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From Sacrifice to Selfhood:

Representations of the Mother in Hindi Films

Sucharita Sarkar

Assistant Professor
Dept. of English
D.T.S.S College of Commerce
Malad (E), Mumbai

Tel: 9819156388


The mother figure holds a central position in traditional Indian culture and
consciousness. From epics to films, the mother has been a construct of the others’
gaze, bearing the burden of society’s expectations of ‘motherhood’. Her identity as a
nurturing, son-bearing, procreative power has been invested with sacredness; while
her identity as a woman has been effaced and erased: ‘glorification without
empowerment’ (Krishnaraj 2010). This has led to an accretion of clichés of the ‘ideal
mother’ and ‘good mother/ bad mother’ stereotypes in the filmic discourse of the
twentieth century: how mothers should be sacrificing, suffering and silent.

‘The mother cult has been, from the beginning, one of the strongest thematic strands
in Indian cinema, ranging from noble, self-sacrificing mothers to those who pamper
their sons and persecute their daughters-in-law….Thematically, Mother India, made
in 1957, is one of the most successful as well as one of the most idealistic films in
Indian terms’ (Gulzar et al 2003, p.70).

Mother India emblematized the mother as a metaphor for respectability and sacrifice.
Gayatri Chatterjee quotes a comment on how contemporary critics lauded the film as
being about a mother ‘round whom revolves everything that is sacred and glorious in
our culture, tradition and civilization’(Chatterjee 2002, p.49). The prescriptive theme-
song of the film states:

‘Duniya mein hum aaye hain to jeena hi padega

Jeevan hai agar zahar to peena hi padega

Aurat hai who aurat jise duniya ki sharam hai
Sansaar mein bas laaj hi nari ka dharma hai
Zinda hai jo izzat se who, izzat se marega’.

Mehboob Khan visualised Nargis’s character as the Earth Mother, an extension of

Sita, who is abandoned by her husband and has to rear her sons on her own. Tilling
the fields is a man’s role, the woman is forced to do this because of circumstance, not
voluntary choice. Yet her virtue and her values remain intact throughout her struggle
with deprivation and depravation. By shooting her womb-begotten son at the end to
restore justice, she becomes more – not less – of the ideal mother: mother not just of
one wayward son, but mother of the entire village, society, nation. The choice she
makes is a difficult one – between maternal love and social duty – and even though it
is a gendered portrayal of nationalist ideology, the character rises above the helpless-
mother-stereotype to become a hero: a change-agent.

The notion of the nation in this film unites male and female characteristics, as Mother
India, Nargis embodies both fecundity and virility, (Chakravarty 1993, p.307-308) she
is both nurturer and crusader. Although undoubtedly the strongest and most
memorable on-screen character played by Nargis, Mother India left behind a
problematic legacy for mother-figures in Hindi films, as the crusader aspect gets
transferred to the hero/son and the mother is sidelined in her submission and

‘The image of an anguished Nargis literally crucified on the cross of Indian virtue
turned into a yoke that female characters in Hindi films had to bear for decades.
Sadly, Mother India has been less attractive as the Survivor than as the Sacrificing
Woman. After Mehboob Khan’s blockbuster, the saleability of anguished motherhood
resulted in shallow clones….a widow or an abandoned woman who stitches clothes
on a vintage sewing machine or works in a quarry/construction site to educate her
child, usually the hero. As per the dictates of the plot, she is sick or dies of
consumption and coughing fits, or is alive and healthy to feed him gajar ka halva.’
(Somaya et al, 2012, p.20).

The mother-figure in subsequent films was idolised and idealised but deprived of
authority and agency. Not just selfless, she is self-less - she is a hollow symbol to be
worshipped; she is asexual and inviolate. Constructed through the gaze of others – her
husband, sons, in-laws, neighbours – and usually silent about her own desires, her self
was more an absence. The recurrent visual motif of the ideal mother’s pallu-covered
head is a metaphor for this veiling of the self behind customs and traditions.

The iconic and oft-quoted dialogue of Deewar, where Shashi Kapoor’s character
effectively silences Amitabh Bachchan’s litany of possessions (‘Aaj mere paas bangla
hai…’) with just one line (‘Mere paas maa hai’), reveals an ironic subtext on feminist
re-vision. The mother is a possession, albeit a prized one. In this film, she is a
possession fought over by the two brothers. Even when she asserts her choice by
opting to go out of Vijay’s mansion of corruption, she is still dependent on her other
(good) son’s benevolence. Her choice and freedom are limited because of this
dependence: she can leave one son’s house only to go to the other’s home. Clearly,
she has no ‘her-space’, a space that is hers alone by choice, like Virginia Woolf’s
‘room of my own’.

