Of celluloid mothers

Changing portrayal

Of celluloid mothers

Over time, the mother image sometimes transformed itself to Dina Pathak in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Khubsoorat (1980) where she wields her invisible stick like a female Hitler.

The first film that venerated the mother figure in Indian cinema is Shyamchi Aai (Marathi). The story is adapted from Pandurang Sadashiv Sane’s classic book generations of Maharashtrians grew up with. Stripped of sentimental melodrama, Shyamchi Aai (Shyam’s Mother),  highlighted Shyam’s mother’s positive attitude and faith in God while facing life’s problems.

Mainstream filmmakers have used different archetypes of mythical goddesses to model most of their mother characters. It is traced to the Indian psyche that venerates the female in myth as well as in fantasy. The principal hallmarks of the unified Goddess-figure or the Devi attains an idealised and exalted state in motherhood. When subjected to abuse and humiliation, her triumph is sometimes established by a total holocaust and destruction brought about by her brave sons until harmony is restored and everything ends on a note of hope.

Nargis’ image in Mother India, according to film scholar Amaresh Mishra, celebrates the traditional motif of Indian womanhood. The symbol, the moral force of the nation is shown suffering in independent India, but emerges triumphant in the end as a new kind of ideal by shooting her own son. Trapped within the Mother Goddess image, Radha draws courage from within to kill her son for justice. She transcends the personal to reach the universal, bringing herself closer to the mythical goddesses who gave her shape. This frees her from the emotional and biological ties that bound her to her son.

In retrospect, Mother India is little more than a soppy, sentimental melodrama geared to raise the sympathies of a mixed audience. The box-office success of Mother India spewed forth a flood of celluloid imitations with top actresses playing an imitation. Smita Patil’s two films, Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki (1984) and Waris (1988) are examples of a dozen cheaper and cruder imitations which could not repeat the success of the original.

Since the 90s, the celluloid adaptations of the mythical Goddess have bowed out gracefully, bending to the changing market demands of globalization. The mother is no longer placed on a pedestal like she used to be earlier. Nor is she oppressed and victimised by the social environment around her like Leela Chitnis as Raj Kapoor’s mother was in Awara. She is even dressed differently. The transformation was slow and steady.

Kalpana Lajmi’s Darmiyaan, purportedly drawn from real life, shows the mother, a glamourous actress of Hindi cinema, refusing to acknowledge her only child as her natural offspring less because he is hermaphrodite and more because she does not wish to identify herself with the image of a mother in real life. In Sardari Begum (1996), Shyam Benegal raised questions about Sardari’s brutal repression of her daughter’s love life.  In Basu Bhattacharya’s Aastha (1996) Rekha, the mother of a school-going girl and the wife of a professor with modest means steps into prostitution triggered by her daughter’s desire for a pair of expensive shoes. Strangely, this does not change the status quo of her marriage even when her husband learns what she has been doing on the sly.

But the seeds were sown much earlier with Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975). The film depicted the changing shades of a husband-wife relationship where the politically ambitious wife and mother of a little girl sacrifices her motherhood for her political career and does not feel any remorse.

Like the woman in Aandhi, celluloid mothers in Indian cinema are no longer willing to be martyred. The image has transformed beyond recognition and the audience does not blink an eye. So one finds Lilette Dubey as the mother in Monsoon Wedding, smoking away to her heart’s content. In Hum Tum,  Rati Agnihotri plays the mother of the hero (Saif Ali Khan) who organises affluent wedding events for a living. She is a glamorous and upbeat woman separated from her husband (Rishi Kapoor). The icing on the cake goes to Pyaar Mein Twist (2005) that shows two elderly modern people, lonely after the demise of their respective spouses, falling in love and painting the town red, much to the embarrassment of their adult children.

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