IN Indian films, the roles that mothers played, until recently, were mostly stereotyped. They were always shown as the caregivers who presented themselves at the drop of a hat to solve the problems of their children. It didn’t matter if the children themselves were in their 50s and 60s. Their back-and-knee pain couldn’t stop them from trying to take control of the ship and steady it till their last breath. Their ability to whip up some magic in the kitchen in no time, or look for the bright spot in a sticky situation, was unparalleled. Also, they were never the sources of pain, for they moved around like angels whose only purpose was to serve their husbands and kids.
Now, the newly written films and series (in the West) have put a little spin on the idea of the perfect mother. Similarly, the relationship shared between the mothers and their daughters have changed a lot to make room for twenty-first century conversations and troubles. Mothers are no longer the embodiments of sacrifice. They ask for some space in their homes and lives regularly. And they don’t get easily offended when their 20-something daughters blame them for their sufferings.
In Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture (2010), Aura (played by the writer-director Dunham), who has come back home after getting a college degree, says to her mom (played by Laurie Simmons), “It’s not very mature, but every time I come into your room, I want to sleep in your bed.” At this point, you’d expect the mother to utter a loud, “yes,” with a smile, but she says curtly, “Well, you can sleep here if I’m here. You just can’t sleep here if I’m not here.” The simple logic behind it, as she goes on to explain, is that, “You need to be invited. I have to invite you to come in.”
Can you see any mom and daughter having this sort of a chat in Indian films? No! It’s absolutely unthinkable, right?
Here’s a snippet of an argument from another American film Lady Bird (2017), directed by Greta Gerwig, which is funny and tragic at the same time. Christine (Saoirse Ronan) thinks her mother (played by Laurie Metcalf) is bothering her with the family’s financial worries, so she says, “You give me a number for how much it costs to raise me. And I’m going to get older and make a lot of money, and write you a check for what I owe you so that I’ll never have to speak to you again.” Her mom’s sassy reply doesn’t involve a number. Instead, she mocks her by adding, “Well, I highly doubt that you will be able to get a job good enough to do that.”
(The chances of these kinds of give-and-take war of words happening in South Asian countries are next to impossible.)
Mothers On The Indian-Screens
In Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Tamil film, Amma Kanakku (2016), the mother (Shanti, played by Amala Paul), who works as a housemaid and does several other odd jobs to make ends meet, joins her daughter’s (Abhinaya, played by Yuvasri Lakshmi) school to teach her a lesson. As the tenth grade student isn’t really keen on studying and securing high marks, Shanti takes it upon herself to show her daughter that if she herself can ace mathematics, so can the teenager. And Abhinaya, who used to pass the time by watching television and playing with her friends until then, begins to study with a rapacious vigor.
This is still a trope that contains the features of a sob story as there are several scenes depicting Shanti getting buried under laborious work. She doesn’t want her only daughter to follow in her footsteps. She, in fact, wants her to become an IAS officer. Similarly, the mother (played by Rohini), in Rahul Ravindran’s Telugu romantic drama, Chi La Sow (2018), decides to throw herself off the balcony in a fit of rage since she believes that her mental illness (she suffers from bipolar disorder) is acting as a detriment to her daughter’s (played by Ruhani Sharma) life.
The mother, in this particular movie, is afraid that her daughter won’t get married till she’s alive as the families of the prospective grooms view her mental condition as either an embarrassment, or a thing to be frowned upon. She wonders if Anjali would ever find a kind-hearted husband!
If you keep these tales aside and watch Sarjun’s Tamil horror drama, Airaa (2019), you’ll realize that filmmakers know of only one way to portray the mother as an antagonist in Indian cinema, and that’s by making her hate her own daughter. The mother (played by Senthi Kumari), and everybody around her, mistreat the daughter (played by Nayanthara) as they consider her to be an unlucky girl. They opine that her ill-fated nature killed her father on the day she was born (he dies after getting struck by lightning). And they further annoy her for being dark-complexioned. None of this, at the end of the day, is the daughter’s fault. Perhaps, that’s why her anger feels justified when she comes back from the dead as an evil spirit to murder her tormentors.
As far as the characters of the mothers go, writers usually don’t venture beyond this end of the spectrum in India. In the West, though, the frenzied flags fly high outside the borders of socially acceptable norms frequently. In the eight-episode series Sharp Objects (2018, based on Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name), the mother poisons one of her daughters as she suffers from Munchausen syndrome by proxy. These types of plot points are certainly uncharted territories for Indian cinema, but we’re slowly getting there by making protagonists and antagonists out of every leading and supporting character.
All the screen-mothers need not bend to the whims and fancies of their children, or be carved out of patriarchal chalkboards to make them appear as villains. Let them also be ordinary, have flaws, and breathe the same air as normal people. Once in a while, however, I wouldn’t mind the warmth of a poignant scene, like the one in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Japanese drama, Shoplifters (2018), where the mother figure tells a little girl, “If they say they hit you because they love you, that’s a lie. If they love you, if they really love you, this is what they do (she hugs the girl tighter affectionately and makes her understand that true love is never violent).”
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