Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Milky ways - the many faces of the Hindi-movie maa

[Here's the full text of the essay I did for Zubaan's anthology about motherhood. The book has plenty more in it, of course, including excellent pieces by Anita Roy, Manju Kapur, Shashi Deshpande and others. Look out for it - gift, spread the word etc.

Note: the "Motherly vignettes" section was meant to be a stand-alone thing, published either as a box or in different font, to mark it from the rest of the text, and perhaps to mirror the detours and interludes so often present in mainstream Hindi cinema. Didn't work out that way, but I've included it here]


Around the age of 14 I took what was meant to be a temporary break from Hindi cinema, and ended up staying away for over a decade. Years of relishing masala movies may have resulted in a form of dyspepsia – there had been too many overwrought emotions, too much dhishoom dhishoom, too much of the strictly regimented quantities of Drama and Action and Tragedy and Romance and Comedy that existed in almost every mainstream Hindi film of the time. Besides, I had developed a love for Old Hollywood, which would become a gateway to world cinema, and satellite TV had started making it possible to indulge such interests.

One of my catalysts for escape was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, a film that is – among many other things – about a strange young man’s special relationship with his equally strange mother. I won’t bother with spoiler alerts for such a well-known pop-cultural artefact, so briefly: Norman Bates poisons his mom, preserves her body, walks around in her clothes and has conversations with himself in her voice. In his off-time, he murders young women as they shower.

None of this was a secret to me when I first saw the film, since a certain Psycho lore existed in my family. Years in advance, I had heard jokes about “mummification” from my own mummy – apparently, in the early 60s, her school-going brother had returned from a movie-hall and informed their startled mother that he wished to keep her body in a sitting position in the living room after she passed on.

Hitchcock’s film had a big effect on the way I watched and thought about movies, but I must admit that my own relationship with my mother was squarer than Norman’s. We quarrelled occasionally, but always in our own voices, and taxidermy did not obtrude upon our lives. Looking back, though, I think we could be described as unconventional in the context of the society we lived in. I was a single child, she was recently divorced, we had been through a lot together and were very close. But we were both – then, as now – private people, and so the relationship always respected personal space. We didn’t spend much time on small talk, we tended to stay in our own rooms for large parts of the day (and this is how it remains, as I type these words in my shabby freelancer’s “office” in her flat). Yet I always shared the really important stuff with her, and I never thought this was unusual until I heard stories about all the things my friends – even the ones from the seemingly cool, cosmopolitan families – routinely hid from their parents: about girlfriends, or bunking college, or their first cigarette.

Some of this may help explain why I was feeling detached from the emotional excesses of Hindi cinema in my early teens. In his book on Deewaar, the historian Vinay Lal notes, “No more important or poignant relationship exists in Indian society than that between mother and son, and the Hindi film best exemplifies the significance of this nexus.” That may be so, but I can say with my hand on my heart (or “mother-swear”, if you prefer) that even at age 14, I found little to relate to in Hindi-film depictions of mothers.

Can you blame me though? Here, off the top of my head (and with only some basic research to confirm that I hadn’t dreamt up these wondrous things), are some of my movie memories from around the time I left the mandir of Hindi cinema:

* In the remarkably bad JamaiRaja, Hema Malini is a wealthy tyrant who makes life difficult for her son-in-law. Some of this is played for comedy, but the film clearly disapproves of the idea of a woman as the head of the house. Cosmic balance is restored only when the saas gets her comeuppance and asks the damaad’s forgiveness. Of course, he graciously clasps her joint hands and asks her not to embarrass him; that’s the hero’s privilege.

* In Sanjog, when she loses the little boy she had thought of as a son, Jaya Prada glides about in a white sari, holding a piece of wood wrapped in cloth and singing a song with the refrain “Zoo zoo zoo zoo zoo”. This song still plays incessantly in one of the darker rooms of my memory palace; I shudder whenever I recall the tune.

* In Aulad, the ubiquitous Jaya Prada is Yashoda who battles another woman (named, what else, Devaki) for custody of the bawling Baby Guddu, while obligatory Y-chromosome Jeetendra stands around looking smug and noble at the same time.

* In her short-lived comeback in Aandhiyan, a middle-aged Mumtaz dances with her screen son in a cringe-inducingly affected display of parental hipness. “Mother and son made a lovely love feeling with their dance and song (sic),” goes a comment on the YouTube video of the song “Duniya Mein Tere Siva”. Also: “I like the perfect matching mother and son love chemistry behind the song, it is a eternal blood equation (sic).” The quality of these comments is indistinguishable from the quality of the film they extol.

* And in Doodh kaKarz, a woman breastfeeding her child is so moved by the sight of a hungry cobra nearby that she squeezes a few drops of milk out and puts it in a bowl for him. The snake looks disgusted but sips some of the milk anyway. Naturally, this incident becomes the metaphorical umbilical cord that attaches him to this new maa for life.

