Paterfamiliar: Darth Vader was my dad
He was not as cool as the villain locked in the black suit and helmet, but he was a little scarier
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If you’re a 10-year-old encountering a sword-and-sorcery epic, it is natural enough to root for the young hero whose journey from innocence to peril to self-realization lies at the story’s heart. But the only time I really identified with Luke Skywalker was when the poor thing discovered that his daddy was a monster in a black mask.
And that moment, as any Star Wars buff knows, came nearly two-thirds of the way through the original trilogy, in the famous, frisson-producing climax of The Empire Strikes Back.
“You killed my father!”
“No. I AM your father.”
Followed by Luke’s scream of anguish (a part of him knew the truth already; he just wasn’t letting himself believe it) and his refusal to clasp Pater Vader’s outstretched hand, choosing a bottomless abyss instead.
(He survives, of course. He has to save himself and win redemption for his dad. And he will do this, since he is the hero and this is a fantasy.)
Before that scene, I hadn’t been particularly interested in Luke, who was played by the likeable but bland Mark Hamill. The other male lead, Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, was more personable; besides, by the mid-1980s, when I first saw the trilogy (at one go), Ford was a big star, and this affected one’s perceptions of the characters. But then, it didn’t take Indiana Jones to make Hamill look dull. Chewbacca and Jabba the Hutt had more personality than Luke too. So did C-3PO. Even the lightsabers, arguably. Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan had personality and gravitas. And there was Master Yoda: cute was he, and funny spoke he.
(Of course, all these ideas about gravitas and heroism came before one was exposed to the frat-boy jokes about the characters’ names. “Hand solo? Snigger.” “Obi-Wan Kenobi has ‘I wank’ in the middle of it. Hehhehheh.”)
So, young Skywalker was a cipher amid many colourful characters. But those words—“I am your father”—and Luke’s response to them: how completely they turned things around, how much they resonated. They still swim in my head alongside other lines that belong to the same galactic system: “Mera baap chor hai”, “Mere paas ma hai”, all part of a childhood mythology where real life always seemed to be mashed up with popular cinema.
Because by age 10, I had some experience of what it was like to have a black-helmeted monster as a dad. My mother and I had recently left my father’s house, escaped a life of alcohol-fuelled violence. I knew she was a lot cooler than Nirupa Roy, but I didn’t think my dad was as cool as Darth Vader; he was a little scarier though.
You’re thinking, sure, it’s okay to feel that sort of connect with a cheesy fantasy film as a child, but people grow up and find echoes in more grown-up things: “serious” films, “serious” books. And yes, I did gravitate towards that kind of art as I got older. But the Star Wars influence remained, in a little box in a corner of my head that also contained the dramatic tropes of mainstream Hindi films and the visceral immediacy of low-budget Hollywood horror. These things may have lain dormant for a while, especially during the years when I was immersed in world cinema and high literature, but they were there all right, and I would return to them for emotional nourishment as well as meaning.
So it was that when watching the original trilogy again, sometime in my 20s, and on the big screen (this was a re-release to celebrate the onset of the new “prequel trilogy” in 1999), I was just as deeply sucked into the Luke-Darth Vader narrative as I had been before. And this time I found myself stirred by the eerie nightmare scene that takes place midway through The Empire Strikes Back, before the big reveal: Luke decapitates Vader during a duel, only to find his own face beneath the cold black mask.
Hamill was still an average actor, but by this point I was projecting my own feelings on him, and I felt I understood the great fear in Luke’s mind. I had recently begun to note aspects of my personality that were dangerously close to my father’s: a short temper, a continual sense of persecution, a tendency towards crippling melancholia and self-righteousness. And I was realizing how important it was to not let those qualities become too dominant, how important it was not to turn into my dad.
Years later, reading Jerry Pinto’s Em And The Big Hoom, I would identify with Pinto’s fear of being laid low by his genetic heritage and becoming like his schizophrenic mother one day. But long before I read that fine book, a lightsaber duel had awakened similar thoughts; I had been acquainted—through life and through Star Wars—with the cynical possibility that parents can be most useful as cautionary models for what not to be.
(And now the Internet is awash with rumours that the big twist in the new film is that Luke Skywalker, now an old man, has finally crossed over to the dark side himself. Please, for Yoda’s sake, no.)
This connection with the Star Wars narrative is one of many times, in my career as a pop-culture consumer, when something massy, even pulpy, became a route to self-understanding. Which is one reason why I dislike the knee-jerk snobbery often directed at mainstream Hindi cinema. And why, despite being a big fan of Pauline Kael’s writing, I have always been less than impressed by her famous distinction between Art and Great Trash, with its implication that films belonging to the latter category can be enormous fun, terrific entertainment, but you must never—no! no! no!, said in a headmistress’ voice—make the mistake of taking them too seriously. Those of us who “get” popular cinema, understand how it can provide a catalyst for our deepest and most primal feelings, wouldn’t ever patronize it in such terms.
Anyway, the years rolled by, I continued growing up (or not) and then came 2005 and the release of Revenge Of The Sith, billed as the darkest film in the prequel-trilogy, the one that would show the transformation of Luke’s dad Anakin from Jedi hero to Sith Lord. Watching it, I was riveted again by the elements of Shakespearean tragedy, the operatic final scenes, the striking intercutting shots where we see the birth of the twins who will grow up to be Luke and Leia (the “new hopes”, creating a bridge to the first film, which we had already watched decades earlier), but where we also see a ghastly rebirth, the wounded Anakin being locked into the black suit that will become his new identity.
Most of all, there was the scene where Darth Vader, learning that his wife Padmé is dead, bursts out of his shackles, lurches about like the Frankenstein monster and growls “Nooooo!!!!” in the best style of the “Nahhiiinnn!” in old Hindi movies.
Watching that scene, a part of me may have wished that my own father had had something of a similar reaction when my mom and I moved out; that in a rare moment of clarity and self-awareness, he may have understood what he had lost and grieved for it.
But probably not. Real life isn’t like cheesy films. At least, not all of the time.
Jai Arjun Singh writes the fortnightly column Above The Line for Mint Lounge.