The New Mother India: Flawed but Fabulous

Move over, Nirupa Roy and Nargis. It’s 2022 and on-screen mothers would like everyone to remember, older women contain multitudes
The New Mother India: Flawed but Fabulous

In Anubhuti Kashyap’s directorial debut, Doctor G (2022), Sheeba Chadha plays Shobha, a woman in her mid-40s who is finally exploring other aspects of her life besides motherhood. While her son Uday (Ayushmann Khurrana) is the star of the film, Shobha’s story is an important part of Doctor G and one that unfolds parallel to Uday’s. Thanks to the internet, Shobha discovers other things she can be (a culinary entrepreneur, for instance) and opens up to new experiences, like finding a romantic partner. Her smartphone-powered escapades deliver gentle laughs, but not at the cost of making her a laughing stock. We’re always rooting for her — particularly when Uday’s jaw drops — because her discreet but definite strides towards autonomy reveal unexpected aspects to Shobha. At one point, she tells Uday — without any bitterness or vitriol — that she’d contemplated an abortion when she was pregnant with him. She’s perhaps the first on-screen mother in mainstream Hindi cinema to make this blasphemous admission, and thanks to the gentle strength of Chadha’s performance, we emphathise with her. 

In 2022, Shobha was one of the many filmi mothers who took a bat to the conventional role model of a mother. Another one was Geeta (Neetu Kapoor) in In Jujugg Jeeyo, director Raj Mehta’s family drama about one family with two collapsing marriages. The film begins with Kukoo (Varun Dhawan) and Naina (Kiara Advani) struggling to talk to Kukoo’s parents, Bheem (Anil Kapoor) and Geeta, about their decision to divorce. The story takes a turn when Kukoo realises that his father has been having an affair and intends to separate from Geeta, but it’s in the second half, when we learn how Geeta views her marriage, that the film really gets interesting. Sitting with Naina, Geeta opens up and tells the younger woman how she’s stayed with Bheem even though she wasn’t really happy. He’s not a bad guy, she adds, but that’s not enough to make a good life partner. Wives of good Bollywood families aren’t supposed to have such feelings, let alone admit to them. Mehta’s boldest move is to make Geeta the one who wants and gets a divorce — another blasphemous decision — though he dulls the sting by letting Bheem have the last word in the film (he assures his son that he can win Geeta back). Considering all we’ve heard from Geeta, you’ve got to wonder if Bheem’s confidence isn’t misplaced. Geeta doesn’t seem to be in the mood to settle or compromise. Finally, after decades, she’s made herself her priority.

Once a paragon of sacrifice, Bollywood mothers, like the unforgettable Nargis in Mother India (1957) and Nirupa Roy in Deewaar (1975), were all about tough choices, and being in service to either their sons or a patriarchal ideal of some sort. They were frequently torn between righteousness and maternal love. The good ones were morally upright despite all the obstacles while the ‘bad’ mothers were indulgent, nudging their progeny towards immorality. Rarely were on-screen mothers allowed to have layers or lives beyond the scope of the male protagonist’s story. The advent of streaming played a major role in expanding the creative space afforded to older women, who are almost always cast as mothers. This year, the more nuanced and expanded roles tempted leading ladies of the past decades to return to our screens. We saw Raveena Tandon in Aranyak, Sonali Bendre in The Broken News, Juhi Chawla in Hush Hush, and Pooja Bhatt in Bombay Begums, Vidya Balan in Jalsa, among others. Actors like Sakshi Tanwar in Mai and Shefali Shah in Darlings revamped the conventional idea of what makes a mother with their powerful performances. 

This year has been a golden one for Shefali Shah, who has played leading roles in major shows like Human and Delhi Crime 2, and was seen in key supporting roles in films like Darlings, Jalsa and Doctor G. In Darlings, directed by Jasmeet K Reen, Shah plays Shamshu, an angsty and feisty middle-aged survivor of an abusive marriage who desperately wants her daughter Badru (Alia Bhatt) to walk out on Hamza (Vijay Varma) because he beats and terrorises Badru. She keeps urging Badru to pursue financial and emotional independence, even if that means casually suggesting to bump Hamza off. But that’s not all. There’s also a lovely, affectionate subplot featuring Shamshu and Zulfi (Roshan Mathew), a young man who is Badru’s ally and nurses a crush on Shamshu. The moment Zulfi confesses his feelings for Shamshu is one of the most charming in Darlings, mostly because of the way Shamshu lights up. Moments later, she kisses him — defying not just the conventions of age, but also demanding acknowledgement for the idea that an older woman can be desirable and that a mother can feel desire. 

