Oh boy, a big scary 101 that people are going to yell at me and disagree with me about what I say! Those are always the best ones.
Non-Usual Disclaimer: I am not an expert on sociology or ethnography, nor am I desi, but this is generally how I understand things based on many many years of reading and study and classes on Indian society because of my Indian film interest. I know far more than the average person about Indian society, but not as much as a true expert.
India is a strong patriarchy, and has a strong multigenerational family structure. A patriarchy means that woman are primarily identified through their relationships with men. A strong family structure means those relationships are with their family members. A multi-generational family structure means that the older generations has power over the younger. A woman is less powerful than any man of her own generation, but more powerful than men of the younger generation. Therefore, motherhood is the source of the greatest power for a woman.
How does this relate to film narratives? A film usually has a protagonist, a central character whose adventures we follow. The adventures of this character should be interesting to the audience. With India being a patriarchy, men are the ones who are more likely to do obviously interesting things (solve mysteries, defeat bad guys, fall in love and “win” the girl). Indian society has particular life stages for men, and the time for those adventures is before marriage. After marriage you are a “householder”, you have responsibilities in the family and your life eases into a predictable pattern that lasts years. The time of greatest change and adventure is the transition from “student” to “householder”, the time when you have completed your childhood but are not yet married.
So we have our young male protagonist, going off and having adventures. Our young male protagonist can’t be by himself though. He can’t have a girlfriend (because then he would be “householder”, he has to be seeking a girlfriend). But he needs someone to be in danger, to help him, or just to listen to him when he talks, or else the film falls apart. Often it is a best friend, or a brother, or a girl-he-likes-who-isn’t-yet-his-girlfriend, or more rarely a sister. But “mother” works very well as a narrative device too. A mother can give advice and direction to move the plot forward, can be in danger and cause plot obstacles, and can just be a person for the hero to talk to. All those things in one character! It’s like a Swiss Army Knife of a narrative tool.
How does this function within a film? Let’s look at a simple example, Hema Malini in Veer-Zaara. She only has a few scenes, but she gives Preity (our heroine) and also the audience backstory on Shahrukh (the hero). Shahrukh talks intimately with Hema, giving the audience a glimpse of what he is feeling and thinking. Later, Shahrukh is in trouble and Hema is threatened, motivating him to make a particular choice. Finally Hema dies while he is in prison, giving him a lingering sadness that creates audience sympathy. Hema only has a few minutes of screen time, and yet she accomplishes so much for the narrative in that little time!
That’s the mother character from the side of narrative necessity. But there is also the mother character from the side of relating to the audience. Going back to my first statement, India is patriarchal, family-based, and multigenerational. That means often whole family groups go to the movies together and, in that case, the two strongest voices are the man who is head of the family, and his mother who is the only remaining figure from the previous generation. “Mother” is now her strongest identity as it is her source of power in the world. If a mother is looking at the list of films available to watch and placing her vote, she is going to choose a movie that includes a character she can relate to. Not a young woman, that would be her daughter-in-law or granddaughters, but a woman with the same position as her, “mother”.
Let’s take another example. If we look at Kabhi Kabhi, a massive hit back when the family audience was king, there are multiple interesting female characters. But the two young women do not have nearly as much plot agency and emotional heft as the two older women, Raakhee and Waheeda. Neetu and Naseem have screentime and songs, but their needs are largely unfulfilled. Neetu wants to reunite with her mother, her mother partially rejects her, she accepts that and hangs around waiting for the situation to change. Naseem has a crush on Rishi and he is not interested in her and nothing she says can change it. On the other hand, Waheeda chooses to stand up to her husband and give him an ultimatum. And Raakhee has two men in love with her and gets to pick between them (Amitabh and Shashi). The young woman get a lot of screentime but they aren’t that appealing as audience stand-ins, people you care about and identify with. It is the older generation of women who have the power and agency and interesting plots.
