Twenty years ago whenever you heard the hero of a Hindi film say “Ma” you knew immediately what to expect.- a lady in a white sari, coughing away and working her sewing machine. The mother in question was almost always played by Nirupa Roy who had perfected the long suffering mother’s expression over the years that she was mother to all those middle heroes like Amitabh, Shashi, Shatrughan etc. She was this woman who had foregone a lot in her life to bring up her son so that he could either announce in his introductory scene that he had passed his BA with a “first class first” or become a angry young man seeking vengeance! There were others before her but no one could really beat Nirupa Roy at this !
Over the years there were some new faces that portrayed this mother – Nutan and Waheeda Rahman being some of them. But Nutan as a mother often did more than work on a sewing machine, she was usually a widow with two sons- one who was actually not hers but that of her husband’s mistress and another who was her own. As a good “bharatiya nari” she had forgiven her husband bringing into her life the son of the “other woman” ( after the death of both her husband and the other woman) , giving him as much love as her own son. Her son ofcourse was the “bad boy” among the two and she lived with the turmoil of having to deal with that – remember “Main Tulsi Tere Angan ki” and “Naam”? But yes, she kept that image alive – white sari and a grey wig.
But somewhere along the way towards the end of the 1980s the image of the mother changed. The first actor to portray this changed role of a mother was Reema Lagoo in “Ashiqui” where she was single mother who worked in an office( asking her son Rahul Roy to remember to pay the electricity bill) and then of course was “Maine Pyar kiya”. The interesting change in both these cases was not just in the physical appearance of the mother ( she was well dressed, looked good etc) but the portrayal of her relationship with her son. She was not this dependent creature who was overcome with emotion when her son got his “naukri” and asked her to stop working because he would look after her. Neither was she badgering him post “naukri” to bring her a “bahu” so she could retire from her responsibilities. She was more of a friend to her son, his confidante teasing him often about the girl who he was interested in, encouraging him in wooing her, sometimes conspiring with the girl in question to help the relationship reach its natural conclusion. I absolutely adore the “Antakshari scene in “Maine Pyaar Kiya” where you actually see this fun mom- something we have not seen earlier on the Indian screen.
However my favourite on screen mom is Ratna Pathak in “Jane Tu. “where she plays mother to Imran Khan. She is your absolutely ordinary 21st century mom wearing track pants at home and asking her son to make breakfast on a weekend. She is friends with his friends and he discusses his girl friends with her. She has opinions about his relationships but prefers not to discuss them with him. She converses in English and is obviously well educated.
I find it very interesting how this portrayal of the mother on screen has over the years followed the changes in society. In India, a mother is almost treated like a “goddess” ( though it is another matter what she undergoes in real life). People speak of motherhood, and mother in very respectful tones. There is this thing about a mother being able to do anything for her children – which is true but in the process I think somewhere our film makers had turned her into a sad creature! She was desexed and made to mouth very clichéd dialogues and almost made into some sort of an object whose sole mantra in life was “sacrifice”.
Though the journey from Nirupa to Ratna via Reema shows that we as a society are today more open to looking at the mother as a real person engaged in more realistic pursuits there are some subtle changes particularly around her appearance that are interesting to note. She has not just discarded her white sari and grey wig, she actually looks glamorous!. The perfect example of this is of course Hema Malini in “Baghban”
If films have changed over the years advertisements are not going to be far behind! There is this ad that I saw recently on TV about an overbearing woman who is shopping for a surprise gift for her son and finds herself without cash or credit card when she reaches the billing counter as a result of which she has to call her son for assistance. The son looks to be in his thirties which presumes that his mom may be in her fifties. But the model playing the mom in question is very attractive and smartly dressed looking far younger than the fifty plus years that the ad would have us believe.
I think, I like this trend- the fact that our society is beginning to accept this image of a mother as an attractive person – a woman with her own identity.
But some may argue that today a pleasing appearance seems to be becoming more and more important and this is what is getting reflected in the image of the mom being portrayed by the media. It has nothing to do with a change in the social perception of the mother and what she stands for in our culture!
While reflecting on the above, I would like to state that it is not appearance that is important today but the spirit and image of youthfulness! People like to look and behave younger than they are and the younger generation seems to want it of their parents – particularly their mothers!
But coming back to the world of films, I think it is time that the changed image of the mother should be used positively to portray a change in values. There is no point if an attractive on screen mother still continues to celebrate “Karva Chauth” albeit dressed glamoursly.( remember Jaya in “Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gam”) I remember this wonderful film “Astitva” where Tabu plays mother to a grown up young man. In the climax not only does she ask her husband some hard questions but also her son. The movie shows her closeness to her son’s fiancée and the mutual respect that both women have for each other as individuals.
And one of the first steps in that direction of changing value systems through the portrayal of the mom would be to have a new on screen mom- that of the heroine! We have very few examples of that. Either the heroine’s mother is a non entity or portrayed as a negative character ( Rohini Hattangadi in “Akele hum akele tum”)
Now that is REALLY sad because even if you have a daughter you are still a mother or is that greatness of motherhood and her sacrifices take on meaning only if they are made for her son?