Friday Classic (Bonus, on Saturday): Masoom, the Inescapable Pull of Motherhood

Mother’s Day week, obviously I was inspired to watch Masoom.  One of the greatest explorations of what it means to be a mother of all time.  You can run from it, but it will always catch you.

I’ll start with Erich Segal, that big sap.  The creator of Love Story followed it up with another story just as impractical, illogical, fantastical, and tear-inducing.  Oh, and with a similarly “oooo, it’s like a meta commentary on the essential elements of the story” title, Man, Woman and Child.

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His novel was adapted by himself into a screenplay in 1983, starring Martin Sheen and Blythe Danner.  A year earlier it had already been made into a Malayalam film, Olangal.  And also in 1983, the definitive version of this story, Shekhar Kapur’s Masoom, was released.

And now I talk about Shekhar Kapur.  A brilliant director who never seems to make the same movie twice.  This was the film that first got him noticed, sensitive and real and different.  He took the sappy ludicrious novel and turned it into something that felt like it could actually happen, like it was a family you knew in the real world reacting the way they would actually react.  And then he spent the rest of his career never making anything like this again.  Which you could also say about every other movie he made.

And of course, it’s also about his actors, especially the central 5.  Naseeruddin Shah, once again giving you that disturbing feeling of “am I actually attracted to Naseeruddin Shah?”  He is everyone’s dream charming kind funny father, and everyone’s dream loving secretly sexy husband.  Shabana Azmi, being perfectly cold and warm at the same time, convincing us that she loves her children without going through the usual motions of motherhood, the melodramatic speeches and all the rest of it.  Urmila Matondkar, as charming as a little girl as she would be as a young woman a few years later.  And Aradhana, the other little girl, is even more charming, loadly singing Rishi Kapoor songs at the table and just generally being an irritating little sister.  And finally Jugal Hansraj, the beating broken heart of the film.  He carries the whole thing on his tiny shoulders and breaks your heart all the while.

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(You want to somehow reach through time and space and your TV screen and give him a hug)

That’s not all, there is also music by RD Burman in one of his more restrained soundtracks, Supriya Pathak (Naseerji’s real life sister-in-law) in a small key role, Tanuja playing a glamorous career woman without the worries of children and husband, and over all the best talents the Hindi film industry of the 1980s had to offer all combined into one perfect small story.








It’s a very simple story.  Naseeruddin and Shabana are a happy perfect middle-class couple with two little girls.  And then Naseeruddin gets a letter, and learns he has a son, a result of one night spent with an old friend while at a school reunion.  Shabana is shaken, not sure what to do, brokenhearted but unable to fully walk out on the marriage.  The little boy Jugal Hansraj is brought back to their home because he has nowhere else to go.  Shabana ignores him, but his sisters quickly befriend him.  He wants Shabana to like him and can’t understand what he did wrong.  He also dreams of the day when his unknown father will come for him and take him home (unaware that Naseeruddin is that father and is planning to never tell him).  Naseeruddin takes Jugal off to be entered into boarding school, Jugal sadly asks why he can’t just stay with him, in their home.  In the end, Jugal stumbles across the truth, that Naseeruddin is his father, and is planning to abandon him at school instead of claim him.  Jugal runs away the night before they are to leave for school, Naseeruddin and Shabana panic and then are relieved when he comes home again.  Finally Naseeruddin goes to put him on the train for school, and returns to his car in the parking lot to discover Shabana and his daughters waiting for him with Jugal.  Shabana asks him to take them home, showing she has accepted Jugal fully into their family.

I just took a look at the other adaptations and they just aren’t as good.  For one thing, the other versions from novel to Malayalam film don’t seem to make the affair post-marriage.  The question is merely if a woman will accept evidence of her husband’s love for someone else, not his cheating on her.  In this film, not only did Naseeruddin betray on Shabana, he did it while she was pregnant with their oldest daughter.

