Character Decoding 101: The Mother

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The stature of the mother is perhaps the highest of all in Indian cinema and otherwise. She is ever sacrificing, the eternal blackmailer, the loving mother and the nagging mother-in-law. In all her avatars, she is a character who forms the backbone of her family in reel and real life. However, while on-screen mothers in the past have cried and wept, suffered and waited for death to rid herself of her sorrows, mother’s post the millennium are far from that. With time, the equation of the motherly role has gone from feebly weak to ultra strong. No longer does she fall at the feet of an idol praying for salvation and justice – she now takes it upon herself to ensure she is not ill-treated by her grueling daughter-in-law. If she is left by her estranged husband, she manages to fend for herself and her family. That said, the role of the Indian mommy is still one that is given great respect and actors realize that it is the “maa” character that ultimately keeps the onscreen family “saath-saath.”

If an award had to be bestowed to the “Mother of all Mothers,” it would undoubtedly go to Nargis Dutt. After her portrayal in Mother India as the mother of her village and to her sons, onscreen mothers were never the same. The movie depicted the amount a mother has to endure for her family, society, her country and her land too as a dedication to Mother Nature. This movie has perhaps epitomized the one quality that all mothers possess on and off screen: sacrifice. From then on, the many actresses who portrayed Bollywood “maas” were giving the following brief: cry. Cry loud, cry soft, cry and sing, cry and dance. And cry they did…and how.

The nineties saw a new trend with on screen mothers. They, lost the “maa” title only to become “mom”; rid themselves of cotton saris only to be adorned with embellished designer ones; refused to be placed in a corner and instead danced at weddings and functions galore. On screen moms in the nineties were no longer sitting on the sidelines and listening to their on screen husband’s commands. No, nahin, not anymore. They moved on with new generations and became pals with their children thus making off screen real life mom’s do the very same. Farida Jalal, Reema Lagoo and Jaya Bachchan are those very iconic mothers who put the “M” in modern day Bollywood “moms.”

In more recent time, single and working mothers have also been incorporated into Hindi cinema. Veteran actresses such as Rekha and Kirron Kher, who played single mothers in Koi Mil Gaya and Hum Tum respectively, displayed such attributes with great stance and poise. Scriptwriters, directors and producers now realize that this is a social norm and is acceptable in modern day India. Additionally, these actresses have no difficultly enacting the role or even accepting the part. Take a closer look and audiences will see that while these women go ahead and divulge in the corporate world, their domicile remains top priority as is expected by the Hindustani nari.

Cut to today and modern moms are found in the form of Shabana Azmi, Lillette Dubey and Dimple Kapadia. These women are clearly ahead of their time. They have completely shed the sari act, streaked their hair and told their children to venture out on their own in matters of love and life. Not only are they done with being the sacrificial goat but will go the extra yard to ensure their happiness is taken into consideration. Playing a widow in Pyar Mein Twist, Kapadia did just that when she ran away with Rishi Kapoor only to cause mayhem amongst her children. Realizing their mother’s loneliness, the children succumb and understand their mother’s need for companionship. Sorry Bhai saw Azmi encouraging her son to indulge in a live-in relationship, courtesy of a bizarre situation, and lastly, Dubey was seen parading around huffing and puffing on cigarettes while planning her daughter’s shaadi in Monsoon Wedding.

Scriptwriters, very intelligently, also manage to paint shades of grey around the ladies who play mothers on the big screen because it is a reality that exists outside the cinema. Farhan Akhtar added components of alcoholism into the character of Dimple Kapadia in Dil Chahta Hai. However, he also portrayed her as a successful interior designer who was the apple of young man Akshay Khanna’s eye. Shabana Azmi was a workaholic, fame seeking mother who neglects her children in Tehzeeb and Reema Lagoo played the “good-gone-bad” mother in Hum Saath Saath Hai, who emotionally maneuvers her husband into signing over the property to her real children, abandoning her single step-child.

Talking about flipsides, there have been those frequently rare occasions in the past where maa’s have turned devilish in the form of step-moms or otherwise. Aruna Irani gave an award winning performance as the step-mother from hell that psychologically manipulates her son as she commands him to work in the farms and grow up illiterate. Vivaah saw a similar case. Seema Biswas took on a motherly role only to hate her neice, Amrita Rao, who had given her a place in her life as her mother. Rekha did the same in Dil Hai Tumhara and detested the mere sight of her step-daughter played by Preity Zinta. In typical Bollywood fashion, these characters evolve through the movie only to emerge, in the climax, as the all loving mother who finally realizes, because of a sacrifice made by the protagonist, that they are “maa’s” who love their children step or real, niece or nephew.

With time, Hindi cinema’s mothers have gone from “maa” to “mom” and from saris to jeans. Nevertheless, they still remain the same at heart. Maa or mom, whichever you choose to call them, still dote on their sons, still await their daughter’s weddings, and still will give up their happiness for their family. It is no wonder that real life mothers off screen take inspiration from their on screen counterparts when dealing with parallel situations.

A.R. Rahman went ahead and reiterated one of Hindi cinema’s most memorable lines when he won the much deserved Oscar award: “Mere paas maa hai.” While the western world may not understand why the one-liner possesses such emotional Indian sentiment, whether it’s on celluloid or not, maa’s are not going anywhere. Bollywood ke paas, kaafi sari maa’s hai! (Bollywood has a lot of Moms!)

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