In the present day, the shifting role of “mother” characters is an interesting measure of how the audience is increasingly only men. Going to a movie in theaters means two things: you have control of your disposable income, and you are able to leave the house and venture into public places. Both those things are not true for the majority of women in India. As ticket prices soar and movie theaters become less accessible (more multiplexes, but fewer single screens walking distance from lower income housing), it is harder and harder for women to get to theaters. Therefore, we have an increasingly all male audience. If you look at the movies today, the “mother” role has fallen farther and farther backwards. There are still love interest parts, women to serve as objects of desire for the young men. And there are better roles for young women, appealing to the growing young working independent urban female community. But the majority of Indian women, the ones for whom “mother” is their primary identity, are no longer being served by films.
Let’s use Karan Johar as an example. In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Farida Jalal and Reema Lagoo’s “mother” characters had primary roles in moving the plot forward. Reema served as a sounding board not just for her own child but for her future son-in-law. Farida was the adult most active in reuniting Shahrukh and Kajol. Both of them were given charming scenes, Reema as the beautiful youthful mother-in-law who a young man might still flirt with, and Farida as the tough grandma who transforms the summer camp. In Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, the love of Jaya for Shahrukh and vice-versa was the primary plot force for the whole second half. Only one official “mother” in this movie, but she had a lot to do, and she was supported by a nanny, and two grandmas. Then we have Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, again only one “mother”, but Kirron Kher is given the chance to flirt, to fight, to have a big speech, and amazing costumes too. My Name is Khan, two mothers, but only one following the traditional kind of path, Zarina Wahib who is written out early in the film. Student of the Year, Farida Jalal as the powerless grandma, and Varun’s mother who isn’t even a name actress and has little to do. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, no mothers at all. No reason to watch this movie unless you can identify with the feelings of youthful love.
There is a general shift in Indian film from more to fewer characters, and from family plots to workplace or college friend plots. It goes back to the shift to multiplex urban wealthy audiences who may no longer be living in a combined family. The “mother” role is disappearing, but disappearing at a far slower rate than the other characters. “Sister” for instance used to be a primary part of a film plot, an extra character to be in danger, or provided exposition, or whatever is needed. As films get more streamlined, she was thrown away. The “mother” character can’t be so easily replaced, she is holding her own still, although her role is weakened more and more. In something like the movie War, the exposition of the hero’s past came through a speech by his work supervisor instead of his mother, and the reveal of his emotions came through a speech to his love interest/mentor instead of to his mother. But she was still there to represent everything he loved and was fighting for.
In an increasing number of movies, the mother’s narrative importance is shown through the power of her lack. In the movies with young urban heroes and heroines, often they are specifically motherless. To be without a mother means to be without a home, without family, without tradition. You can have sex before marriage, you can live in a fabulous apartment, you can be career focused, because there is no Mother behind you. In movie after movie in recent times, our hero and/or heroine have a father but no mother, symbolizing the whole lack of family behind them. Ranbir in Yeh Jawaani…Hai Deewani, Anushka and Shahrukh in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, 2 out of the 4 heroines in Veere Di Wedding (and the ones with mothers are also the ones most pressured by family/social roles), and on and on and on. The meaning of being motherless as being family-less and value-less has always been true. What is changing now is that this is no longer necessarily a driving tragedy of the character, or even an unusual state. For a young person (such as Ranbir in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil) to be adrift and without a motherly bond behind him is treated as almost normal. Ananya Panday in Student of the Year 2 was shown to be lost and lonely without her mother, but on the other hand the other two leads were almost never shown interacting with their living mothers. There was just a hairs breadth difference between the young person with no mother at all, and the young people who were only motherless in that they did not include their mothers in their lives, or their families in their lives.
This is modern India on film, speaking to the upper class modern Indian (the one who has the ability to access films still) who is discovering the joy of NOT having a mother. Or rather, not having a “mother”, not having a combined family with tradition and pressure and the generation above you having power over you that comes with it.
So, what are mothers in Indian film?
- A narrative device to facilitate obstacles, exposition, and just generally whatever is needed
- An accurate reflection of the power of the Mother figure in a combined household contrasted with any other female household member
- A symbol of family and tradition and responsibility for the greater society
- A way to attract the family audience by giving the real life mothers someone to identify with.
- Someone who is increasingly removed from films as family and tradition becomes less appealing, the combined household is less common for the new film audience, and the family audience is no longer part of the new film audience.