Finally, no longer Mother India

What a relief now to watch mothers on screen trying not to paint a picture of maternal perfection

Published - September 29, 2023 12:09 pm IST

 A collage of stills from Made in Heaven, Dahaad, Class and Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani

 A collage of stills from Made in Heaven, Dahaad, Class and Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

At last, the Indian mother is going bad. For nearly 70 years now, we have been living in the afterglow of Mother India, taking pride in the moral righteousness and maternal self-sacrifice that made Nargis’s Radha the forever ideal ‘ma’. She showed us that no matter how insurmountable the hardship and how fraught the situation, the Indian mother would always do the right thing. She’d stay honest and incorruptible, and she’d always, always, put her children first. What a relief now to watch mothers on screen, plotting and scheming, tormenting and troubling their children.

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I noticed this change first when I was watching Dahaad, a slickly made police procedural loosely based on the real story of a serial killer, Mohan Kumar, ‘Cyanide Mohan’, who lured and killed 20 women in Karnataka between 2005 and 2009. The show is set in Rajasthan and in an inspired bit of plotting, it features Sonakshi Sinha as Anjali Bhatti, a sub-inspector of police, illustrating both the continued victimisation of women as well as the possibility of breaking out of traditional roles. The victims in Dahaad are young women from lower middle-class or poorer homes, who succumb to the charms of their new lover before falling victim to him.

Burdened by poverty and the guilt of the financial drain their eventual weddings will cause to their families, the women are vulnerable to anyone who offers them a stab at happiness. They run away from their homes and disappear from the lives of their families. But, as Sinha’s character Bhatti goes around meeting the families of the victims, she realises that most of the women were not even reported as missing. The mothers of the victims we are shown are usually just angry at their missing daughters, cursing them for bringing dishonour to the families. Bhatti’s mother herself is constantly worried about her daughter’s honour. She doesn’t have much to say about her child’s bold choice of career, instead she only wishes she were married. In a major break from what Indian filmmakers have always offered us, the makers of this show don’t bother to ‘balance’ the crudity of these mothers by showing us glimpses of their maternal warmth. They are just terrible mothers, full stop.

Utter awfulness

If Dahaad holds up a mirror to the aridity of maternal love in poor households in rural areas, Made in Heaven brings them to the shiny doorsteps of the urban elite. In this show too, where everything is glossy, the mothers are in shades of grey. One is pushy and materialistic and only cares about money. Another refuses to be kind to her son even while she is on her deathbed. The third is constantly grinding at her daughter’s self-confidence by worrying about how dark-skinned she is. The mothers here are presumably educated and English-speaking, but they are as much foot soldiers of patriarchy as their poorer, rural counterparts in Dahaad. And here too, there is no glossing over their utter awfulness.

All of this was impressive but did not really signal a cultural shift. I have written a book about the Indian mother-in-law and have grown used to looking at the prism of Indian family through the gender of the child. The awful mothers in the shows all had daughters, except for one and her son was gay. Therefore, I was almost ready to dismiss this entire phenomenon as an interesting but insignificant phenomenon, when last weekend I happened to watch Karan Johar’s mega-hit Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani. And there, unfolding on my screen was Jaya Bachchan, a mother so bad, so selfish and so entirely caught up in herself that she did not spend a moment worrying about her son’s (or husband’s) unhappiness. She was a self-appointed matriarch, who could easily put any 20th century dictator to shame. Now, this was real. Showcasing a bad mother of a son in a mega-budget popular movie is Johar’s biggest accomplishment as far as I am concerned.

Getting real

Navigating motherhood is often a difficult and treacherous exercise. It’s a constant and continuous test of patience, requires limitless self-sacrifice and it usually wipes out all other identities of a woman’s selfhood. Our society and culture do not permit our mothers any folly. We have only seen mothers who uncomplainingly put the family first; ever smiling sari-clad figures tossing vegetables in the kitchen and proudly laying a table full of nutritious food. Their superpowers are legendary, their laundry skills can make stubborn stains vanish, their kiss is the only cure the kids’ coughs need. It is impossible to constantly be this mother.

Yet, no one parts the curtain to show us the reality of motherhood; that while there is gratification, there is also self-doubt, that while there is love, there is also anger and resentment. I can understand why it is terrifying for a society to show motherhood as a difficult exercise, macroeconomic imperatives demand a constantly growing population. But for mothers, especially young mothers, there is nothing more damaging than the illusion that all other mothers are perfect, while they themselves are grappling with their shortcomings.

This is why the new mothers on television are inspiring. They are not trying to paint a picture of maternal perfection. They are filled with envy and anger, greed and sloth. For far too long now, in India, mothers have been in the realm of angels. But now it’s time to reckon that mothers are people too.

Veena Venugopal is the author of Independence Day: A People’s History.

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