As one dire memory begets another, the title of that last film reminds me that two words were in common currency in 1980s Hindi cinema: “doodh” and “khoon”. Milk and blood. Since these twin fluids were central to every hyper-dramatic narrative about family honour and revenge, our movie halls (or video rooms, since few sensible people I knew spent money on theatre tickets at the time) resounded with some mix of the following proclamations:

Maa ka doodh piya hai toh baahar nikal!” (“If you have drunk your mother’s milk, come out!”)

Yeh tumhara apna khoon hai.” (“He is your own blood.”)

Main tera khoon pee jaaoonga.” (“I will drink your blood.”)

Both liquids were treated as equally nourishing; both were, in different ways, symbols of the hero’s vitality. I have no recollection of the two words being used together in a sentence, but it would not amaze me to come across a scene from a 1980s relic where the hero says: “Kuttay! Maine apni maa ka doodh piya hai. Ab tera khoon piyoonga.” (“Dog! I have drunk my mother’s milk, now I will drink your blood.”) It would suggest a rite of passage consistent with our expectations of the über-macho lead: as a child you drink mother’s milk, but you’re all grown up now and bad man’s blood is more intoxicating than fake Johnnie Walker.

Narcissists, angry young men and deadly guitars

All this is a complicated way of saying that I do not, broadly speaking, hold the 1980s in high esteem. But that decade is a soft target. Casting the net much wider, here’s a proposal: mainstream Hindi cinema has never had a sustained tradition of interesting mothers.

This is, of course, a generalisation; there have been exceptions in major films. Looming over every larger-than-life mother portrayal is Mother India, which invented (or at least highlighted) many of the things we think of as clichés today: the mother as metaphor for nation/land/nourishing source; the mother as righteous avenging angel, ready to shred her own heart and shoot her wayward son if it is for the Greater Good. Despite the self-conscious weightiness of this film’s narrative, it is - mostly - possible to see its central character Radha as an individual first and only then as a symbol.

But a basic problem is that for much of her history, the Hindi-film mother has been a cipher – someone with no real personality of her own, existing mainly as the prism through which we view the male lead. Much like the sisters whose function was to be raped and to commit suicide in a certain type of movie, the mother was a pretext for the playing out of the hero’s emotions and actions.

Anyone well acquainted with Hindi cinema knows that one of its dominant personalities has been the narcissistic leading man. (Note: the films themselves don’t intend him to be seen thus.) This quality is usually linked to the persona of the star-actor playing the role, and so it can take many forms: the jolly hero/tragic hero/romantic hero/anti-hero who ambles, trudges or swaggers through the world knowing full well that he is its centre of attention. (Presumably he never grew out of the maa ka laadla mould.) So here is Raj Kapoor’s little tramp smiling bravely through his hardships, and here is the studied tragic grandiosity of Dilip Kumar, and here is Dev Anand’s splendid conceit (visible in all the films he made from the mid-1960s on) that every woman from age 15 upwards wants only to fall into his arms. In later decades, this narcissism would be manifest in the leading man as the vigilante superhero.

A maa can easily become a foil for such personalities – our film history is dotted with sympathetic but ineffectual mothers. Though often played by accomplished character actors such as Achala Sachdev and Leela Mishra, these women were rarely central to the movies in question. If you have only a dim memory of Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa, for example, you might forget that the self-pitying poet (one of the most doggedly masochistic heroes in our cinema) has a mother too – she is a marginalised figure, watching with some perplexity as he wanders the streets waiting for life to deal him its next blow. And her death adds to the garland of sorrows that he so willingly carries around his neck.

While Dutt made a career out of not smiling, the protagonist of Raj Kapoor’s bloated Mera Naam Joker earned his livelihood by making people laugh. Essentially, however, Raju the clown is as much of a sympathy-seeker as the poet in the gutter is. Mera Naam Joker includes a magnificently maudlin scene where the joker continues with his act (“The show must go on!” growls circus-master Dharmendra) just a few minutes after learning that his mother has died. As he smiles heroically through his pain, his friends watching backstage wipe their tears – cues for the film’s viewer to do the same.

Speaking of Raj Kapoor, I often wonder what impression Russian movie-watchers must have of Indian men and their mother fetishes. If Kapoor was the most popular Hindi-film star in the former Soviet Union, an improbable second was Mithun Chakraborty, the stature of whose 1982 film Disco Dancer in that part of the world is among the profoundest cinematic mysteries. (Possibly apocryphal stories are still told about how Indian visitors to the USSR in the Iron Curtain days could clear borders by warbling “Jimmy Jimmy” whereupon stern guards would drop their rifles and wave them through.)

