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Look Ma, no cry
What was this? Nirupa Roy cackling with Lalita Pawar over a whisky? The laughter in the hall seemed in equal parts, amusement and sheer shock. Is that the hero's mother, the revered maa, on a winding down binge after a day of hard work at her beloved beauty parlour? But then nothing about Vicky Donor fell into the pattern. The hero was a good for nothing (except for one thing) and the heroine is a divorcee. But even for a rebel film, the mother's tippling was a revelation of how far Hindi films have come with maa.
The Bollywood maa was never allowed any joy except when the son came first class first or the daughter got married. She was an unrelentingly miserable soul - a seamstress with rheumy eyes, a farm hand fobbing off the jagirdar's advances, and if she was rich, a devoted wife who couldn't defy her husband, the naukrani who swabbed floors despite TB. The sitar wept when she came on screen, the violin wailed and the sarangi drew a long sigh. The furrowed forehead, the worn sari, the drooping shoulders - from Leela Chitnis and Sulochana to Nirupa Roy and Rakhee, they couldn't be happy people.
But watch a sprightly Ratna Pathak Shah play a wonderful, everyday mother in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na. She teaches in a college, reads Naomi Wolf with her feet up, wears Indo-western clothes most women her age do, and here is the real shocker - admits that she doesn't feel like cooking on an off day, so would the son make some omelettes please? She is not on auto-sacrifice mode, not a super efficient housekeeper who can toss up the world's best gajar ka halwa with her eyes closed and she is certainly not guilttripped by the need to put her feet up.
And before her, there was Kirron Kher, probably the first mother to be allowed humour, whimsy and a throaty laugh. The mother she played in Hum Tum is somewhat overdone now - the over-archingly ambitious Punjabi matron, over the top and speaking broken English - but when she first played the role it had come as such a refreshing change.
Shoojit Sircar, director of Vicky Donor, says that Dolly is actually an everyday mother, not a very radical character. She and the mother-in-law, beeji, in fact were among the first characters to be etched in the script. "This is a family without a father, where the mother is everything. She is progressive. She works and unwinds over a drink with her mother-inlaw. I drew her character from my own home - my mother in fact, " he says. Sircar recalls that his mother was having trouble falling asleep once and he had suggested that she share a small drink with him. "It loosened her up, relaxed her and we took to having a drink in the evening and it was a very companionable experience. I loved those evenings, " he recalls.
That the audiences loved the two women was a sure indication that the audiences have been ready for a real mother for a long time. Sircar says the Punjabi ladies on his Facebook have sent him thank you messages for liberating them from the Bollywood-imposed moral template - "If you hadn't shown women drinking, they would have continued to offer us soft drinks!"
Sircar says that in small ways Bollywood has been experimenting with the mother figure for some time now. He points to Reema Lagoo in Vaastav, a fond mother who shoots her somewhat mad gangster son played by Sanjay Dutt when she realises that there was no hope for him. That storyline is of course a throwback to the memorable lead character Nargis played in Mother India.
Dibakar Banerjee, always known for his startlingly real characters, pulls off some out of the box mothers in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye. There is teenaged Lucky's stepmother eyeing him with some suggestive body language.
It could be said that the Bollywood carbon mothers often drove plots as in Trishul or Aradhana - remained determinedly wretched, goaded sons to avenge insults, sent conflicted heroes into paroxysm of guilt or supported them unflinchingly through tough times by working themselves to the bones. You could say they were strong figures, in the way Kunti, Draupadi or Sita were. Writer director Tigmanshu Dhulia in fact puts the filmi maa firmly in the prototype popularised by both the melodramatic Parsee theatre and the Hindu epics.
"The values she upheld - sacrifice, obedience, blind loyalty - belong to our mythology. They are also virtues that were once very highly prized in a mother. But the value systems have changed and so has the character on screen, " says Dhulia.
When her dancer daughter lurches home after a sleazy show, the mother in Oye Lucky! yells out: Pee ke aayi hai, ulti ki kya (you are drunk, did you throw up)? Now imagine Nirupa Roy mouthing that line.
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