Article Hindi

30 years of Beta (1992): A spirited taming of the monster-in-law

The Anil Kapoor- and Madhuri Dixit-starrer film features a robust clash of the women of the house who steal the show.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Hindi cinema loves a good stereotype. The wicked mother-in-law is one such stereotype that was a frequent occurrence in domestic dramas with Lalita Pawar immortalizing the role in several films.

Often portrayed as a vamp and a foil to the dutiful, simple daughter-in-law, the dominating mother-in-law concentrated her energies in creating havoc in the newlyweds' life. Although steeped in patriarchy with one woman being pitted against another and fighting over a man, the trope was nonetheless mostly a success.

Indra Kumar’s Beta (1992), which celebrates 30 years of its release today, brought together the tropes of the evil stepmother and mother-in-law, portrayed memorably by Aruna Irani. The film, which was a big hit, is mostly remembered for the intense face-off between Irani's mother-in-law and Madhuri Dixit's daughter-in-law, out to thwart each other’s plans.

Raju (Anil Kapoor) loses his mother at a young age and yearns for mother’s love. His father marries Lakshmi Devi (Aruna Irani) to bring home a mother to his son. Little does he know that his new wife is only after his wealth.

As luck would have it, Raju’s mother had made an iron-clad will which makes him the inheritor of all the property. So, Lakshmi Devi schemes and bides her time, fashioning the young boy to become a slave to her will. She keeps him illiterate, urging him to become a farmer instead of an informed, educated man. We are also given the symbolism of a potter fashioning a vase out of raw earth, just as the mother proceeds to do with her stepson. She locks her husband up on the pretext that he is of unsound mind, effectively removing that obstacle from her path. With the coast clear, all she has to do is wait.

However, as the saying goes, the best-laid plans of mice and women often go awry, as do hers when Raju unexpectedly marries Saraswati (Dixit), an educated, informed woman with a reformist bent of mind.

Initially, the daughter-in-law takes her mother-in-law at face value, but she soon starts to see her true colours. She tries to get her husband to see the truth, only to realize that he is completely blinded by the façade that his stepmother has carefully constructed around herself. Thus begins the face-off between the two women who must cross swords and deploy their intelligence to foil the other.

The film is set in a small town and there is the mandatory village fair, the dacoit who treats women as his personal property, and the antiquated notions of a woman’s 'honour' which Raju, as the moral, upright man, must defend. In this mix, Saraswati is the educated woman who knows better than to be reduced to chattel in her husband’s home. The idea of reform through education is certainly one of the underlying themes of the film while keeping intact the idea of the dutiful, traditional wife. Saraswati is mostly dressed in sarees and heavy jewellery, while the foil to her character, the city-bred, modern, morally corrupt woman in the film played by Kunickaa Sadanand is seen in Western wear.

Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit in a scene from Beta

Much of the film’s intensity and appeal lies in the clash between Irani and Dixit, who perform their roles to perfection. Irani’s eyes blaze with hatred as she faces the possibility of her son slipping through her fingers. Kapoor’s character is mostly reduced to that of a village bumpkin who cannot see the truth that is plain as day.

Although Indra Kumar is Irani’s brother, she was not his first choice for the role. In an interview with Filmfare magazine, the actress discussed how the role of the scheming matriarch came to be hers. “He [Indra Kumar] told me about his debut directorial venture and asked me to help him cast the mother," she said. "Waheeda Rehman, Sharmila Tagore, Mala Sinha and Shabana Azmi had refused to play the character, which had shades of grey.

"He was in a fix. He wanted to cast me in the role eventually played by Bharti Achrekar. I refused and told him that if he wanted me in his film, I had to play the mother. He mumbled that this was the beginning of his career, he couldn’t take risks. We had a huge fight. I was devastated. After so many years of hard work, did my brother still need proof of my versatility? I told Indu that though I may do 20,000 more roles like the one he was offering me, I would not play an insignificant character in his film. Two days later he asked me to play Lakshmi Devi. I burst into tears.”

Although her character had limited lines and she had to primarily convey her emotions through her eyes, Aruna Irani was determined to make the role a success and said, “During every shot, the thought uppermost in my mind was, ‘You didn’t think I could play this character, I’ll prove you wrong.’ There was anger and vengeance in my mind and eyes throughout Beta.” Her hard work certainly paid off as she was presented with the Filmfare award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.

The music of the film by the duo Anand-Milind contributed significantly to its success, along with Madhuri Dixit’s dance moves, with the song 'Dhak Dhak Karne Laga' topping the list. There was a bit of controversy around the song as the Central Board of Film Certification felt the dance was too risqué. However, ace choreographer Saroj Khan, who, incidentally, won the Filmfare Best Choreographer award for the film, defended her choice of moves robustly, leading to the film being passed without any cuts!

Beta was also testimony to Dixit’s stardom as she had a much meatier role than Anil Kapoor in the film, leading audiences to wonder why the film was not called ‘Beti’. If the industry grapevine is to be believed, Kapoor was miffed at being reduced to a second lead and after fulfilling his signed commitments did not take up any roles opposite Dixit for a while, lest she overshadow him again!

As fate would have it, when she starred alongside his brother Sanjay Kapoor in Raja (1995), she stole the show again and audiences mused why the film was not called ‘Rani’! Well, all we can say is, you can't keep a good woman down.