Among Disco Dancer’s many pleasures is the most thrilling mother-related dialogue in a Hindi film. Even today, I would walk many a harsh mile to hear the following words echoing through a movie hall: “Issko guitar phobia ho gaya hai. Guitar ne isske maa ko maara.” (“He has developed guitar phobia. A guitar killed his mother.”)

This demands some elucidation. Jimmy (Mithun) has become so popular that his disco-dancing rivals scheme to electrocute him with a 5000-volt current. But his widowed maa, having just finished her daily puja for his continued health and success, learns about this fiendish saazish. She reaches the venue in time to grab the tampered guitar before Jimmy does, which results in the most electrifying death scene of a Hindi-movie mother you’ll ever see.

The subtext to this surreal moment is that the hero is emasculated by the removal of his mother. As one inadvertently Oedipal plot synopsis I have read puts it, “After his mother's death Jimmy finds himself unable to perform. Will he be able to recover from the tragedy and start performing again?” (Note the contrast with Mera Naam Joker’s Raju, who does indeed “perform” just a few seconds after his loss – but no one doubts that he is now a hollow shell of a person.)

As these scenes and countless others indicate, Hindi cinema loves dead moms. In the same year as Disco Dancer, there was an overhyped “acting battle” between Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan in Shakti. It played out through the film, but never as intensely as in the scene where the mutinous son tries to reach out to his policeman dad in the room where the dead body of Sheetal (wife and mother to the two men) lies. In the context of the narrative, the mother’s corpse becomes the final frontier for a clash of ideologies and life experiences.


I’m surprised at how long it has taken me to arrive at Bachchan, given that all my early movie-watching centred on him – and also given that no other major Hindi-film personality has been as strongly associated with filial relationships. But perhaps I’ve been trying to repress a memory. One of the last things I saw before forsaking Bollywood in 1991 was this scene from the fantasy film Ajooba. Bachchan (makeup doing little to conceal that he was playing half his age) brings an old woman to the seaside where a dolphin is splashing about, beaming and making the sounds that dolphins will. With sonly fondness in his eyes and a scant regard for taxonomical accuracy, AB says: “Yeh machli meri maa hai.” (“This fish is my mother.”)

This could be a version of post-modern irony, for Bachchan had come a long way from the star-making films in which he played son to the long-suffering Nirupa Roy. Unlike the “mother” in Ajooba, Roy was a land mammal, but she seemed always to have a personal lake of tears to splash about in at short notice.

Was that too irreverent? (Am I failing the test of the good Indian boy whose eyes must lower at the very mention of “maa”?) Well, respect should ideally be earned. The mothers played by Roy are good examples of the ciphers I mentioned earlier, and though she often got substantial screen time, I don’t think it was put to much good use.

Consider an early scene in Prakash Mehra’s Muqaddar ka Sikander. When the orphan Sikander recovers Roy’s stolen purse for her, she expresses a wish to be his new mother: “Beta, ab se main tumhari maa hoon.” “Sach, maa? Tum bahut achi ho, maa,” (“Really, mother? You are very nice, mother”) he replies. Having rushed through these lines, they then exit the frame together in the jerky fast-forward style of the silent era’s Keystone Kops. There is a reason for the haste: the audience wants to see the adult Sikander (Bachchan), so the preamble must be dispensed with. But the result is the trivialising of an important relationship – we are simply told that they are now mother and son, and that’s that. It’s a good example of character development scrubbing the shoes of the star system.

Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony is another movie very dear to my heart (and a genuine classic of popular storytelling), but it would be a stretch to claim that Roy’s Bharati (you know, the woman who simultaneously receives blood from her three grown-up sons) is a fleshed-out person. Medically speaking, she scarcely appears human at all: in the first minutes of the film we learn that Bharati is suffering from life-threatening tuberculosis; a while later, she carelessly loses her eyesight and the TB is never again mentioned; years pass and here she is, distributing flowers, haphazardly stumbling in and out of the lives of the three heroes; eventually her sight is restored by a Sai Baba statue.

But it is well-nigh impossible to write about Bachchan and his mothers without reference to Yash Chopra’ sDeewaar (and to an extent, the same director’s Trishul). Deewaar is to Hindi cinema what the James Cagney-starrer White Heat (“Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”) was to Hollywood: the most quoted and parodied of all mother-son movies. In no small part this is because the film was a fulcrum for one of our most iconic movie personalities, the angry young man Vijay.