Shah was also on fire in Suresh Trivedi’s Jalsa, where she played Rukhsana, who works as househelp for a high-profile journalist, Maya (Balan). The film is pivoted on an incident in which Maya, after falling asleep at the wheel, hits a young woman with her car. The young woman turns out to be Ruksana’s daughter. Rukhsana, who works as a carer for Maya’s disabled son, struggles with the guilt of being absent from her own family while taking care of someone else’s. While Maya has to grapple with her conscience and the consequences of trying to cover up her crime, Rukhsana faces relentless pressure to withdraw the case and even contemplates going for a compromise instead of pursuing justice for her daughter. Triveni makes sure both women have some ambivalence to them and the narrative encourages us to empathise with them, instead of judging them. Both of their moral compasses prove to have flaws. The power balance is unequal, but if Maya can wield her influence to convince others to side with her, Rukhsana has a dangerous edge of power as Maya’s son’s carer. The question of how the love of a mother can curdle morality lends Jalsa a certain unpredictability. This is also explored in by Tabu’s portrayal of Meera in Drishyam 2. The former police officer’s love for her deceased son turns her into something close to a villain, which is an interesting subversion of the idea of a mother’s unconditional love. We’ve seen countless Hindi films that celebrate the idea of a mother’s undying fondness for her son and her refusal to believe anything bad about him. However, instead of being the hallmarks of a good woman, in Drishyam 2, they become the characteristics of a villain. 

Perhaps the most memorable of this year’s imperfect mothers is in Qala.  Urmila Manjushree (Swastika Mukherjee) wants her daughter to become a famous singer and to that end, she puts Qala (Triptii Dimri) through a tortuous training regiment. She shows little tenderness towards her child, even when Qala is an infant. Determined to garner respect for herself through her child, Urmila projects her baggage and ambitions on Qala, but also views her daughter with animosity because Qala ‘killed’ Urmila’s dreams of mothering a son (Urmila was pregnant with twins but only one of the foetuses survived). Dominant, hard-hearted and dismissive of Qala’s talents, Urmila verges on being monstrous and is a recurring obstacle on Qala’s path to self-discovery. Director and writer Anvitaa Dutt keeps reminding us that Urmila doesn’t exist in a vacuum. She scatters hints of what Urmila has survived, the patriarchal chains that shackle her. Urmila’s vulnerability is seen only towards the end of the film, by which time it’s too late. She’s failed both as a mother and as a guru, and yet you can’t can’t help but feel just a little twinge of sympathy for this complicated mess of a woman. 

At the opposite end of the support spectrum is Shardul’s mother in Badhaai Do, played by Chaddha. Mrs. Thakur (amusingly credited as Baby Thakur on IMDB) is barely present in the household, let alone in Shardul’s life. In her joint family, she’s regularly dismissed for not being intelligent enough and for lacking all capacity for independent thought. There are hilarious scenes in which Mrs. Thakur actually takes dictation of what she’s told to say to her daughter in-law, in an attempt to assert herself as the mother in-law. Even visually, director Harshvardhan Kulkarni often positions Chadha in the frame in a manner where it’s easy to not notice her. For instance, in the climactic confrontation where Shardul comes out to his family, his mother quietly sits behind him, just a blur of a presence until he makes his confession and leaves. The focus is on her only after he leaves the room, but hers is the only validation Shardul needs. The scene in which the two of them hug is one of the most poignant moments in Hindi cinema this year. Standing by him becomes her way of also standing up for herself and so in the final scenes of the film, she’s in the foreground, in clear definition and full of joy. 

In ways big and small, mothers in Hindi entertainment pushed the envelope and tried to break the conventional mould. As protagonists of major shows like Delhi Crime 2, Aranyak, Aarya 2, Mai, mothers took the space traditionally occupied by men and brought in the nuances of their gender with details like how they balance personal and professional lives. In films, they had smaller roles, but these older women made an impact on both the stories and their protagonists. Even in machismo-drenched, hero-centric films like K.G.F.: Chapter 2 and Liger, where the love interest paled into relative insignificance, mother knew best and mother was angry. In fact, it’s the mother’s anger that fuels the son in both films, which in its own way makes her central. Across genres and formats, women actors who would have at one point been set aside because they’re not young enough, reminded audiences that they contain multitudes. 

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