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The Celluloid Mother

April 26, 2010 07:14:48 PM IST
Shoma A. Chatterji, TWF, Bollywood Trade News Network
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When one talks of mothers on celluloid, one generally visualizes the image of a sacrificing mother who is either bent over a sewing machine stitching clothes in umpteen films or, working at a construction site bent under the weight of bricks on her head, such as Nirupa Roy in DEEWAR (1975). Over time, the mother image sometimes transformed itself to Dina Pathak in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's KHUBSOORAT (1980) where she wields her invisible stick like a female Hitler. We also witnessed the pain and anguish of the mother portrayed by Rakhi in Ramesh Sippy's SHAKTI where she is helplessly sandwiched between her loyalty towards her husband and her love for her son.

The first film that venerated the mother figure in Indian cinema is SHYAMCHI AAI (Marathi). The film won the Golden Lotus, the President's Gold Medal for the Best Feature film in 1953. The story is adapted from Pandurang Sadashiv Sane's classic book generations of Maharashtrians grew up with. Stripped of sentimental melodrama, SHYAMCHI AAI (Shyam's Mother) directed by Acharya P.K. Atre, highlighted Shyam's mother's positive attitude and deep faith in God while facing life's problems. It instilled good values among children and young people. It is more an emotional journey than a celluloid one. Vanamala's portrayal as the mother was down-to-earth and religious. This left a deep impression on maternal characters in Indian cinema.

Mainstream film-makers have used different archetypes of mythical Goddesses to model most of their mother characters. It is traced to the Indian psyche that venerates the female in myth as well as in fantasy. The principal hallmarks of the unified Goddess-figure or the Devi attains an idealized and exalted state in motherhood. When subjected to abuse and humiliation, her triumph is sometimes established by a total holocaust and destruction brought about by her brave sons until peace and harmony are restored and everything ends on a note of happiness or hope.



Nargis' image in MOTHER INDIA, according to film scholar Amaresh Mishra, celebrates the traditional motif of Indian womanhood. The symbol, the moral force of the nation is shown suffering in independent India, but emerges triumphant in the end as a new kind of ideal by shooting her own son. This sustains the social balance and dominance of traditional values in the midst of suffering and anarchy. As the narrative grows, so does Radha. Trapped within the Mother Goddess image which the two personifications of Shakti that is Durga and Kali represent, Radha draws courage from within to kill her son for justice. She transcends the personal to reach the universal, bringing herself closer to the mythical goddesses who gave her shape. This frees her from the emotional and biological ties that bound her to her son.

In retrospect, MOTHER INDIA is little more than a soppy, sentimental melodrama geared to raise the sympathies of a mixed audience. The men will still love it because of the Indian man's obsession for his own mother. The women in the audience will not come out dry-eyed because Radha offers them a warped role model to dream about and to idolize. The box-office success of MOTHER INDIA spewed forth a flood of celluloid imitations with top actresses playing an imitation. Smita Patil's two films, KASAM PAIDA KARNE WALE KI (1984) and WARIS (1988) are examples of a dozen cheaper and cruder imitations which could not repeat the success of the original.

Since the Nineties, the celluloid adaptations of the mythical Goddess have bowed out gracefully, bending to the changing market demands of globalization. The mother is no longer placed on a pedestal like she used to be earlier. Nor is she oppressed, humiliated and victimized by the social environment around her like Leela Chitnis as Raj Kapoor's mother was in AWARA. She is even dressed and presented differently. The transformation was slow and steady.

Kalpana Lajmi's DARMIYAAN, purportedly drawn from real life, shows the mother, a glamorous actress of Hindi cinema, refusing to acknowledge her only child as her natural offspring less because he is hermaphrodite and more because she does not wish to identify herself with the image of a mother in real life. In SARDARI BEGUM (1996), Shyam Benegal raised questions about Sardari's brutal repression of her daughter's love life. As a mother, Sardari is fleshed out as a very selfish woman who imposes her own ambitions on her ordinary and unwilling daughter, denying her the life of love and marriage she so desperately desires. Sardari is loud, open and brash, defining her assertiveness, arrogance and confidence, much of which she uses to veil her diffidence and her emotional insecurity with. Sakina's softness and submissive demeanour balances the mother's arrogance.



In Basu Bhattacharya's AASTHA (1996) Rekha, as Mansi, the mother of a school-going girl and the wife of a professor with modest means steps into prostitution triggered by her daughter's desire for a pair of expensive Nike shoes. Strangely, this does not change the status quo of her marriage even when her husband learns what she has been doing on the sly. AASTHA is only box office hit among Basu Bhattacharya's films.

But the seeds were sown much earlier with Gulzar's AANDHI (1975), adapted from a short story by Kamleshwar. The film depicted the changing shades of a husband-wife relationship where the politically ambitious wife and mother of a little girl sacrifices her motherhood for her political career and does not feel any remorse.

Like the woman in AANDHI, celluloid mothers in Indian cinema are no longer willing to be martyred. The image has transformed beyond recognition and the audience does not blink an eye. So one finds Lilette Dubey as the mother in MONSOON WEDDING smoking away to her heart's content. Vinay Shukla's GODMOTHER (1999) based on the woman mafia head Santokben Jadeja, is a totally negative characterization of the mother in Indian cinema. In HUM TUM (2004) Rati Agnihotri plays the mother of the hero Karan Kapoor (Saif Ali Khan) who organizes affluent wedding events for a living. She is a glamorous, upbeat and modern woman separated from her husband (Rishi Kapoor). The icing on the cake goes to PYAR MEIN TWIST (2005) that shows two elderly but very modern people widowed and lonely after the demise of their respective spouses falling in love and painting the town red, much to the embarrassment of their adult children. The elderly couple decides to elope in a love that is based only on companionship and sharing of memories.

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