Speaking for myself, childhood memory and countless spoofs on music channels had turned Deewaar into a montage of famous images and dialogues: Bachchan brooding outside the temple; a dramatic pealing of bells and a prolonged death scene; Shashi Kapoor bleating “Bhai” and, with nostrils flaring self-righteously, the famous line “Mere Paas Maa Hai.” But when I saw it as an adult, I was surprised by how powerful the film still was, and how its most effective scenes were the quieter ones. One scene that sticks with me is when the mother – Sumitra Devi – is unwell and the fugitive Vijay can’t see her because police have been posted around the hospital. He waits in a van while his girlfriend goes to check on the level of security. She returns, tells him things aren’t looking good; and Vijay (who is wearing dark glasses – a chilling touch in this night-time scene) says in a deadpan voice, his face a blank slate, “Aur main apne maa tak nahin pahunch sakta hoon.” (“And I can’t even reach my mother.”) There is no overt attempt at pathos or irony (how many other Indian actors of the time would have played the scene this way?), just the stoicism of a man who knows that the walls are closing in.

In another scene Vijay hesitantly calls his mother on the phone, arranges to meet her at the temple, then tries to say something more but can’t get the words out and puts the receiver down instead. The film’s power draws as much from these discerning beats of silence as from its flaming Salim-Javed dialogue. However, little of that power comes directly from the mother’s character. Sumitra Devi is defined by her two sons, and to my eyes at least, there is something perfunctory and insipid even about the moral strength she shows.

There is a tendency, when we assess Hindi cinema, to make sweeping statements about similar types of movies. Frequently, I hear that Deewaar and Trishul are the same film because both are built around the theme of a son trying to erase his mother’s sufferings by rising in the world – even literally, by signing deed papers for new skyscrapers, the constructions she once worked on as a labourer (Vijay, like James Cagney, is trying to make it to “the top”). But there are key differences in the central character’s motivations in the two movies, and I would argue that Deewaar is the superior film overall because it is more tightly constructed.

However, Trishul scores in one important regard: it is one of the few Bachchan films where the mother has a personality. Cynically speaking, this could be because she dies early in the film and isn’t required to hold the stage for three hours, but I think it has a lot to do with the performance of Waheeda Rehman – an actress who made a career of illuminating mediocre movies with her presence.

“Tu mere saath rahega munne,” sings this mother, who has been abandoned by her lover – the song will echo through the movie and fuel her son’s actions. “Main tujhe rehem ke saaye mein na palne doongi” (“I will not raise you under the shade of sympathy”), she tells her little boy as she lets him toil alongside her, “Zindagani ki kadi dhoop mein jalne doongi / Taake tap tap ke tu faulad bane / maa ki audlad bane.” She wants him to burn in the sun so he becomes as hard as steel. He has to earn his credentials if he wants the right to be called her son.

With a lesser performer in the role, this could have been hackneyed stuff (in any case the basic premise is at least as old as Raj Kapoor’s Awaara), but Rehman makes it dignified and compelling, giving it a psychological dimension that is lacking in all those Nirupa Roy roles. It’s a reminder that an excellent performer can, to some extent at least, redeem an unremarkable part. (I would make a similar case for Durga Khote in Mughal-e Azam, which – on paper at least – was a film about two imperial male egos in opposition.)

Motherly vignettes (and an absence)

In discussing these films, I’ve probably revealed my ambivalence towards popular Hindi cinema. One problem for someone who tries to engage with these films is that even the best of them tend to be disjointed; a critic is often required to approach a movie as a collection of parts rather than as a unified whole. Perhaps it would be fair then to admit that there have been certain “mother moments” that worked for me on their own terms, independently of the overall quality of the films.

One of them occurred in – of all things – a Manoj Kumar film. Kumar was famous for his motherland-obsession, demonstrated in a series of “patriotic” films that often exploited their heroines. (See Hema Malini writhing in the rain in Kranti, or Saira Banu in Purab aur Paschim, subject to the controlling male gaze that insists a woman must be covered up – after the hero and the audience has had a good eyeful, of course.) But one of his rare non-patriotism-themed films contains a weirdly compelling representation of the mother-as-an-absent-presence. The film is the 1972 Shor, about a boy so traumatised by his mother’s death that he loses his speech, and the song is the plaintive Laxmikant-Pyarelal composition “Ek Pyaar ka Nagma Hai”.

In too many Hindi movies of that time, ethereal music is played out to banal images, but this sequence makes at least a theoretical nod to creativity. The visuals take the shape of a shared dream-memory involving the father, the little boy and the mother when she was alive; the setting is a beach and the composite elements include a violin, a drifting, symbolism-laden bunch of balloons, and Nanda. Mirror imagery is used: almost every time we see the mother or the boy, we also see their blurred reflections occupying half the screen; occasionally, the lens focus is tinkered with to make both images merge into each other or disappear altogether. Even though the setting is ostensibly a happy and “realist” one, Nanda is thus rendered a distant, ghostly figure.

I’m not saying this is done with anything resembling sophistication – it is at best an ambitious concept, shoddily executed; you can sense the director and cinematographer constrained by the available technology. But the basic idea does come through: what we are seeing is a merging of past and present, and the dislocation felt by a motherless child.

