(This story is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 4 January, 2016. It’s being republished to mark the birth anniversary of Nirupa Roy.)
Recently we’ve had Tabu’s spectacular turn as a vengeance-seeking mother in Drishyam, and not to forget Aishwarya Rai playing an advocate mommy on a dangerous mission to save her daughter in Jazbaa. Apart from rare instances such as Durga Khote as Jodhabai in Mughl-e-Azam, and later Nargis as Radha in Mother India, who made the role of the ‘mother’ a powerful symbol, with their lasting performances, we’ve hardly seen the mother as anything more than an object or stereotype.
Over the ages, the ‘mother’, just like the ‘hero’ has been an archetype, the nature of her image does not change, what does is her stature in front of the ‘hero’ and the star. Hence, it didn’t matter if it is Achala Sachdev, Dulaari or Sulochana pampering a Rajesh Khanna in the 70s. His stories were ‘hero centric’, with the mother characters having little stake in the film except being the tertiary character that creates the hero’s world. Hence, the actors who played his mother could be inter-changeable.
But with the next generation superstar Amitabh Bachchan, we had the singular image of suffering motherhood in Nirupa Roy. Big B’s heroines could change but his mother couldn’t, it was the generation of lost and found stories’ where the mother played an equally pivotal role in the progression of the film and climax.
She was an important stakeholder, even if not equal. As family dramas spawned in the 80s and early 90s, actors like Rakhee (Shakti to Ram Lakhan to Karan Arjun) and Nutan (Meri Jung, Karma, Yudh, Naam) once stars in their own right added their weight to author-backed mother roles. This was the time of the strong mother, one who suffered but was valiant too and not only in her suffering.
The nineties ushered in the dramatic age of the Barjatya brand of glossy, pristine and puritan family dramas. The role of the mother took mythological overtones in his dramas as did the roles of hero and we had the non-negotiable mother-son pairing of Salman Khan and Reema Lagoo (Maine Pyaar Kiya, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Hum Saath Saath Hain), reminiscent of the unshakeable mother-son image of Amitabh Bachchan and Nirupa Roy.
The role of the mother remained the same, caring, and ever-giving, who loved her son to a fault and the mythological proportions of the films and characters had by then, impacted the national psyche deeply enough to see the mother-son duo casting as inseparable.
The 90s were also the age of the Yashraj and Karan Johar style of family dramas but with a lot more pizzazz and glamour. The likes of Farida Jalal and Kirron Kher stepped in to embody the archetype that changed as much as their personas allowed, with mostly Farida Jalal playing a more home-grown version of Reema Lagoo sans the jewellery and Kirron Kher mostly caricaturising Nirupa Roy’s ‘mother’ stereotype albeit louder.
As family dramas grew in popularity and stature, secondary family characters required ‘faces’ an audience could identify with, there was little more she was supposed to do.
As with the 80s, when the 2000s looked for slightly more layered maternal characters, yester-year actresses like Jaya Bachchan (Fiza, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Kal Ho Na Ho), Dimple Kapadia (Luck By Chance, Dabangg, Cocktail) and Supriya Pathak (Sarkar, Wake Up Sid, Ram Leela) informed the roles with a studied impulse.
With the times transitioning towards greyer stories, the mother character evolved into a human being from an archetype, something a Jodhabai or Radha couldn’t fully bloom into.
The best example of this is Ghazala, Tabu’s Gertrude in Haider. One is hard-pressed to find a mother character as complex and grey as hers. Ghazala’s dilemma as a female in a war-torn world is in conflict with her motherhood, one that calls out attention to her as a woman first and mother later, even if it is to question both. The delicately handled Oedipal overtones of her relationship with her son perhaps makes Ghazala starkly unconventional, brutally real and rarely explored.
Yet, the ‘mother’ in our films continues to dilly dally between iconic and stereotype, never arriving, yet never stopping, always emerging. Where it will head from here on? Probably where the hero does.
(Fatema is a decade-long moonlighter as fiction/non-fiction writer, reviewer and currently enrolled in an adventure sports course called film editing at FTII.)