Early in the film, when she is shown as earning a living by carrying bricks at
construction sites, she does it not for self-fulfilment but for physical survival. Even
this is shown as undesirable in the patriarchal worldview: this memory of his mother
working is a stain haunts the elder son and eggs him on to buy that very high-rise
where she carried bricks. The mother’s domain was restricted to the home – the
kitchen and the prayer-chamber; if she was forced to step out, that was an aberration
of the social/moral order that had to be rectified.

Deewar’s mother is defined by her relationship to the patriarchal social structures, and
an important aspect of her character, along with her unimpeachable morality, is her
near-total passivity. If she has been a victim of patriarchy (usually her widowhood is
caused by the villain’s evil action), she has to wait for her son/s to grow up to avenge
that wrong. She is always the victim, strong only in her fortitude, but never an agent
for action/revenge.

As Gokulsing and Dissayanake comment, ‘The picture of Nargis, the mother in
Mother India, is a humanistic one, if politically naive. In Deewar, the mother (Nirupa
Roy) is less sturdy and withdraws into the world of pujas and prayers – thus
becoming marginalised. This theme is further developed in Ram Lakhan (1989),
where the mother (Rakhee) waits seventeen years for her sons to grow up and avenge
her indignities’ (Gokulsing & Dissanayake 2004, p. 44).

To this list we may add the mother-figure in the reincarnation-saga Karan Arjun
(1995), where Rakhee has to wait in a temple for decades, marginalised by the
villagers as a madwoman, pivoted only by her unshakeable faith that her sons will
return to avenge her. Motherhood is mythicised and enters the realm of collective
mystic fantasy when her prayers her answered in the central miracle of the film and
her sons return in their reincarnated selves. The fact that Rakhee’s character is named
Durga in the film is the ultimate regressive irony, as the embodiment of shakti (power)
is robbed of all power to affect change (except the power of faith) by the patriarchy-
constructed narrative.

But popular cinema has not just been a vehicle for myth or fantasy. The stories told
therein have reflected social changes and social realities, although slowly, and this is
true of the depiction of the mother-figures also, often co-existing with films that
upheld or glorified the status quo.

One of the first mainstream films that had a mother-character who had a mind of her
own was Aashiqui (1990). Although the role was a minor one, Reema Lagoo made an
impact as the forsaken wife whose husband was marrying a second time, mainly
because of her refusal to be the submissive stereotype and her strength in egging her
son to follow the path of love and not revenge. Directed by Mahesh Bhatt, who was
instrumental in portraying the New Woman in his path-breaking Arth (1982),
Aashiqui’s mother was a breath of fresh air in a scenario dominated by loving,
sacrificing, mostly-silent mother-stereotypes who stayed indoors and never challenged
the rule of their husband (for instance, see Hum Dil de Chuke Sanam, 1999).

Whilst the above-mentioned mother-figures embody the good mother stereotype, the
opposite cliché of the ‘bad mother’ was also depicted through step-mother figures,

like in Seeta aur Geeta (1972) and Chaalbaaz (1989). These women, through their
very ‘modernity’ and bold sexuality, violated traditional social mores. This often-
outlandish modernity, as in Rohini Hattangadi’s character in Chaalbaaz, was shown to
be the root of their un-motherly sadism, and this helped to reinforce the undesirability
of the modern self-seeking woman, and conversely deify the virtuous, sacrificing,
traditional ideal mother.

The new century ushered in significant changes in the depiction of the mother, for
example in Paa (2009), where Vidya Balan plays the role of a single, working mother
who takes care of her son, Auro, who is suffering from progeria. Although Amitabh
Bachchan’s star turn as the progeria-affected Auro was the centre of the film, a
notable sidelight was the relationship between the mother, Vidya, and the
grandmother, played by Arundhati Nag, which threw light on mother-daughter
support-systems that are often so vital to child-rearing in urban families where the
mother is a careerist.

However, it was in English Vinglish (2012), fittingly directed by a woman-director,

Gauri Shinde, that the mother-figure had a central role again, more than 50 years after
Mother India. Instead of high-pitched, idealistic melodrama, the film is a comedy-
drama that depicts stereotypes only to subvert them humorously and gently.

Shashi Godbole (Sridevi) starts off as an ideal housewife, a domestic goddess who is
taken for granted by her husband, Satish (Adil Hussain) and daughter, Sapna, and is
ridiculed by them for her poor English-speaking skills. This is an interesting portrayal
of changing urban social realities where it is not enough for the ideal mother to excel
as cook and homemaker, but she has to be socially acceptable to satisfy her upwardly-
mobile family. Despite her formidable culinary skills, which allow her some degree of
financial independence as well, Sashi suffers from low self-esteem. The old stereotype
of the domesticated mother who cooks and cares well is shown up as inadequate, not
just to the ‘others’ but to the self as well. The very fact that the traditional housewife
has a flourishing self-made business enterprise selling home-made laddoos indicates
the entrepreneurial spirit and desire for self-fulfilment that Sashi has, which in no way
obstructs her maternal role.