[While on absent mothers, a quick aside on Sholay. Ramesh Sippy’s iconic film was heavily inspired by the look of the American and Italian Westerns, but it also deviated from the Hindi-film idiom in one significant way: in the absence of a mother-child relationship. The only real mother figure in the story, Basanti’s sceptical maasi, becomes a target of mirth in one of the film’s drollest scenes. Most notably, the two leads Veeru and Jai (played by Dharmendra and Bachchan) are orphans who have only ever had each other. We tend to take Sholay for granted today, but it’s surprising, when you think about it, that the leading men of a Hindi movie of the time should so summarily lack any maternal figure, real or adopted.]

In Vijay Anand’s thriller Jewel Thief, a clever deception is perpetrated on the viewer. Early on, Vinay (Dev Anand) is told that Shalu (Vyjayantimala) is pining because she has been abandoned by her fiancé. This provides a set-up for the song “Rula ke Gaya Sapna Mera”, where Vinay hears Shalu singing late at night; we see her dressed in white, weeping quietly; the lyrics mourn her loss; our expectations from seeing Dev Anand and Vyjayantimala together in this romantic setting lead us to assume that what is being lamented is a broken love affair. But later, we learn that though Shalu’s tears were genuine, she was really crying for a little boy who has been kidnapped (this is, strictly speaking, her much younger brother, but the relationship is closer to that of a mother and son, and the song was an expression if it). It’s a rare example of a Hindi-movie song sequence being used to mislead, and changing its meaning when you revisit it.

There is also a lovely little scene in a non-mainstream Hindi film, Sudhir Mishra’s Dharavi. Cab-driver Rajkaran, his wife and little son are struggling to make ends meet as one mishap follows another. Rajkaran’s old mother has come to visit them in the city and one night, after a series of events that leaves the family bone-tired and mentally exhausted, there is a brief shot of two pairs of sons and mothers, with the former curled up with their heads in the latter’s laps – the grown-up Rajkaran is in the same near-foetal pose as his little boy. It’s the sort of image that captures a relationship more eloquently than pages of over-expository script.

Breaking the weepie mould: new directions

One of the funniest mothers in a Hindi film was someone who appeared only in a photograph – the madcap 1962 comedy Half Ticket has a scene where the protagonist Vijay (no relation to the Angry Young Man) speaks to a picture of his tuberculosis-afflicted mother. TB-afflicted mothers are usually no laughing matter in Hindi cinema, but this is a Kishore Kumar film, and thus it is that a close-up of the mother’s photo reveals ... Kishore Kumar in drag. This could be a little nod to Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers playing women in Ealing Studio comedies of the 50s, or it could be a case of pre-figuring (since the story will hinge on Kumar posing as a child). Either way, it is a rare instance in old cinema of a mother being treated with light-hearted irreverence.

But as mentioned earlier, the more characteristic mother treatment has been one of deification – which, ironically, results in diminishment. When the maternal figure is put on a pedestal, you don’t see her as someone with flaws, whimsies, or heaven forbid, an interior life. (One of Indian cinema’s starkest treatments of this theme was in Satyajit Ray’s 1960 film Devi, with the 14-year-old Sharmila Tagore as a bride whose world turns upside down when her childlike father-in-law proclaims her a reincarnation of the Mother Goddess.) And so, if there has been a shift in mother portrayals in recent times, it has hinged on a willingness to humanise.

Around the late 1980s, a certain sort of “liberal” movie mum had come into being. I remember nodding in appreciation at the scene in Maine Pyaar Kiya where Prem (Salman Khan) discusses prospective girlfriends with his mom (played by the always-likeable Reema Lagoo). Still, when it came to the crunch, you wouldn’t expect these seemingly broad-minded women to do anything that would seriously shake the patriarchal tradition. In her younger days Farida Jalal was among the feistiest of the actresses who somehow never became A-grade stars, but by the time she played Kajol’s mother in Dilwale Dulhaniya le Jaayenge, she had settled into the role of the woman who can feel for young love – and be a friend and confidant to her daughter – while also knowing, through personal experience, that women in her social setup “don’t even have the right to make promises”. The two young lovers in this film can be united only when the heart of the stern father melts.

Such representations – mothers as upholders of “traditional values”, even when those values are detrimental to the interests of women – are not going away any time soon, and why would they, if cinema is to be a part-mirror to society? An amusing motif in the 2011 film No One Killed Jessica was a middle-aged mother as a figure hiding behind the curtain (literally “in pardah”), listening to the men’s conversations and speaking up only to petulantly demand the return of her son (who is on the lam, having cold-bloodedly murdered a young woman). It seems caricatured at first, but when you remember the details of the real-life Jessica Lal-Manu Sharma case that the film is based on, there is nothing surprising about it.