The original version doesn’t grapple with the reality of the resolution, first having the boy suddenly become ill just in time for him to win over the family.  And second having him recover and declare that he wants to leave them anyway in order to go to the school his mother had picked out for him.  The tension of this concept is whether a family will be able to adjust and accept a new member, this ending avoids that tension.  The family has to accept him once he is sick, and then he gets better and removes himself from the situation, thereby solving the problem without them having to do anything.

The Malayalam version, Olangal, avoids the conflict in a different way, by having the husband put off telling his wife the truth of the situation.  This brings in a different tension, whether she will ever find out.  Not the question of what she will do after she knows.

But this film, this film deals with ALL of it.  Shabana and Naseeruddin both know everything right from the start, the question is, what will they do about it?  It’s a simple situation, but the emotions it evokes are complicated.

For one thing, it’s not an accident that in every version the illegitimate child is the only son.  It’s not a matter of gender preference, it’s simply that there is a different bond between father and son, and mother and son, than there is between father and daughter and mother and daughter.  Naseeruddin loves being a father and knows how to be a father, but he is discovering the joys of being a father to a son, to someone who looks up to him and tries to model his behavior on him.  And Shabana is discovering the joys of a little boy who loves his mother, the straightforward affection and determination, someone different than her and more precious for his differences.  They are both already parents, but this is a different kind of parenting.

Naseeruddin also has to deal with the responsibility he feels towards Supriya Pathak, Jugal’s dead mother.  She wasn’t just a drunken fling, she was someone he truly cared for.  And vice versa, she wanted to have Naseeruddin’s son, would have wanted her son to live with his father after she died.  The film teases this out slowly, starting with the blunt truth that he went a school reunion while Shabana was pregnant, he went alone because she couldn’t travel, he was lonely, he spent one night with a woman.  That is all he tells Shabana, and it makes sense that is all he would tell her.  It would be cruel to tell her more, and also disrespectful to what he shared with Supriya.

But to his friend and confident, he eventually feels the need to bare his soul.  Supriya was an old friend from school, and the school principal told him at that reunion that she had just lost her family in a car accident and had sunk into a depression.  She seemed to like Naseeruddin so the principal, who was now the closest thing she had to family, asked Naseeruddin to spend some time with her, try to make her happy.  And we see them talk, see Supriya move through the world almost without seeing it, and see through her eyes how sane and safe and kind Naseeruddin appears.  The film doesn’t have to explain to us that Naseeruddin took pity on her grief and couldn’t say no when she offered herself, or that Supriya felt the need for a human connection in that moment and Naseeruddin was there, we can see that.  We can also see that Supriya must have been a wonderful mother, and most have found her son a blessing in her loneliness.  And we can see that she raised him with no real knowledge of who his father was (respecting Naseeruddin’s love for Shabana by keeping their secret), but with a sense that his father was a good loving man who he should be happy was his father.  Naseeruddin must fight this battle alone, his love for his son and his sincere respect for his son’s mother.

I respect that in the character of Naseeruddin and also in the film for constructing it that way.  Naseeruddin doesn’t try to make Shabana pity him, or even involve her in his struggles.  He knows his situation is his alone, and hers is very different and equally difficult.

Shabana, she is the one in the truly unique situation.  If she were as cold as she appears, her life would be easy.  If she didn’t love her husband and cherish their marriage, not just as a “duty” but as the greatest joy of her life, than she wouldn’t care that he had cheated on her.  If she truly hated her husband’s love child, than she could live in the same house with him without pain.  But Shabana is not cold, she is a woman in love and she is a mother.

Our introduction to this household is perfect.  The two girls are scared because the dog broke a vase.  They call Naseeruddin at work, he laughs and then jokes with his colleagues about how he has to hurry home because his wife doesn’t like dogs.  He goes home, and Shabana, perfectly clad in silk, carrying packages just back from the store, arrives to find her disheveled husband and daughters sitting in the living room looking guilty.  It appears that Shabana is far too glamorous and perfect and worldly to belong to this wild little girls and joking husband.  She gives them merely a raise of an eyebrow and a glance, and they all profess guilt and innocence in a chorus.

