In a scene from Netflix's latest movie Darlings, a mother, while trying to convince her daughter to leave her alcoholic and abusive husband, says "Mix rat poison in his food, he will quit drinking for life".
The aim of a mom to "fix" things has undergone a stark change in Hindi cinema and television. They are no longer destined to cry in a corner - the mothers of today are determined to teach a lesson or two. Be it Sheel (Sakshi Tanwar) in Mai Rukhsana (Shefali Shah) in Jalsa or Shamshunissa (Shefali Shah) in Darlings, these moms are flawed and fierce. They don't need sons to come and rescue them; instead, they raise their voices and demand dignity. There can be a debate about the moral high ground of some of these characters, but there's no denying that one can't shut them down.
Let's take a look at how moms in Hindi cinema have evolved over the years:
The Weepy, Widowed Mom
When we speak about the weepy, pious and widowed mother from the 70s and 80s, the one name that instantly comes to our mind is Nirupa Roy. Be it Deewar or Mard, Khoon Pasina, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar and Amar Akbar Anthony, Roy would inevitably turn up in a white sari, eyes always brimming with tears and her dishevelled hair tied into a bun. Roy's characters became a template of what ‘ideal mothers’ should be like for the decades that followed. Misery and suffering became essential parts of the mould. They would only exist to be 'saved' by their sons.
The Helpless Mom
Karan Arjun, Border, Soldier, Ram Lakhan - Welcome to the age of helpless mothers, with Rakhee leading the brigade. In most of these films, the moms were betrayed, abused, their dignity stripped, but they would silently suffer all the humiliation and wait for their sons to avenge the injustice meted out to them. Daughters didn't even exist then, right? The mother-son relationship then was all about saviour and the survivor.
BFF Mom, But With Conditions
Come 90s, and Bollywood slightly modified the definition of mothers. They became the best friends of their children, but would support them as along as their ideas aligned with those of the dads. Case in point Farida Jalal's Lajjo in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. "Jab ladki jawan ho jaati hai to uski Maa, Maa nahin rehti, saheli bann jaati hai. (When a daughter grows up, her mother becomes her best friend)". To an extent, Lajjo practices what she preaches, but when it's time for Simran (Kajol) to assert what she wants, the mother is robbed of all her right to lend support.
In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai too, Rahul's (Shah Rukh Khan) mother never questions her son. She is Rahul's 'friend', has been given the screen time to nod and consent to whatever Rahul says. Then there's Reema Lagoo, who plays Kajol's mother. She is a single mother whose biggest concern is to get her daughter married off.
The Barjatya Mom
The Sooraj Barjatya moms deserve a special mention. The typical mom in the filmmaker's universe would be dressed to the hilt, matronly, mischievous but traditional. She did not have any individuality; she would be defined by labels like samdhanji, samdhiji, bhabiji etc. The mothers here sent out one loud message - blindly love your family and just weep copiously whenever somebody does something wrong.
Early 2000s Mom - A Mixed Bag
The 2000s was a mixed bag. On one hand we have Jaya Bachchan's Nandini Raichand from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. Nandini has dedicated her life to her two sons, Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) and Rohan (Hrithik Roshan) and her husband Yashvardhan (Amitabh Bachchan). Everyone is taken by surprise because Nandini has already 'sensed' Rahul's arrival even though he has chosen a helicopter to make his grand entry. Nandini dotes on her adopted elder son, but when the latter is disowned by his father for going against his wish Nandini doesn't have much to say. The only ever dialogue that's offered to this mom to show that even she has a voice is - "Keh diya na, bas keh diya".
Then there's Kirron Kher from Dostana. She is sassy, loud but steeped in stereotypes. Homophobic to the T, she is unable to accept the fact that her son could be gay. She spends most of her time in denial, but ultimately there's a dramatic change in heart. This character had potential, but was ruined by an offensive script.
The Badass Moms of Today
Towards the end of the 2000s, on-screen mothers started breaking myths and stereotypes attached to their role. Shashi (Sridevi) in English Vinglish highlighted the struggles of mothers in a conservative Indian household. At first, Shashi seemed like just another damsel-in-distress, but as the layers began to peel we saw her taking control of her life and demanding the dignity she deserved. Though subtly, but Shashi didn't even shy away from calling out her husband, who would mock her in every step of the way.
In Paa, Vidya (Vidya Balan) had a child out of wedlock and she didn't survive at the mercy of her husband or family. A financially independent woman, Vidya gave it back to those questioning her choices and took societal challenges head on.
Of late, mothers on screen don't blink to resort to violence to avenge their cause. Be it Aarya, Mai or Darlings, the moms in these films and shows are unafraid and unapologetic. They are not necessarily heroes or saviours, they are flawed women who, compelled by circumstances, have decided to take it upon themselves to restore order.
One of the best portrayal of such a fierce woman is in Darlings. The film doesn't waste time in building the characters. A few minutes in, Hamza (Vijay Varma) has raised his hand on Badrunissa (Alia Bhatt). In no time Badru's mother Shamshunissa (Shefali Shah) tells her daughter that he's not the sort of man who'll listen to reason, that she must devise a crooked method. A little later, Shamshu doesn't flinch before saying—end him before he kills you. She tells Badru the story of a scorpion that stings a frog that’s transporting it across a river, even though it means both die. “Some men are scorpions. They never change”, she says. Shamshu chooses humour to deal with her pain and years of torture. She is whacky and bold and doesn't care about what others are going to think of her. She isn't necessarily right, but the film doesn't show her fishing for validation either.
Vigilant, protective, independent, investigative - mothers on screen today are much more than nurturers. When provoked they retaliate, when humiliated they lash out and when respected they respond with tenderness. The new brand of motherhood is much more than a sum total of warped expectations, and here's hoping more and more mums drive narratives in their wild, tedha ways.