But it is also true that in the multiplex era of the last decade, mother representations – especially in films with urban settings – have been more varied than they were in the past. (Would it be going too far to say “truer to life”? I do feel that the best contemporary Hindi films are shaped by directors and screenwriters who know their milieus and characters very well, and have a greater willingness to tackle individual complexity than many of their predecessors did.)

Thus, Jaane Tu...Ya Jaane Na featured a terrific performance by Ratna Pathak Shah as Savitri Rathore, a wisecracking mom whose banter with her dead husband’s wall-portrait marks a 180-degree twist on every maudlin wall-portrait scene from movies of an earlier time. (Remember the weepy monologues that went “Munna ab BA Pass ho gaya hai. Aaj agar aap hamaare saath hote, aap itne khush hote”?) One gets the sense that unlike her mythological namesake, this Savitri is relieved that she no longer has to put up with her husband’s three-dimensional presence! Then there is the Kirron Kher character in Dostana, much more orthodox to begin with: a jokily over-the-top song sequence, “Maa da laadla bigad gaya”, portrays her dismay about the possibility that her son is homosexual, and she is even shown performing witchery to “cure” him. But she does eventually come around, gifting bangles to her “daughter-in-law” and wondering if traditional Indian rituals might accommodate something as alien as gay marriage. These scenes are played for laughs (and in any case, the son isn’t really gay), but they do briefly touch on very real cultural conflicts and on the ways in which parents from conservative backgrounds often have to change to keep up with the times.

With the aid of nuanced scripts, thoughtful casting and good performances, other small bridges have been crossed in recent years. Taare Zameen Par – the story of a dyslexic child – contains an uncontrived depiction of the emotional bond between mother and child (as well as the beautiful song “Maa”). At age 64, Bachchan acquired one of his most entertaining screen moms, the then 94-year-old Zohra Segal, in R Balki’s Cheeni Kum. A few years after that, the somewhat gimmicky decision to cast him as a Progeria-afflicted child in Paa meant he could play son to Vidya Balan, who was less than half his age. There is quiet dignity in this portrayal of a single working mother, though the film did kowtow to tradition (and to the ideal of the romantic couple) by ensuring that she is reunited with her former lover at the end.

One of the last Hindi films I saw before writing this piece – another Balan-starrer, the thriller Kahaani – has as its protagonist a heavily pregnant woman alone in the city, searching for her missing husband. This makes for an interesting psychological study because the quality of the film’s suspense (and the effect of the twist in its tail) depends on our accumulating feelings – sympathy, admiration – for this mother-to-be, laced with the mild suspicion that we mustn’t take everything about her at face value. I wasn’t surprised to discover that some people felt a little betrayed (read: emotionally manipulated) by the ending, which reveals that Vidya Bagchi wasn’t pregnant after all – the revelation flies in the face of everything Hindi cinema has taught us about the sanctity of motherhood.


Given Vinay Lal’s observation about the centrality of the mother-son relationship in Indian society, it is perhaps inevitable that our films have a much more slender tradition of mother-daughter relationships. Going by all the gossip over the decades about dominating moms accompanying their starlet daughters to movie sets, the real-life stories may have been spicier than anything depicted on screen. And in fact, one of the scariest scenes from any Hindi film of the last decade involves just such a portrayal.

It occurs in Zoya Akhtar’s excellent Luck by Chance, a self-reflective commentary on the nature of stardom in Hindi cinema. The young rose Nikki Walia (Isha Sharvani) is doing one of those cutesy photo shoot-cum-interviews that entail completing sentences like “My favourite colour is ____.” At one point her mother Neena (Dimple Kapadia in an outstanding late-career performance), a former movie star herself, barges into the room and peremptorily begins giving instructions. We see Nikki’s expression (we have already noted how cowered she is by her mother’s presence) and feel a little sorry for her. “Neena-ji, can we have a photo of both of you?” the reporter asks. Neena-ji looks flattered but says no, she isn’t in a state fit to be photographed – why don’t you shoot Nikki against that wall, she says, pointing somewhere off-screen, and then sashaying off.

A few seconds later the shoot continues. “Your favourite person _____?” Nikki is asked. We get a full shot of the wall behind her – it is covered end to end with a colossal photo of Neena from her early days. “My mother,” Nikki replies mechanically.

The younger Kapadia in that photo is breathtakingly beautiful, but as a depiction of a child swallowed up by a parent’s personality, this brief shot is just as terrifying to my eyes as the closing scene of Psycho, with Norman Bates staring out at the camera, speaking to us in his mother’s voice – for all practical purposes, back in the womb. Luck by Chance contains other scenes suggesting that the predatorial Neena is bent on putting her daughter through everything she herself had experienced in the big bad industry. Do these scenes get additional power from the viewer’s non-diagetic knowledge that in real life, Dimple Kapadia herself entered the film industry at a disturbingly early age? You decide. Still, with the history of mainstream Hindi cinema being what it is, we should be grateful for this newfound variety, for stronger character development, and for at least some maternal representations that aren’t drenched in sentimentalism.