But it takes only a minute to understand the true structure of this household.  Naseeruddin may joke about his wife not liking dogs, and the girls may pretend fear of their mother, but it is all a shallow fear.  Naseeruddin is the head of this household, Shabana follows his lead.  And Shabana is the loving warm center of it, everything is all right so long as she is happy.

We spend time with them, enough time to see this.  Naseeruddin and Shabana make love in bed together, laughing.  They go to a party and he gets drunk and recites poetry to her while she roles her eyes.  They both struggle to help the girls with their homework, or discipline them when they fight.  It is a happy home, filled with love.

And Naseeruddin’s reveal that he shared his love outside of the home shatters all of that.  Shabana can’t leave him, although that is her first thought.  She can’t leave her children, their home, break everything by throwing Naseeruddin out of her life.  And Naseeruddin, he can’t do this alone, he needs her to help him, more than ever before.  He knows he needs her if this child will ever be welcomed into their home, even temporarily.

And when little big-eyed Jugal arrives, he sees the same thing.  He can stay in this house as long as Naseeruddin says he can.  But he won’t be truly welcomed until Shabana welcomes him.  She may go out to parties and talk with sophisticated friends and wear elegant clothes, but she is the mother none the less, and she is the one who matters most to a lonely little boy.

Shabana’s struggle is more clearly defined than anyone else’s, partly through her friendships.  Early on we are introduced to her friend Tanuja, smoking, drinking, talking about work, and trumpeting her happily divorced status.  And we also hear about their other friend, who is terribly depressed and will not stop crying.  And later, we see them visiting her in the hospital, after a suicide attempt.

These are Shabana’s options.  Tanuja, who reacted to infidelity by leaving her husband and starting life again free and happy.  Or her other friend, she reacted to infidelity by sinking into a deep depression and giving up on life.  Shabana chooses nothing, limbo, staying in the house but not truly forgiving her husband or accepting his son.  She waits and weighs her options.

It is an almost entirely internal performance.  Another way in which Shabana’s character rings true as a mother.  Because mother’s never show how they really feel, they bury it down and focus on everyone else instead.  And when they do show feelings, it is less through what is said than what is done.  We don’t need dialogue to tell us that Shabana is softening towards Jugal, we see it in her hand reaching out to touch him and then stopping.  We don’t need to know that her emotions are going up and down moment by moment and she struggles to hold herself together, we can see it in the tension in her posture, the unnatural stillness of her face.  The kids react too, quickly uncomfortable and squirming in their chairs in response to Shabana’s attitude.  Which is also how mother’s are, when mother’s are unhappy, the whole family is unhappy too, even if they aren’t sure why.

The tension of them film, the question, is not if Shabana will storm out of the house or otherwise do something dramatic and external.  It is whether how she feels inside will change.  More than that, it is whether how she feels inside will be allowed to flower up.  Her true feelings, her deep inside under the cold opaque surface of motherhood repression that never lets your children see your pain feelings, those are there from the start, beating against her walls and trying to get out.

Shabana loves Jugal from the start, of course she does.  He is a sad orphaned little boy, any mother will love him instantly, mother love will rise up in an unstoppable reflex.  But her head is doing battle with her heart.  Can she let this instinct over whelm her, overwhelm her love for Naseeruddin and heart over what he has done, overwhelm her pain at the thought of the other woman, overwhelm her pride and identity and everything else?

(As good a place as any to show the Shabana-Naseerji love song)

That is the conversations that women have, not the ones men are privy too.  Naseeruddin never seems to see or consider this internal battle, but Tanuja does.  After telling Shabana how happy she is, after recommending to their friend that she kill all love for her husband and start life fresh, Tanuja turns up excited and happy to announce she is reconciling with her husband. Shabana is stunned and, through a tiny change of expression, lets the audience see that it isn’t just surprise, it is betrayal at the idea that the one voice that seemed to be giving her strength, telling her not to forgive, has now reversed itself.  And Tanuja tells her that what made the change wasn’t her husband, but her child.  His hand reaching out to her and asking her to come home was something she could not resist, mother love was too powerful.  And we can see Shabana file this away, a reminder that the love she feels for Jugal will keep trying to break through and will take control of her if she lets it.

