A link between Succession and Family: A look into Varisu
While presenting his start-up idea at what looks like a fundraising event in the opening scenes of the movie, the hero of Varisu, actor Vijay, is introduced as “Vijay Rajendran.” Immediately he sulks and responds, “You can call me Vijay, ma’am” not wanting anything to do with his family name/surname. As he tries to sell his idea to the gathering, a reporter aware of how renowned a businessman Vijay’s father is, taunts Vijay by asking him why his father is not interested in helping him launch his app. Within the first twenty minutes of the movie, the premise is set for the namesake theme of the movie: succession.
On one end we have a business tycoon-father who nonchalantly coerces his third son who returns from studies at Harvard University to join the family business along with him and his two older brothers. On the other hand, there is Vijay, a self-made aspiring entrepreneur with an individual vision and a bright mind that got him into Harvard with a merit scholarship in the first place. Vijay doesn’t seem to have any interest in entering the affairs of his family business. As a result, the son who is sent out from the house by his father seems to understand at least some dynamics of succession as he recognizes that the home is the father’s playhouse where everyone are his puppets including his mother whose only space of freedom in the house is the kitchen. Here, we see several signs of the dynamics of succession: power, control and perhaps toxic masculinity given the fact that the story writers did not even bother to explore the possibility of a female heir in the family.
Just when all seems to be going well with a race in place between the two sons that stayed to ascend to be the next heir, disaster strikes in various forms. The father discovers he has cancer in its fourth stage and has not much longer to live. He now must soon name his successor. But before he can catch a breath, his family crumbles in front of his eyes. His eldest son is found cheating on his own wife, his middle son is caught in misappropriation of funds. The father is now left in a dire situation. He is forced to break his unbending character as he approaches his youngest in a somewhat “prodigal (lavish, gracious) father-son” like imagery. Vijay, however, still declines. A quick turnaround then happens when Vijay becomes aware of his father’s cancer. He decides to set aside his plans and enter the messy reality of his father’s family and business. A heroic narrative that begins with Vijay in the beginning of the movie saying “That is my father’s identity. This is my identity” turns into an emotional high in the closing scenes of Vijay saying “A family is not created from its name or bloodline, but by love and trust.”
The grand narrative in Varisu moves from succession to family and here is where we almost feel like our culture is glorified as it is and is not critiqued enough. We see the same old blueprint of the male son saving the day and the empire, fixing everyone’s problems, and bringing the family together to the extent that it seems almost surreal and utopic. In fact, one of the interesting things that the father says, rightly happens. “You’re the only one in my world who has confronted me about my bad decisions and therefore you’re the only one who can fix the problems.”
While tying the theme of succession with that of family is heart-warming, much is left to be desired, even more left unanswered. Given the complex nature of our existing systems of work, should we still allow power to remain in the institution of “family”? In India, we still see families controlling the narrative of the country in realms of politics, economics, education, law, and even in religion. In fact, the Caste system, which invisibly governs our society, is fundamentally built on this kind of dynamic of family and succession in that ‘what the father does, the son shall.’ It is because of this that the many debates around nepotism in various realms of our society can become meaningless when we come to realize that comfort, stability, and equilibrium is seemingly found in power remaining within the family. We desperately need a different perspective.
While Varisu refreshingly problematizes but then excessively glorifies the institution of family, if we dare to, we are left with space to dream about the possibilities of what Vijay could have been if he still chose his path to be an entrepreneur. Could someone else have stepped in to save the day for the father’s company? Can we conceive the notion of an heir outside the family? Perhaps someone who has had the experience in the same company, whetted and ready to take the reins, and is on the side of its vision? If so, would it be okay if that person was from another gender, race, tribe, community, caste?
Written by Ben Jonathan Immanuel