We’ve always had the noble, self-sacrificing and marginalised mothers and we’ll continue to have them – in cinema, as in life. So here’s to a few more of the other sorts: more Neena-jis, more sardonic Savitris, a few moms like the hard-drinking salon-owner in Vicky Donor, not-really-mothers like Vidya Bagchi – and even, if it ever comes to that, a desi Mrs Bates staring unblinkingly from her chair, asking her son to please go to the kitchen and make her some chai instead of ogling at chaalu young women through the peephole.


  1. Pretty neat stuff!
    You did omit any mention of Chatterjee/Mukherjee's movies though.. the mothers in these movies had more meatier and well defined roles. Was it on purpose?

    And yes, I do agree completely about you getting fedup with the hindi movies. Even I stopped watching them on VCR also.. forget about going to cinema hall. But, while you discovered Psycho.. I drifted towards the likes of Deep Throat.

    -- Thus spoke the alcoholic

  2. Anon: oh, there will always be plenty of omissions in such an essay (even in a very long one). I wrote this around a year and a half ago, and since then I have discovered/rediscovered films that would definitely have made it to the essay if I had had them fresh in my memory then.

    But about Mukherjee/Chatterji - I did specify mothers in mainstream Hindi cinema while making that point about them not having their own personalities.

  3. Brilliant post! Great writing.


  4. Very nice piece.

    One name I'd like to add is Leela Chitnis - who to my mind is the archetypal Indian screen mother. Very very prolific with many more meaty "mother" credits than even Nirupa Roy I guess. Chitnis was also a top notch heroine in the early 40s often paired with the great Ashok Kumar.

    A great devotional song featuring Chitnis. A moving experience in the context of the film.

    Re Nirupa Roy : Only seen her in Deewar in a mother's role. I like her a fair bit playing the bhabhi role in several interesting 60s films invariably paired with Ashok Kumar again. Phoolon ki Sej, Chand aur Suraj, Aabroo - all interesting experiences with weird plots.

    But later, we learn that though Shalu’s tears were genuine, she was really crying for a little boy who has been kidnapped (this is, strictly speaking, her much younger brother, but the relationship is closer to that of a mother and son, and the song was an expression if it)

    Interestingly V'mala was the first choice for AB/Shashi's mom role in Deewar!

    the always-likeable Reema Lagoo

    Who by the way played one of the great screen mothers in the classic Vaastav - one of the great achievements of Bollywood over the past 30 years. She actually kills her son in the film. Which was I think unprecedented.

  5. In classic Hollywood mothers come in several more shades and generally more interesting. That probably merits another post.

    A few favourite Hollywood mothers -
    Beulah Bondi in The Southerner
    Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce
    Agnes Moorehead in Citizen Kane
    Dolores Costello in Magnificent Ambersons
    Maria Ouspenskaya in Dodsworth

  6. I'll add a recent favorite - the Bengali film Goynar Boksho, about the ghost of a childless widow befriending the timid young bride in the family, and later her daughter. The mother-daughter relationship is at best tentative - the daughter is closer to the feisty old ghost - but even though the mother (played by Konkona Sensharma) is by all appearance a conventional bahu and mother of a traditional joint family, she hides her own juicy secrets that Indian films would scarcely attribute to the 'good' mothers!

  7. mothers as upholders of “traditional values”, even when those values are detrimental to the interests of women – are not going away any time soon, and why would they, if cinema is to be a part-mirror to society?

    I wouldn't entirely agree with this. Bollywood mothers have always tended to have impeccable progressive credentials vis-a-vis Indian ground realities. Eg: Leela Chitnis accepting a prostitute as a daughter in law in Sadhna. Reema Lagoo doing the same in Vaastav. Nirupa Roy favouring the rule of law over maternal love in Deewar. Nirupa Roy again snubbing her Hindu fundamentalist son Shashi Kapoor and lecturing him on modern values in Yash Chopra's Dharmaputra. Chitnis again siding with her socially maligned daughter V'mala in Zindagi.

    Such roles are too numerous to be regarded as exceptions. In fact the Indian screen mother has been the epitome of morality, common decency and "doing the right thing" even if this means going against the son and the biradari!

    In fact several great Hollywood "mothers" are less noble and liberal. Eg: Crawford, Costello and Lana Turner spoiling their kids out of maternal affection in Mildred Pierce, Magnificent Ambersons and Imitation of Life respectively!

