presented with the idea of mental health, conflicting masculinities, and family dysfunctionality in a measure just enough for us to think about it but not get too lost in it.
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3. Titli (2014)
The characters in this Kanu Behl debut directorial venture reek of the desire to escape and emotional volatility. It follows the story of a family of carjackers belonging to the parts of Delhi beyond the Yamuna river. Titli, played by Shashank Arora, is stifled into continuing the family profession by his two older brothers, Vikram, played by Ranvir Shorey, and Bawla, played by Amit Sial, who themselves seem to be shouldering past trauma, rolling into each new day without any hope or aim. The relationship shared between them and their father, played by Lalit Behl, who seems like a failing patriarch is further marked by verbal tension and malleable feelings. To top it all, there’s the overarching need to make their ends meet financially.
It manages to graze the surface of society, revealing the violence embedded just beneath it. These characters seem so familiar that Titli feels like a slice of life. However, what strikes me most about Titli is the director’s confession about the strong autobiographical elements embedded in it, especially inspired by the relationship he shared with his father, the violence prevalent in his house, and his attempts at escaping for a better future from home.
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2. Qissa (2013)
Directed by Anup Singh, the Punjabi film problematizes the idea of gender and sexuality through the story of Kanwar Singh, played by Tillotama Shome. She is actually born as the fourth daughter to Umber Singh, played by Irrfan Khan. However, he appears to be obsessed with the idea of having his lineage continue, to the extent that he brings up Kanwar as a boy, telling the people in his village that she was born a boy. I can particularly not get over the scene where Umber decides to burn the clothes of Kunwar which were stained during her menarche. His madness to keep her identity under wraps intensifies in the course of the film, convincing himself that raping Kunwar’s wife, Neeli, played by Rasika Dugal, will help him finally beget a son.
The tell-tale signs of identity crisis manifest in Kunwar, torn as she is between feeling like a woman and acting like a man, partly soothed by Neeli’s presence, but never disappearing altogether, ultimately leaving behind Umber’s unfulfilled desire to father a son as she commits suicide. Stellar performances coupled with the nuances of gender, sexuality, and family dysfunctionality, this film is bound to charm you.
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1. Kapoor and Sons (2016)
Director Shakun Batra’s finest to date, this movie manages to hold up a mirror to a family so broken that not even the final portrait they smilingly agree to capture at the end of the film in honor of the 90-year-old grandfather, Amarjeet, played by Rishi Kapoor’s request, can fix it.
Each of the members of this family is driven by a selfish need or a compulsion arising as a consequence of one of the family member’s actions/decisions. What I love best about it is that Ratna Pathak Shah’s character, Sunita, is not spared from the web of dysfunctionality just because she is the mother, typically supposed to be selfless and unconditionally loving. She is, in fact, the reason behind the brothers, Arjun and Rahul’s estrangement from each other.
Additionally, Rahul’s homosexuality is a step further in the path of complicating matters. The dysfunctionality of the family isn’t isolated – a message that is worth thinking over for the audience. Even Tia, played by Alia Bhat, comes clean about her parent’s death and her undying regrets. It delivers a powerful message about acceptance, without romanticizing it or getting stifled under the weight of dysfunctionality, and that is why it stands out from every other film on this list.