“Mere paas maa hai”- These four simple, yet powerful lines that were first said 46 years ago in the film Deewar have transcended the barrier of time and remained with us ever since. Whenever we think of the mother character, we are reminded of the significance of these lines and how we can fight against all odds if we have the mother’s hand over our head. Since its very inception, Bollywood carved out the archetype of a mother character, according to which she is overtly sentimental, melodramatic, and over the top in her depiction of emotions. Think of Neerupa Roy, Jaya Bachchan in the later part of her career, Kirron Kher, Farida Jalal or the iconic image of a plough bearing Nargis Dutt in Mother India, all these characters have embodied a similar prototype, that is, their entire existence revolves around the purpose of being a mother.
However, in recent times, Bollywood has been seen taking baby steps towards portraying a mother that is a character of her own, is grounded by certain motivations that are not an extended version of the hero’s motives and is independent.
A very recent example would be Renuka Shahane’s Tribhanga where we see the equations between mother and daughter spread over three generations of women. Going beyond the typical image of a mother figure that is as ‘pure’ as a goddess, this films focuses on the issues that were hardly associated with the perfect mother. It talks of single motherhood, abuse, open relationships and aspirations of a woman. When we paint a mother’s character with just one shade, we often tend to leave out her most humane qualities, and Shahane challenged this notion in her film where relatability lies in the imperfectness of the mother.
In Jazbaa, we see Aishwarya Rai’s Anuradha breaking the docile image of a mother and taking charge of things when her daughter is kidnapped. In Mom, Sridevi’s character does the same when she turns into a vigilante trying to avenge her stepdaughter after she is sexually assaulted at a party.
Nil Battey Sannata saw a mother who goes beyond her archetypical duties and enrolls in a school so that she can help her daughter excel in the subject of mathematics. The film ends with her tutoring struggling maths students which makes the statement that some characters are not bound by the constraints of doing something just because society expected them.
For the greater part, mothers are also shown as women whose ultimate goal is motherhood, and once that is achieved, she goes back to being a side character, stripped off of her own desires and individuality. Her life, which was till now associated with the man she married, suddenly starts revolving around her offspring, and she finds it hard to separate herself from their identity. Pradeep Sarkar challenged this concept in his film Helicopter Eela, which shows the transformation of a single mother from being overprotective about her son to rediscovering her desires and aspirations that she had before she got married.
Tumhari Sulu saw a mother struggling with her domestic responsibilities and her professional work as the onus to hold her family together fell on her, being the woman. However, the film did a good job in representation those struggles which are the reality of many and finally letting us know that you can keep the latter without losing the former.
Another remarkable portrayal would be Tabu’s character Ghazala in Haider. Hindi cinema has imprinted the image of a woman crying and praying for days after her husband’s demise but in Ghazala, the complexities of human behaviour show when she marries her husband’s brother instead. Anyone who has read Hamlet, the play Haider is based on, knows this is how things are supposed to unfold, but the odd choice of replacing a sentimental mother provided her character with a lot of depth and perspective that were previously hard to find. Taking that trail of thought forward, director Imtiaz Ali made a very important point through a compact scene in Jab We Met when he made Geet’s character (Kareena Kapoor) defend Aditya’s (Shahid Kapoor) mother even though the latter had nothing but disrespect towards her. After it is revealed that his mother had an extramarital affair and her subsequent elopement bought shame to the entire family, Geet explains to Aditya that when it comes to a mother, its hard to explain things, but her actions were a consequence of her being in love with someone, which is why Aditya should be more accepting of her.
While these characters helped to break the image of a self-sacrificing mother with sky-high moral values, it is going to be a long journey before these characters are normalized and we see a more realistic representation of a mother.
Furthermore, Shahid Kapoor’s line in Haider, “Maa jab jhoot bole na, nahi achchi lagti (When a mother lies, she doesn’t look good),” speaks volume on how we have been viewing mothers all along, putting them on pedestals and stripping them off their individuality.