Of course, the pain of this film is that Jugal doesn’t know.  He doesn’t know Shabana is acting cruel because she wants so much to be kind.  He doesn’t know that he is a reminder of a heart hurt that will never stop for her.  He is innocent of all of this, and that is what makes him so dangerous to her.

There are several moments when we see Shabana’s shifting moods.  Jugal makes her a box for her birthday, she doesn’t react at all in the moment, barely thanks him.  Late that night, she looks at it again, and can’t stop herself from going to his room while he sleeps, pulling up his blanket and reaching down to stroke his cheek in the universal gestures of mother love.  But she sees his photos of his mother, kept close to him, and stops herself.  If she loves this child, it means she loves his mother too, she is tied forever to his mother, and that is something she cannot live with, not yet.

Later, Jugal cuts his hand and goes running to her, thoughtlessly calling out “Ma” in his pain.  She turns on him and yells until he runs away, that he is not to call her “Ma”, only “auntie”.  To Jugal, it is random anger and hatred and he doesn’t know why.  But to the audience, we can see that it is her again fighting instinct, a child calling out in pain for “Ma” is an immediate trigger, and she can’t let him use it, she has to force him back to merely calling her “auntie”.  We’ve all seen this, haven’t we?  When I was little at family reunions, any time a crying child called out “Mommy”, 5 different women would run over.  Didn’t matter that it wasn’t their child, if a mother hears that cry, she will respond instantly.

And finally, at the end, Shabana has her magnificent speech when Jugal returns from running away.  She starts out cold and angry, telling him that he has been a terrible bother, the called the police, everyone went to a lot of trouble for him.  And then she starts to shift, talking about what a worry he was to Naseeruddin, how he is out there now looking for Jugal, and then finally lets her voice break a little as she talks about how dangerous it was for him to go outside in the city, how terrible things could have happened to him, and the audience knows (and so does Jugal on some level) that as much as she tried to hide it, she was terrified as well, she was just as scared as Naseeruddin even if she didn’t show it.

I’d heard of the ending many times before seeing it, Naseeruddin returning to the car to find the family united.  But it didn’t happen the way I pictured.  We never see Shabana lovingly embrace Jugal, or telling him to call her “mother”, or anything like that.  She doesn’t even seem particularly happy.  But she is calm and resolved.  And she tells Naseer to take them home in a calm contented voice, while the children laugh together in the backseat.  That’s the kind of mother she is, not the one who will give the big speeches or dramatic gestures, but the calm and peaceful and immovable mother.  She doesn’t need to give a big speech, to Naseer or Jugal, at this moment.  She is there, and that is enough to promise them that she will always be there, she has made her decision and her commitment and she will not go back on it.

There are many movies and real life stories in which mothers take in children of their husband’s who are not their biological children.  Shammi Kapoor’s second wife, Reema Lagoo in Hum Saath Saath Hain, and certainly I have known “stepmothers” in real life who were truly mothers more than anything.  This movie is remarkable not because Shabana accepts Jugal, but because she resisted so long.  Mothers want to love children, any children, Shabana’s strength was in not giving in, and it was also a sign of how very strong her love is in the end, that it overcame that strength.


6 thoughts on “Friday Classic (Bonus, on Saturday): Masoom, the Inescapable Pull of Motherhood

  1. Pingback: Friday Classic (Bonus, on Saturday): Masoom, the Inescapable Pull of Motherhood — dontcallitbollywood – Business Startup-Bay Area

  2. i haven’t seen olangal,but its songs are evergreen hits in Kerala. this one was later remixed for the amitabh bachan film Paa.
    Balu mahendra(director of olangal) is a legendary filmmaker and cinematographer. made many classic films in Tamil and Malayalam.his film Yathra starring mammootty and shobhana is one of the best lovestory ever in malayalam


    • I thought I had seen something by Balu Mahendra, and I have! Moondram Pirai/Sadma. But it looks like there is much more from him to explore.


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