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Reema Lagoo (1958-2017): The new age Mother India

Playing the jovial, intelligent, and often a commanding woman, Reema Lagoo redefined the age old archetype of the mother in Indian cinema.

Reema Lagoo in Hamara Khandaan (1988)

Shriram Iyengar

The death of actress Reema Lagoo at the age of 59 feels like an abrupt end to an era. The actress, who redefined the archetype of mother in Indian cinema, was an integral part of Indian cinematic memory of the '90s-2000 era. In around 37 years as an actress, she established herself through maternal roles in iconic blockbusters like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun...! (1994), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Vaastav: The Reality (1999) and several others. Reema Lagoo endowed each of these mothers with unique shades. It was the hallmark of a champion stage artiste.

Born Nayan Bhadbhade in 1958 to famous stage actress Mandakini Bhadbhade, she was blessed with a genetic inclination towards the craft of acting. Having made her mark on stage in her school, Huzurpaga High School in Pune, she was soon offered acting jobs with various theatre companies. While she continued to work through the '70s and '80s, it was only with her performance in Purush, a play written by noted Marathi playwright Jaywant Dalvi, that was her breakthrough. Playing a fiery school teacher who takes justice into her own hands after society fails to bring her rapist to his knees, Lagoo delivered a masterclass. Nana Patekar, cast opposite her in the play, still considers it to be one of the finest performances on stage.

Speaking of her stage experiences in an interview, Lagoo said, "I was lucky to learn from some stalwarts of the stage. Vijayabai (Vijaya Mehta), Kamlakar Sarang, Sai Paranjpye. Every director has a different style of teaching, and you learn."

Reema Lagoo with Sanjay Dutt in Vaastav: The Reality (1999)

Theatre was an integral part of her career. She married Marathi actor Vivek Lagoo, but separated after a few years. Having been a part of Jabbar Patel's political drama, Sinhasan (1979) and the romantic drama, Javyachi Jaat (1979), she made her debut in Hindi cinema with Govind Nihalani's Aakrosh (1980). For those who remember her as a mother, the lavni performance in Nihalani's film might come as a surprise. She was then cast in a supporting role opposite Rishi Kapoor in Hamara Khandan (1988). It wasn't until Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) that Lagoo truly adopted the 'mother' title. Playing Juhi Chawla's mother in the romantic drama based on Romeo and Juliet, Lagoo was the perfect comforting balm in an enthralling film. She was in her 30s at the time.

Sadly, it also ended up being a curse. She was soon the industry's go-to actor for playing its most famous archetype. Despite this, Lagoo's talent was irrepressible. Through the '90s, she played mother to every top actor of the generation. She mothered Salman Khan famously in Maine Pyar Kiya (1989), Saajan (1991), Hum Aapke Hain Kaun...! (1994), and Hum Saath-Saath Hain (1999). She also played mother to Shah Rukh Khan in Yes Boss (1997), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003). There was also the fiery re-adaptation of Mother India in Mahesh Manjrekar's Vaastav: The Reality (1999).

Despite the staidness of her roles, Lagoo was never ordinary. She brought a new interpretation of the mother to the screen. Simple, caring, but never naive, Lagoo's realistic portrayal was born out of her own experiences and expertise. "You learn from the surroundings, by observing people around," she said in an interview to IBN Lokmat in 2016.

It is no surprise that film audiences all over the country took to her instantly. In Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), she played an independent mother who is the pillar of strength her son who shares his pain. In Yeh Dillagi (1994), she played a cold-hearted businesswoman with elan. In Vaastav: The Reality (1999), she delivered one of her career best performances as the ideal mother who brooks no evil from Sanjay Dutt. It was almost an updated version of the role played by Dutt's mother, Nargis, in Mother India (1957). A decade on, it is hard to imagine anyone else stepping into those legendary shoes. Incidentally, her four Filmfare Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress have all come when she played mother.

With Salman Khan in Maine Pyar Kiya (1989)

The mother chased her even outside films, albeit with a difference. In 2016, she played a viciously insecure and manipulative mother in the Marathi play, Chaapa Kaata. In Naamkaran, her last television role, she played the orthodox grandmother who does not approve of her grand daughter's marriage to her love. These roles are proof of her versatility that continued through her career.

While her roles might seem serious, Lagoo was also a fine comic actress. Her television stints with Shriman Shrimati (1994)  and Tu Tu Main Main (1996) proved this. For many of the younger generation, these remain the outstanding memories of the early years of cable television in India.

As the news of her death broke on Twitter, writer Apurva Asrani wrote, "I wish we wrote better roles for actresses. immense talent was traded in for stereotypical mother roles, from the age of 30!"

Reema Lagoo is survived by her daughter, Mrunmayee, who is also a director and actress in Marathi theatre. It is a heavy legacy that she carries.