Mother Doesn’t Know Best: Jaya Bachchan as the Matriarch in Rocky Aur Rani

Karan Johar’s films have always featured strong older women, but in Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani, Dhanalakshmi is cut from a different cloth
Mother Doesn’t Know Best: Jaya Bachchan as the Matriarch in Rocky Aur Rani

At what point in a film does a character become an idea? Is it when ideological convictions seep so deeply into the rhetoric that it becomes harder to imagine an inner life for the outlined character? Is it when a matriarch stuffs her wounds with pride, expects to be revered, and you only see her from the point of view of other characters who, instead of a person, see an immovable object stuck in her rigidity, revelling in her bitterness, committed to the very patriarchal philosophy that could have undone her, but didn’t? 

There is a perceivable tension in Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani, where director Karan Johar makes Dhanalakshmi Randhawa (Jaya Bachchan) an embodiment of problematic ideas inherent in a patriarchal family unit, while also granting her the humanity and not reducing her to just an idea of a patriarchal matriarch. She is an oddity among other older women in Johar’s films, like Sayeeda (Farida Jalal) and Nandini Raichand (Jaya Bachchan) from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), Rifat Bi (Himani Shivpuri) from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), and Kamaljit Saran (Kirron Kher) from Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2007). These women are all knit with sympathy and empathy by Johar. Dhanalakshmi, in contrast, seems to be little more than a hardened shell for a conservative worldview.  

Dhanalakshmi’s Relationship To The Women In Her Family

Rocky Aur Rani … starts with Rocky (Ranveer Singh) introducing us to a generational bitterness that has infected the family: it starts with Dhanalakshmi’s mother in-law, and continues uninterrupted. On one hand, incoming daughters-in-law are told to never lower their heads and literally hold their heads high, but at the same time, they’re to pay obeisance to mothers-in-law and keep their heads covered in deference to tradition. The emotional (or physical) violence isn’t seen, but a difficult relationship is insinuated. When her mother-in-law dies, we see an ecstatic Dhanalakshmi with the keys of the household in her clutches, and a Rs. 2000-crore empire waiting to be built on the shoulders of her laddoo-making skills, pragmatism and ambition; and without any help from her poet husband. 

Yes, Dhanalakshmi is ambitious, but she doesn’t see this as an invitation to explore a systemic issue that would have easily obstructed this desire had she had a patriarchal authority figure around her. Instead, she easily rationalises patriarchy and carries its behaviours forward when her son brings home his wife, without an itch in her conscience. Later, her grandson Rocky falls in love with a woman — Rani (Alia Bhatt) — who spouts feminist convictions freely. Dhanalakshmi, resolute in her beliefs, avoids every attempt to take her seriously. 

Matriarch Versus Patriarch in Rocky Aur Rani…

Dhanalakshmi is different from Yash Vardhan Raichand in K3G, even if she declaims his iconic dialogue from the film: “Keh diya na, bas keh diya” (an order that loosely translates to: “I said what I said”), right before the intermission. Depending on the cinema hall you watched this in, hooting and cheering might have ensued. In K3G, an (inadequate) admission of wrong by Yash Vardhan restores the family, closing wounds and clearing the way for healing. In Rocky Aur Rani, Johar steers the matriarch’s characterisation in a different direction. While we see Yash yearn with abandon for his son, we see Dhanalakshmi write a letter to Rani, giving her blessing for Rani and Rocky’s wedding. The letter may be seen as a peace treaty. A logic that is easy to pull out is about double standards: When the patriarch tells his son, who he himself exiled, that he should have reached out to him when he was being stubborn, we welcome him into the fold, because even this admission on his part is rare. Yet when the matriarch writes an articulate admission of her wrong and gives her blessing, her family (and the audience) maintain a cautious distance from her.

Amitabh Bachchan (L) AND Shah Rukh Khan (R) in a still from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham
Amitabh Bachchan (L) AND Shah Rukh Khan (R) in a still from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham

The distance that exists between the characters and Dhanalakshmi, and the audience and her character, is not one that can be simply bridged through hugs and an apology. A lifetime of Dhanalakshmi’s consolidated conservative value system will not unspool suddenly for her grandson, Rocky. There is an extra layer of consideration that the film thrusts upon her: Can you not only accept Rani, but also unlearn what you have taken for granted as objective fact? Can you reconsider your entire operational philosophy? So burdened is the film with this pursuit, that it unimaginatively draws a curtain over her inner life.

Dhanalakshmi’s Inner Life

To portray a character espousing ideas, while also granting them personhood, need not be an arduous task. Rani, for example, is frequently repetitive with her feminist convictions, but we also see her yearn, be vulnerable and earnest (as one has to be when they declare love to someone in Delhi's traffic) as an extension of those convictions. In contrast, when Dhanalakshmi sees her husband kiss another woman, we’re shown only comedic shock. As an emotional reaction, it is vague. Is she shocked that such a display of physical affection is inappropriate? Is she shocked that her husband could betray her so brazenly, in her presence? Is it both?

Alia Bhatt (L) and Jaya Bachchan (R) in Rocky Aur Răni...
Alia Bhatt (L) and Jaya Bachchan (R) in Rocky Aur Răni...

The only thing Dhanalakshmi truly desires, the film claims, is money — to the extent that she names her son Tijori (the word means treasury) and pulls him into both her patriarchal convictions, as well as the ambition to prioritise being her scion rather than her husband’s son. There are glimpses of sensitivity he displays when he is around his father that becomes shorthand for an alternate philosophy to patriarchy, one more gentle in its undertones. They offer insights into Tijori (played by Aamir Bashir) and his father, but there is nothing revelatory about Dhanalaxmi’s character in her parent-child dynamic with Tijori, even if Tijori has the most access to her in her family. 

Even as other ideas evolve, deepen and become layered over the course of Rocky Aur Rani…, Dhanalakshmi is suspended in a state of patriarchal ahankaar (arrogance). Towards the end, when her son resists her by standing up to her when she reprimands his wife, you’d think this betrayal on Tijori’s part would create a fissure of some sort. But all we get from Dhanalakshmi is vague shock (again). The next time we see her, she is writing a letter to Rani, a letter that gives Dhanalaxmi a redemption arc without any actual redemption. We are not given access to why she’s admitting her mistakes. (Is she spurred by the fear of being alone or genuine remorse? Why does she feel Rani will be more accepting of her than her own grandson?) We are only told that despite her admission, Dhanalakshmi remains cast out of the family.  

At his best, Johar can make you empathise with a patriarch like Yash Vardhan Raichand who is wounded by his own classism; Johar can make you root for Maya (Rani Mukherjee) and Dev (Shah Rukh Khan) in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna even as they check into a hotel room to cheat on their spouses. Yet when it comes to the representation of Dhanalakshmi, the persona remains limited to those wound up Jaya Bachchan memes that are gleefully distributed on the internet. The patriarchal matriarch, with her unbending spine and blind spots, is denied acceptance by both narrative and audience. She sits shrouded in shadow, and the woman who once said “Keh diya na, bas keh diya” is left with only her words for company.

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