Moms in our movies have just got a lot cooler. From oooh la la la Lilette Dubey to the hip Ratna Pathak Shah in Ek Main Aur Ek Tu, they are a far cry from the sobbing, suffering and sacrificing mothers in earlier movies, who would toil till they died for their laadla betas. It seems like only yesterday, that two screen sons in Yash Chopra’s Deewaar fought for Nirupa Roy’s attention as though their life depended on it. One remembers Shashi Kapoor shutting up Amitabh Bachchan with Salim-Javed’s classic line, Mere paas maa hai, and that little boy in Raja Aur Runk Master Mahesh singing, O maa tu kitni achi hai tu kitni bholi hai. Contrary though to their all-giving, all-sacrificing on screen maternal images, there were mothers of yesteryear, who seemed distinctly different from their on-screen avatars. There were those who loved beverages of the stronger kind and there is another who one hears drinks heavily and pushes around her domestic help!
Yet, moms were not always angelic. In B R Ishaara’s Kagaz Ki Nao, 30 years ago, Helen’s daughter Sareeka fainted with fright when she saw her widowed mom with a man. “Why do we presume our mothers are deities?” Helen had pleaded making a point in this movie about how mothers used to be. Now, the portrait of the mother as the last word in resilience and sacrifice has changed. When Shabana Azmi throttled her lover’s son in B R Ishaara’s Log Kya Kahenge? Or when Aroona Irani plotted against her doting step-son in Indra Kumar’s Beta, they were playing roles that blew away past notions of mother and cemented the reality that human nature is not always black or white but has shades of grey in between.
Says Shabana Azmi, “The mother in Hindi cinema has always been an avatar of Mother India, strong, principled, the chief custodian of the errant son’s morality. Given to sacrifice and hardship, she battles all odds to bring up her children. Today, she is changing whilst essentially retaining the core values. Dolly Ahluwalia in Vicky Donor drinks along with her mother-in-law whilst an indulgent son says, ‘She works so hard— a drink relaxes her.’ She runs a beauty parlour, has a short temper, screams at her son but has a heart of gold and after initial resistance supports her son in his decisions.
“Kajol in, My name Is Khan is a working mother far removed from the coughing, hapless Leela Chitnis. Long before these, Waheeda Rehman in Trishul is a revolutionary mother who challenges her son to seek revenge for his desertion, ‘nahi to main doodh maaf nahi karoongi’. Salim-Javed’s mother figure was always central to the story line, particularly in Deewar. Since my first film, Shyam Benegal’s Ankur, I have been claiming Yeh bachcha mera hai as the raison d'etre for keeping the child from an illicit relationship. I upheld a woman’s right to determine the fate of her womb in Mrinal Sen’s Genesis, Prakash Jha’s Mrityudand and Kalpana Lajmi’s, Ek Pal.”
Having said that, Hindi cinema’s best-known and best-loved moments of magic on screen are mother-oriented. From Mehboob Khan’s Mother India to Suchitra Sen in Mamta, Sharmila Tagore in Aradhana, Yash Chopra’s Deewar to Pravin Bhatt’s Bhavna (Shabana Azmi is a mother who becomes a hooker to make her son a doctor) somewhere, the role of the mother is constantly transforming. Even her diminishing importance is a transformation of sorts. Take for instance, Zarina Wahab who says, “I played Shah Rukh Khan’s and Hrithik Roshan’s mother in My Name Is Khan and Agneepath respectively. I had more to do than mothers do in films these days. Screen mothers have been completely marginalised. Nowadays, children don’t need their mothers to guide them beyond a point. And if the mother tries to make her presence felt, children say, ‘Mom, give us space’. Movies are doing just that. They are letting mothers be. There isn’t much for them to do. Earlier, there used to be a strong, emotional track with mothers. Nowadays, moms are too cool, if they’re there at all. In Shristi Behl’s, I, Me, Aur Main I play John Abraham’s mother. It’s a different kind of equation. When she visits her son, he feels ‘crowded’. Moms are no longer indispensable.”
The mom trajectory in films has an undulating graph. With a new breed of 30-minus heroes, came the younger hipper moms like Reema Lagoo, Anjana Mumtaz and Beena. Somehow, though, the large-hearted, all-giving mother seems to have gone with the wimp. Remember the 40-plus Rajendra Kumar in O P Ralhan’s Talaash sobbing in his mother Sulochana’s lap as Sachin Dev Burman sang, meri duniya hai maa tere aanchal mein? The last of the truly great, all-giving screen moms was Raakhee Gulzar who could bring in a great deal of empathy to roles that would otherwise have ended up as clichés. So, when did the screen moms begin to get mildewed? Was it when the Nirupa Roys and Dularis were replaced by the Waheeda Rehmans and Raakhees to make the mother more glamourous?
Lilette Dubey is a very adventurous actress. Contrary to keeping away from sharing screen space with her daughter like several moms do, in Pritish Nandy’s little-seen gem, Bow Barracks Forever she shared screen space with her daughter Neha, without playing her real-life role. Lilette says there were absolutely no qualms or fear about the two coming together. In fact earlier, in Bappaditya Roy’s Sau Sach Ek Jhooth, Lilette and Neha were cast as a very hyper-strung mother-daughter pair. Lilette says about the changing moms in Bollywood, “There’s a sea-change in the way mothers are portrayed. We, at least recognize to some extent, that a mother is an individual with her own needs and identity. They’re no longer the long-suffering martyrs. They’re more real. More today. The mother I played in Gadar is a far cry from Monsoon Wedding or even My Brother Nikhil. But they are nonetheless strong, individual characters.” Bollywood is partly a mirror of society and with roles in the family in flux, roles on celluloid are changing too. The mother, though less omnipresent on screen, has a three-dimensional character, proving that she is not above human foibles or peccadilloes, just like anybody else. Look, maa, they’re changing.