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The Bollywood screen mother
Screen mothers enjoyed a strong presence in films released before the 1990s. Their all-encompassing equation with their screen sons (read hero) has been the stuff of film lore. Those were the days of family dramas and the mother-son equation was, more often than not, the very centrepiece of the story.
Screenwriters Salim-Javed wrote Hindi cinema's most pithy, precious, and popular dialogue. "Mere paas maa hai" in Deewaar (1975) - where Nirupa Roy plays a long-suffering mother forced to see her favourite son (Amitabh Bachchan) topple from her idealistic pedestal - is remembered to this very day.
But long before Roy's character in Deewaar (she played mother to Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor) became the most epitomised screen mother in Bollywood history, Hindi cinema had already had its share of memorable mothers.
Who can forget Nargis in Mehboob Khan's Mother India (1957) - the fiery, feisty female protagonist who made it to cinema history books? Then there was Waheeda Rehman in Yash Chopra's Trishul, Dina Pathak in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Khubsoorat, Raakhee in Ramesh Sippy's Shakti, Nirupa Roy, again, in Manmohan Desai's Amar Akbar Anthony and, of course, the frail, always ailing Leela Chitnis and the silent and stoic Sulochana in several films as well - all an integral part of Bollywood folklore.
No story was complete without them. The roles may have been cliched, but their onscreen power was something to behold. "From the 1950s right until the '90s, the Bollywood screen maa was often the fulcrum on which a film stood. It is only now that we have done away with her, " says filmmaker Milan Luthria, who made Kachche Dhaage.
From maa to mom and then floundering towards obscurity. What happened? Where has the Bollywood screen mother gone? The lady who served up gaajar ka halwa and piping-hot puris at short notice, the perfect, all-sacrificing devi has been bypassed by screenwriters recently. They say cinema is a reflection of the times and times are definitely changing. Materialism has taken root and the mother-son relationship has begun to lose its cinematic omnipotence.
Director Mahesh Bhatt says there's no one person to blame for the disappearing maa in Bollywood. "I'm also guilty of this crime, " he says. "We have severed umbilical ties. Most of the films I have written in the 21st century including Raaz, Murder and Gangster have not had mother characters at all. In Woh Lamhe, there was an autobiographical reference to Parveen Babi's mother, but other than that, most of my recent films have had no mention of the screen mother. I agree that if we have done away with the screen mother in most of our cinema today, it is a reflection of the times, of the people we've become. "
Bhatt, who had a very strong mother character in his last directorial venture Zakhm (an autobiography), had his reallife daughter Pooja Bhatt essay the role of his mother in the film. Ajay Devgn (who played Bhatt) won a National Award for his performance and it was one of the most sensitive mother-son stories of recent times. "Zakhm was an ode to my own mother, who was the most important person in my life, " says the filmmaker. "And with most of today's cinema being guilty of severing umbilical ties, I think we're giving out the wrong signals. If writers and filmmakers think that obliterating the mother is a sign of emancipation, that is incorrect. The mother-child relationship is the very fulcrum of our existence, and its presence on celluloid is an important dimension. "
Filmmaker Rakesh Roshan, who wrote some very strong mother characters in his films Karan Arjun and Koi Mil Gaya, feels the Bollywood screen mother has become a dispensable character now. "That's because we are mostly making comedies and action thrillers, " he says. "If you check out the highest grossers of recent times, you'll find that the list features films where there is no scope for a Mother India kind of character. "
Screenwriter Amole Gupte, who wrote Taare Zameen Par, feels the screen mother is on a sabbatical of sorts. "It's said that we are what we eat, " says Gupte. "Just like we binge mindlessly, we also serve up scripts similarly. Our comedies and action thrillers have no place for the strong maa character. "
Of course, when it came to his own film, he couldn't even dream of omitting the mother and confesses to being a mother worshipper. "I have been raised by a mother who was a working woman and a home-maker, " says Gupte. "And when I wrote TZP, I felt the need to bring in a mum quite like my own. A mother who sacrifices her career without a fuss to raise a child (who she doesn't even realise is special) and who she thinks is a victim of the system. But there are few films now that offer scope for a strong mum. " Luthria says he wrote a strong mother character for his directorial debut Kachche Dhaage in 1998, but did away with the screen maa after that because the compulsions of cinema changed. He went on to make films like Chori Chori and Taxi No 9211. Roshan, though, is of the firm belief that the Indian screen mother is only on a short vacation. "Emotions are the mainstay of Bollywood cinema, " he says. "The mother-son or brother-sister bonds in our cinema will never really go away. The current lot of films may not have a definite role for the mother, but she will return. " Censor Board chief, and occasional Bollywood screen mum Sharmila Tagore says that not many writers have anything challenging for her any more and that most films offering the stereotypical weeping mother roles don't motivate her to wear make-up again. "I'd rather do some gardening in Pataudi than accept such roles, " says the 60-something gorgeous actress who once played Amitabh's leprosy-afflicted mother in Manmohan Desai's Desh Premee, and has since turned down several mundane mother roles. Tagore does have a point. Few screen mothers in the last decade have shown spirit. Raj Kanwar gave Luv Sinha two long-suffering mothers - Rekha and Hema Malini - in Sadiyaan but to no avail. Except for Reema Lagoo in Vaastav or Seema Biswas in the recent City Of Gold, matriarchal characters have become buffoons in today's age of comedy. Cases in point are Kirron Kher in Singh Is Kingg and also Dostana. Luthria points out that buffoonery and worse will be the plight of the Bollywood screen mother in upcoming films and no hero will tweet, 'Mere paas maa hai' with pride because the emotions of GenNext are different. "Today we celebrate very different emotions on screen, " he says. "For instance, in Love Aaj Kal we celebrated a couple's break-up. If this is the direction in which our cinema is headed, where is the scope for the eternal suffering mother?" Baap re baap!
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