Disclaimer: This article was written with the Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham title track (when Jaya Bachchan is propelled by her maternal instincts to the doorway) playing on loop in the writer’s mind the entire time she was trying to focus, so please excuse any incoherence.
I grew up with an image of the “desi mom” in mind that was strangely quite distinct from how I saw my own mother. This “desi mother” I had in my mind was a more collectively imagined one.
This archetypal “desi mom” was conservative and easily scandalised by modernity. She wore chappals everywhere with the sole intention (sole intention. Ha!) of removing them to hit her children at opportune times. However, she adored her children above everything, and expressed it through persistent offerings of food.
She prayed fervently during misfortunes, giving her family’s well-being first priority, even over her own. She was virtuous and upheld Indian values to unyieldingly high extremes. She somehow knew everything that would happen, before it actually happened (cue Jaya Bachchan with a thaali being propelled by her maternal instinc- gah get out of my head, evil music!).
She is the mother pedestalised and worshipped in the Devis, and exalted in emotional Mother’s Day cards.
She is somehow also, at the same time, the mother cheekily laughed at in all the WhatsApp forward jokes and “relatable” Indian mother memes.
She is, more than a desi mother, a Bollywood desi mother.
The Two Ends Of Bollywood’s Limited Spectrum Of Mothers
Until very recently, Bollywood has always been stuck in a cycle of either glorifying the mother or laughing at the woman. The trade-off seems to be in either having the “mamta ki murti” or the “meme mom”.
Mamta Ki Murti – The All-Knowing, Self-Sacrificing Mother
On the one end of the motherhood spectrum, we have the Nargis, Reema Lagoo, Rakhee, and Jaya Bachchan moms of Indian cinema, who are relentlessly selfless, sacrificing, empathetic, and all-knowing.
Their identities as nurturers and keepers-of-traditions are imbued with sacredness, but their identities as women are entirely erased or demeaned.
Mother India’s Radha, while objectively not the ideal mother to her own sons, was the ultimate, ceaselessly virtuous and self-sacrificing mother to society at large. The iconic image of a suffering Nargis almost crucified on the plough, left a problematic legacy for Bollywood mothers to follow for years.
Nirupa Roy’s character, Sumitra’s similar righteousness that stands by her son’s death in Deewar (and allows for that iconic “Mere paas maa hai” dialogue), is portrayed less as a defect, and more as a mother’s ultimate sacrifice as a woman of virtue.
Reema Lagoo’s character in Hum Saath Saath Hai is even named after the one single trait she is to represent in the film – Mamta. The character is introduced singing a prayer song that adulates sons and fathers. Her son echoes these sentiments when singing a song of praise about his parents being akin to God. While he talks about his father being akin to God because he imparted wisdom to his children and showed them the world, he compares his mother to the divine, because “apne santan me, praan jiske rahe (her life is centred in her children)”.
The trope of a mother becoming all-knowing the minute she becomes a mother, and automatically being gifted with a third-eye-like maternal instinct, is also rampant in Bollywood.
Just as Jaya Bachchan’s Nandini Raichand in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham can feel her son’s presence with this maternal third-eye before she can see him with her actual eyes, Rakhee’s maternal instincts in Karan Arjun tell her that her dead sons will return – “Mere Karan Arjun aayenge”.
The mother also tries hard to be the peacekeeper in the family. And more often than not, despite doting on her children, ultimately finds it impossible to go against patriarchy for their sake.
Farida Jalal’s Lajjo in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge understands and secretly supports her daughter’s choices, but never in front of her husband. She tearfully tells Simran that a woman’s life is filled with “kurbani” and requests that she let go of her desires since they go against those of her father’s.
Similarly, Jaya Bachchan in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, despite loving her sons to the extent that she says “maa toh tab khush hoti hai, jab uska beta khush ho (a mother can only be happy when her son is happy)”, never stands up to her husband for them. When her son decides to leave the house, instead of stopping him or fighting her husband, she runs to an idol of God and prays tearfully.
