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Destabilizing the Terrain of Idealized Motherhood

Cinematic Moorings

Written By Yusra Khan

A flurry of relatives. A young kid left alone to register the sudden death of her father, as she hugs herself tightly. A mother who returns back home, only to send her off to a boarding school - widening the distance between them even further.

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Loosely based on Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978), Rituparno Ghosh’s Unishe April (1994) is an emotionally charged drama that presents an alternative motherhood, weaving together loss, maternal neglect, and isolation with unmatched realism. It gives us a glimpse into the complicated relationship between a celebrated classical dancer, Sarojini, and her only daughter, Aditi. 

Suffused with the intimate miseries of the occupants of the house, the end of the film spans an all-night confrontation about pent-up misunderstandings where Sarojini candidly admits, even as she tries to make Aditi believe how hard she tried to be there for her - ending up quitting dancing for a few years to let her mediocre and insecure husband be at ease:

“I was not born to get married and have a family.”

In both Bergman and Ghosh’s films, motherhood isn’t revered or put on a pedestal - it is subjected to the same human failings that are part and parcel of life, placing great importance to each character’s idiosyncrasies, steadily revealing buried secrets and years of accumulated pain.  In Ghosh’s Indian reworking, the relationship between mother and daughter isn’t as strained or filled with animosity; although it is broken, distant and underlined with regret.

The figure of the mother has, in both reel and real life, been associated with obscene levels of self-abnegation. Classically in Hindi cinema, she has been portrayed as the impoverished suffering mother (Pyaasa, 1957; Deewar, 1975), selfless to a fault. Given the right plot build-up, she can be reincarnated into an avenging angel (Mom, 2017), or acting as a vehicle for post-colonial nation-building (Mother India, 1957). A vibrant array of movies are thankfully emerging to complicate this archaic understanding, embedding in the fabric of maternal depictions, its own private nudges.

Moorings outside of these filmic notions have been done in a variety of genres. Consider Rahul Sadasivan’s Malayalam horror film, Bhoothakaalam (2022), which hinges on the strained relations between Vishnu and his mother Asha, who is clinically depressed. She shares a brittle relation with her son, holding him back from getting an outstation gig despite his continued unemployment. Her innate maternalism doesn’t tug at her conscience as the cruder realities of the story make Asha’s character give up on her child, poisoning a meal of dosas they were about to share. The duo is saved by an emotionally wrought conversation that steers them away from a final end. The dysfunctionality of the mother-son relation is rooted in a complex set of factors: worsening mental health and ghosts of a past that isn’t elaborated upon enough.

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In Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s recent historical drama series Heeramandi (2024), mothers are often outright cruel, far from the oceanic love that typifies cinematic depictions. The ruthless Mallikajaan is a vicious matriarch, who is both controlling and manipulative. Despite these characteristics, she lays down her arms in order to save her daughter who gets caught up in a rebel conspiracy; she is raped in the police station that night, in a quid pro quo to free Alamzeb from jail. Another character, Waheeda, carrying traumas of her own, inflicts upon her daughter (Shama) her own pain and jealousy. In a particularly brutal scene, we see her tying up her breasts to flatten her chest, so the nawab she pines after doesn’t get infatuated by her. Within the folds of complexities faced by women traversing the politics of the early 20th century, caught between colonial masters and feudal lords, maternal care and affection do not manifest in recognizable ways, and are often missing from the picture altogether. 

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Single mothers are a topic for another piece altogether, but a quick reality check with societal assumptions would foretell one simple truism: a child without a father-figure is doomed. Thankfully, here, cinema has been rising to the occasion to give us a healthy counter-narrative of powerful single mothers that raise their children in a variety of conditions, the best they can.

An evergreen, crowd-favorite portrayal of successful single motherhood is Ratna Pathak Shah in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na (2008). Savitri takes an interest in local politics, always has a good book at an arm’s length, and best of all: she isn’t weeping after a dead husband, which might as well be a welcome respite. Her son knows how to cook, knows that there are ways beyond aggression to handle a conflict, and is a gentleman without even trying; the film manages to depict successful parenting without making it an occasion for overt displays of artificial progressivism.

Single mothers have of late been shaped through many angles, breaking the shackles of one-dimensionality. Be it Deepti Naval’s Leela in Listen… Amaya (2013), where a widowed mother seeks companionship while facing resistance from her daughter, or Swara Bhaskar in Nil Battey Sannata (2015); in between the mother-daughter duo’s electrifying exchanges and wordless affections, the father’s absence is barely hinted at.

Similarly, while there are many films where the mother figure is depicted in new and inventive ways, emancipation from the erstwhile near-godly status accorded to them needs a crucial ingredient: forgiveness. The space to be human, to make mistakes, to prioritize differently, to acknowledge individuality in the face of societal bonds.

In Madhu C. In Narayanan's widely acclaimed Kumbalangi Nights (2019), the presence of the absent mother is felt throughout. Her decision to leave her home to become a nun, nursing traumas that remain unexplained but reverberate throughout the film, is not demonized. Her recourse to religion after her husband’s death only referred to in a vague but heartbreaking conversation between her son Bobby and his half-brother, Saji.

“She could have come for only ten days. What kind of mother is she?!”

“You shouldn’t curse her. She suffered a lot for you. I have seen it.”

Motherhood is too often conflated with the ultimate transformational stage that truly fulfills a woman, regardless of circumstance, personhood or a woman’s aims and ambitions. However, neither life, nor cinema is as dull or unimaginative as to provide formulaic bliss in the form of heteronormative familial life. Child-rearing is serious business, and the societal confines within which it happens can be suffocating at times. No person is infallible in the face of these hardened realities, and perhaps we need good cinema to remind us that before our mothers became our  mothers, they too, were people.

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Yusra Khan is a writer and digital policy enthusiast based between Lucknow and Delhi. Her interests are versatile, but she is particularly fascinated by the intersection of politics, labour and technology studies.

 

Currently, she works at Nvidia as a prompt-writing specialist, bringing human creativity to AI-generated outputs. A film addict since childhood, she is rumored to have rewatched Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na over sixty eight times till date, and doesn't plan to stop.

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