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The changing struggle of being 'maa' in Indian cinema — Mother's Day special

Over the years, the struggle of the Hindi cinema 'Maa' has gone from raising children in an antagonistic world, to taking on the world by herself. On Mother's Day, we take a look at the changing struggles of the filmi mother in Hindi cinema.

Shriram Iyengar

In an interview post the release of her acclaimed English Vinglish (2012), director Gauri Shinde said, "To be able to understand women and put those emotions down might be easier but to be able to put a whole film together, it would be as easy or as difficult for any one."

For a female director to make that statement is a reflection, and a reasoning, as to why one of Indian cinema's most notable archetypes — the mother — remained so impoverished in characterisation over the years.

There are few archetypes that have become so closely associated with Indian cinema like the mother. From the iconic Mother India (1957) to Deewaar (1975) and the latest reinventions in English Vinglish and Bajirao Mastani (2015), the 'maa' has undergone a transformation. It would be incredibly biased to say that Hindi cinema never paid attention to its 'maa's, but they were still characters who existed in singular dimensions. Their life, in the film, was often defined by the ideal functions of sacrifice, maternal instincts and submissive behaviour.

Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor with their maa Nirupa Roy in Deewaar (1975)

The first director to break this was the iconoclastic Mehboob Khan. In Aurat (1940) and the later, Mother India (1957), Mehboob Khan established the gold standard of cinematic motherhood against which all female matriarchs were to be measured.

For his magnum opus that shaped the consciousness of a young nation, Mehboob Khan cast Nargis, a prototype of the young, liberated, sexual woman. The actress played the embodiment of the 'adarsh nari' (ideal woman), one who would sacrifice her own children, and life, for honour, truth, and justice. It was a template that would repeat itself in several characters over the years.

As director Gulzar says, "The mother cult has been, from the beginning, one of the strongest thematic strands in Indian cinema, ranging from noble, self-sacrificing mothers to those (mothers-in-law) who pamper their sons and persecute their daughters-in-law. Thematically, Mother India, made in 1957, is one of the most successful, as well as one of the most idealistic films in Indian terms." Gulzar's definition refers to the deifying of the 'mother' who was a goddess on a pedestal, a protectror.

Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar with their maa Nargis Dutt in Mother India (1957)

The recent portrayal of Raveena Tandon as a vengeful mother in Maatr (2017) who loses sight of justice in her hunt for revenge is a reversal of the age old archetype. This reversal is part of a growing interest in Hindi cinema that is beginning to look at the mother as a more holistic character with rough edges. To be fair, Tandon's portrayal harks back to some iconic matriarchs like Rakhee in Karan Arjun (1995). In Rakesh Roshan's drama, Rakhee plays the woman awaiting the wrath of her sons to fall on her enemies.

Unlike Nirupa Roy in Deewaar, or Waheeda Rehman in Trishul (1979), Rakhee's character is more aggressive in her ambition, and ends. Incidentally, this style finds resonance in more recent matriarchs like Shivagami from the Rs1,000 crore blockbuster Baahubali (2016) and Radhabai in Bajirao Mastani (2015), with a slight difference.

In Baahubali, Shivagami is a Machiavellian ideal of the Maahishmati kingdom, capable of turning out her own protege when his actions threaten the kingdom. She is not just mother to Baahubali, but the entire kingdom.

In Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Bajirao Mastani (2015), Radhabai's opposition to Mastani stems equally from her orthodoxy, and the fear of the consequence her marriage to Bajirao might have on other nobles in the Maratha court. Both these power hungry, shrewd matriarchs are evolutions of Mother India, a mother to the entire kingdom at the cost of her own brood.

But it is not just power that has entered the lexicon of Hindi cinema's new generation mothers. Their personal lives now revolve in spheres beyond their family, and form the crux of the stories.

Gauri Shinde's English Vinglish, based on instances in her mother's life, revolved around a capable mother, challenged by her ignorance of the English language. They are strong enough to step out into the world and forge their own path, even when their family dissociates from them.

Nil Battey Sannata (2016), had a househelp (played by Swara Bhaskar) rejoining school, inviting the displeasure of her own daughter. In both films, the mother emerges as an independent entity, a woman who pursues her own dreams and desires. She has friendships, rivalries, and is even jealous of her own children. Even in a film like Wake Up Sid (2009), Supriya Pathak's pidgin speaking mom perseveres to keep learning, despite being branded uncool by the next generation.

The presence and importance of the husband in the filmi mother's life has also reduced over time. While in the past, Hindi cinema tended to present its mothers as dependent on husbands or their sons, the modern Hindi cinema 'maa' is different.

In Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na (2008), Ratna Pathak Shah's character keeps battling with her dead husband over bringing up their son. While it provides some Freudian insight into the character, it takes nothing away from a single mother, who is also a social worker fighting other battles. She does not need her son to protect her, or her husband.

In Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), Shah Rukh Khan's sappy romantic track often distracts from the courageous tale of Naina's mother (played by a real life matriarch of the Bachchan family, Jaya Bachchan), who raises her children, and step children in a hostile foreign land.

In R Balki's Paa (2009), the problems are compounded as Vidya Balan raises a progeriac Amitabh Bachchan in London. Neither of these women needed, nor depended on the presence of a husband. All these point to the humanisation of Hindi cinema's favourite 'mother' goddess.

In an interview post the release of the film, Vidya said, "I think we are treating women characters more as human beings now, and that’s why they are becoming more relatable." Replace 'women' with mothers, and the statement still stands true.

In the arcane Vicky Donor (2012), a film that taps into the ultimate male fiefdom of sperms, the scene stealers were the matriarchs running the beauty parlour. Played by Dolly Ahluwalia and Kamlesh Gill, the two were symbolic of the control, and domination exerted by women in real life. They drink, they curse, they call their husbands names while trying to fight the world and raise a son. It is not an easy job, after all.

The mother archetype in Indian cinema was based on the goddess Kali — brave, selfless, sacrificing and a protector. In recent times, this archetype has acquired a more wholesome dimension, complete with flaws, desires, ambitions and fears. While she is still the centre around which the on-screen family revolves, the modern mother has emerged as a universe on her own. She is more human, more relatable, and still no less powerful.