When circumstances provide an opportunity to Sashi to change herself, she does not
remain passive, but grabs it. The journey to New York is a metaphor for the
transformative journey that Sashi undertakes. She secretly enrols herself into a
conversational English class that promises to teach the language in four weeks. In
these four weeks at a new locale, and in the class which is like a laboratory for
metamorphosis, Sashi transforms herself with her increasing confidence and
improving communication skills. The image of the newly confident Shashi striding
down a Manhattan street, a takeout coffee in hand and a trench coat belted over her
sari, is a visual subversion of the head-covered submissive mother who remained tied
to hearth and home. Sashi’s character is all about achieving this balance between
tradition and modernity, between the sari and the trench coat.

The romantic sub-plot where the French chef Laurent falls in love with her is
delicately handled. Of course, as an ideal mother, Sashi cannot be depicted as a
deviant, erring wife who has a sexual relationship outside marriage. Yet Shashi's
climatic speech where she thanks Laurent for ‘making her feel better about herself’
indicates that she is still rooted enough in her womanly self to appreciate male
attention. This is a feminist objection to the reduction of a mother’s identity
exclusively to the role of a mother, ‘women are mothers and also women’ (Krishnaraj
2010, p.6).

This final speech serves the dual purpose of the film: to reveal Sashi’s new,
transformed self to the world – it is a declaration of selfhood and self-achievement -
and also to reassure this world that the new person/mother that Sashi has become still
cherishes and upholds the values of her ‘beautiful family’ and her own role and duty
as a mother. This new mother is happy to be a homemaker as long as she can express
her self in other ways as well. She chooses voluntarily to devote herself to her family
if she gets the respect she deserves.

By situating the narrative of transformation in faraway Manhattan, Shinde gives the

story a fairy-tale aspect. It is a quest for selfhood that gently questions stereotypes,
without overturning or even disturbing the patriarchal structures of family and
motherhood. As Sridevi’s character avows in the end, she chooses not to go and give

her English examination and, instead, stays at the wedding venue to make the laddoos
again because her ‘favourite subject’ is her family and domesticity. That she gets both
her wishes (passing in English and feeding the guests) is because of a happy-ending
miracle that is a formulaic plot-device in fairy-tales.

The film reinforces one of the key binaries of popular Indian cinema: the
modernity/tradition binary. ‘Modernity is disavowed even as it is endorsed; tradition
is avowed even as it is rejected’ (Mishra 2002, p.4). The selfhood quest of Sashi is
culture-specific, and located within the boundaries of traditional Indianness. It is
feminine rather than feminist and Sashi is advocating self-fulfilment without social
rebellion. Although she begins by ‘seeking an identity beyond the halo of
motherhood’ (Krishnaraj 2010, p.5), in the end she returns to her primary role of the
nurturer, empowered from within by her new acquisition of confidence, and from
outside by changing the others’ gaze from scorn to respect.

There are other perhaps more iconoclastic and taboo-breaking portrayals of mothers
in recent films, notably the single working mothers of Vicky Donor (2012) (who is
shown enjoying an evening drink with her mother-in-law) and Gippy (2013) (who
frankly discusses growing up issues with her adolescent daughter). The very centrality
of the mother-figure in English Vinglish, as well as the gradually changing dimensions
of screen-mothers hold the promise of an exciting future for more realistic and
rounded mother-representations in Indian films.

(2338 words)

Works Cited:

Chakravarty, Sumita S. National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema: 1947-1987.

Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.

Chatterjee, Gayatri. Mother India. London: Penguin, 2002.

Gokulsing, K. M. & W. Dissanayake. Indian Popular Cinema: A Narrative of

Cultural Change. Staffordshire: Trentham Books Limited, 2004. (first pub 1998).

Gulzar, G. Nihalani, & S. Chatterjee. Encyclopaedia of Hindi Cinema. New Delhi:

Enclyclopaedia Britannica (India) Pvt. Ltd., 2003.

Krishnaraj, M. (ed.). Motherhood in India: Glorification without Empowerment? New

Delhi: Routledge, 2010.

Mishra, Vijay. Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Somaya, B., J. Kothari & S. Madangarli. Mother Maiden Mistress: Women in Hindi
Cinema, 1950-2010. Noida: HarperCollins, 2012.