  8. Excellent post.. You reminded me Unishe April / Autumn Sonata / Tehjeeb :)

  9. Great post-I've just managed to read through it halfway. But I felt I had to comment on your point about deification of mothers leading to diminishment. It holds true for women outside of cinema as well; as I've been listening to the public discourse in India about women's need to be respected in the workplace and elsewhere, and about our "rape-culture" that needs to change, I am disturbed by the words of many activists and thinkers who seem to suggest that women need to be respected because they are mothers, daughters, and reincarnations of Goddesses Lakshi, Durga etc. While I appreciate their sentiments, the elevation of living, breathing humans to the status of deities is disturbing and as stifling and disrespectful as the lecherous gaze and attitudes these activists are trying to fight. I seem to recollect something Akshay Kumar said a while back about women being superior to men; such a statement is disturbing because it too goes against the idea/principle of sexual equality that feminist should strive for. It's about knowing and respecting that both men and women are flawed, living, breathing human beings, and deserve equal rights and responsibilities. For instance, men can't force themselves on unwilling women, but by the same token, neither can women (though the latter case is possibly too infrequent, or so we think,to even be considered feasible).

  10. I am disturbed by the words of many activists and thinkers who seem to suggest that women need to be respected because they are mothers, daughters, and reincarnations of Goddesses Lakshi, Durga etc.

    That's a misunderstanding of how things work on the ground. Post Sexual revolution of the 60s/70s in the West, most indicators of gender violence and illtreatment have gone south (by which I mean worse).

    And you may be surprised to know that rape rates are a LOT higher in US and Europe than in India. Yes, these figures are not entirely reliable because of under-reporting and the so-called "rapes within marriage". But I doubt if any amount of under-reporting can make up for such massive differences between say Indian and Swedish rape rates!

    If anything with pure stats one may argue that the loss of reverence towards women and their unique procreative potential has exacerbated gender violence. I don't necessarily subscribe to that view. But it is possible to argue that way. But then stats be damned because most people around us have made up their minds on what to believe and what not to.

    Atleast in motion pictures, the treatment of women has worsened to a very great extent since the sexual revolution as evidenced by the institutionalization of the "item song" culture not just in Bollywood movies but in the music video culture of the West. Normal adult roles for women in mainstream cinema rarer than it was in the 50s if you notice closely enough. A movie like Marnie was mainstream in the US of 1963. It definitely won't be mainstream in the Hollywood of today!

  11. I seem to recollect something Akshay Kumar said a while back about women being superior to men; such a statement is disturbing because it too goes against the idea/principle of sexual equality that feminist should strive for

    It's not just about what one wishes to strive for. It's about the ground realities as well.

    Akshay Kumar has a point. Throughout history in all cultures, women have behaved differently from men. As a rule they tend to engage in less crime, abide by the law more consistently, less easily provoked can go on. Ofcourse men have their plus points as well. For instance in the creative ventures outside the house, men tend to achieve more even in our liberated age with equal opportunities to both sexes.

    Ofcourse one cannot generalize and this cannot explain every sparrow's fall. But as a rule, women make better citizens. I don't claim to know the reason for this. So maybe that traditional deification of the female as a superior sex is not entirely unfounded.

  12. Mani Ratnam has three very interesting mothers. The first is Srividya in Thalapathy, who lives under the guilt of having lost her son born to her too early in life as a rape victim.

    Then, there's the two mothers from Kannathil Mutthamittal - Simran and Nandita Das - the adopted mother and the biological mother. The adopted mother, Simran, especially delivers a performance for the ages.

  13. Good article. There is another mother-twin-sons relationship depicted in the movie Aurangzeb. That was also interesting and another potrayal of mother with good morals going against the norm, leaving the family and taking a son along.
    Infact in the climax of the movie (based on intra familial real estate based rivalries) a dialogue by Jakie Shroff gave the credit of 'good-side' winning to the mother.

  14. Speaking on depictions of mothers in films - the situation isn't very drastically different for cinema around the world. At IFFI in Goa recently after the screening of Marussia, a Russian-French movie based in Paris, some of the viewers neatly cross-examined the film's producer over the depiction of the 6-year-old Marussia's free-spirited mother. The mother and daughter in the film find themselves homeless on the streets of Paris, but they aren't your typical emigrants. The mother is a Russian journalist who ran into trouble back home over a love affair with a politician. It is understandable that well-meaning Parisians, who do their best to help the beautiful little girl, find it hard to relate to her eccentric mother, who in my opinion at least, is no less a loving and caring maternal figure than our aarti-wielding Maas.
    The post-screening discussion made me realize that mothers like this one are not only an oddity for general society, they are also an oddity in cinema. We accept all kinds of lovers, all kinds of friends, even fathers are allowed to be less than perfect - but mothers, be it in a Hindi blockbuster, or a Majid Majidi film or a Hollywood alien movie - the mother still has to be a protecting angel. At least if the film wants you to like her.

  15. BTW it is so great to see someone acknowledge that Nuripa Roy, Achal Sachdev, Leela Mishra, Dina Pathak etc. were very talented actresses even when relegated to playing ridiculously underwritten parts.