A woman’s role in a patriarchal household, then, is not so much to maintain the peace, as it is to maintain the status quo.
Meme Mom – The Over-Dramatic, Stubbornly Traditional Comic Relief
On the other end we have maternal characters like Kirron Ker in Dostana, Amrita Singh in 2 States, Dimple Kapadia in Cocktail, Kajol in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Dolly Ahluwalia in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, and innumerable other examples.
While their maternal love and instincts are still imbued with that sense of holier-than-thou reverence, their conservatism, old-school thinking, and general “desi mom” behaviour are written in as comic relief.
‘Maa Da Laadla’ from Dostana was one of the most iconic and funny music videos of its time. Kirron Kher’s dramatic misery at watching her son be with another man was hilarious (for reasons that are offensive to both mothers and the LGBTQ+ community). Her conservatism and scandalisation at her son’s homosexuality make for comedy in the film. She indulges in “typical” desi mom scolding, over-the-top remedies to his homosexuality, and over-dramatic bouts of wretchedness – all heartily laughed at by audiences.
Similarly, Amrita Singh’s petty, and vocal, anger at her son wanting to marry someone from a different community in 2 States, are written in through amusing exchanges and comical remarks that demean the girl and assert Amrita Singh’s family’s superiority.
Kajol’s husband and son in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham wear earbuds to bed, to drown her out in the mornings. As she sings songs of praise about Hindustan, they show exasperation and tease her. When she says that it’s important to remember tradition and respect their roots, father and son tauntingly tell her to “Take a chill pill!”. Her obsession with India, despite their being in London, leads to some humorous moments at Kajol’s expense, even when her stubborn traditionality is also lauded on regular intervals.
Naina’s mother in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, who dramatically exclaims how beautiful the carrots are in grocery stores, stresses over her daughter’s studies, and is unable to truly understand her daughter’s desires, also lays the foundation for some comical exchanges at her expense.
Even Reema Lagoo – the ultimate representation of mamta – is cheekily made fun of in Hum Saath Saath Hai, when Karishma Kapoor is describing her through mimicry to the newest daughter-in-law of the family (in song of course). Mamta is described only as someone who loves shopping and going to the beauty parlour – a stark reduction from the humble and lovable pedestal she has been put on until then. Mamta laughs along with everyone at the description.
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From major characters to minor ones like the amusing Indu Mehra in Dil Dhadakne Do – obsessed with gossip and marrying her daughter off – this trope is rampant.
There are several other examples in Bollywood where one mother’s scandalised expression, comic self-victimisation, superficial and frivolous dialogues, or yelling with a chappal in hand, blurs into the others.
The Internalised Bollywood-isation Of Desi Households Has Led To Marginalisation Of Desi Moms Within The Household
Only in recent years has there been some representation in Bollywood of mothers as flawed beings who strive to be something beyond what society expects of them as mothers. We have now seen a few rounded and realistic portrayals of mothers – Dolly Ahluwalia in Vicky Donor, Sridevi in English Vinglish, Neena Gupta in Badhai Ho, Ratna Pathak Shah in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, Thappad, and Kapoor and Sons, and even in more minor roles like Dia Mirza’s in Thappad.
While the industry has, thankfully, been taking these baby steps in opening the doors to more authentic and fleshed out maternal characters, for every realistic representation of mothers, there continues to be another regressive one.
Bollywood has, for several years, propagated and encouraged an idea of the ideal Indian household, and how the mother fits into it.
By making her this loveable but amusing, respected but never taken seriously, being, Bollywood has depicted mothers as the glue that holds the family together, but also the weak link in the family. The Bollywood desi moms are powerless beings, constantly striving to ensure others’ happiness, even at the cost of seeming submissive or ridiculous.
Bollywood, then, depicts a family dynamic that, if not emulated by the mothers themselves, are often emulated by their children and husbands in how they treat the mothers, leading to an internalised Bollywood-isation of real-life households.
Reel life not only reflects, but impacts real life. It’s time Bollywood changed its definition of a desi mom, so we can successfully too.
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