Hindi Film 101: What Are Mothers in Indian Film and Indian Society?

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.

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Notice both Ramya and Anushka in Bahubali came into power after become mothers, NOT wives. That’s the real power

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.

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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”.

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Farida’s role was written to give that powerful “mother” voting block someone to care about.

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.

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The Indian woman with no access to public space or money is left to consume content on her television. Notice that TV shows successful in India give enormous narrative space and power to mothers.

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.

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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?

  1. A narrative device to facilitate obstacles, exposition, and just generally whatever is needed
  2. An accurate reflection of the power of the Mother figure in a combined household contrasted with any other female household member
  3. A symbol of family and tradition and responsibility for the greater society
  4. A way to attract the family audience by giving the real life mothers someone to identify with.
  5. 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.

9 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: What Are Mothers in Indian Film and Indian Society?

  1. Lots of things I want to say, but for now, I’ll just leave a few immediate reactions:

    1. Change the title to “Hindi” films and I’ll agree. A lot of non-Hindi films don’t fit into this pattern, even today.

    2. The multiplex era didn’t prevent women from going to the theater. On the contrary, it brought women back, since they now had safe places in which to see movies on the big screen. Women, or women and children, primarily go to the morning shows and matinees, families as a whole go to the first evening show. Yes, these are women from a more affluent class, as are the men, to be able to afford multiplex prices.

    3. More than TV, the other big factor affecting women’s attendance in theaters is the easily and cheaply available option of pirated copies that can be watched at home by the whole family, for a price less than that of a single theater ticket. Also, a collateral effect this, perhaps, is the speed with which films released in theaters become available on TV for legitimate viewing ( around a couple of months).

    4. While Indian society may be considered a patriarchy according to some metrics, especially in the modern day, there is also a strong tradition of female power throughout the ages, independent of the position of any related husband, son, or father. Yes, these may be in “ancient times”, but it is still important because these ancient tales are retold in endless reworkings and adaptations in the most modern of film stories. Both the women you cite from Bahubali wielded plenty of power as wives, long before they became mothers, and in one case, long before she became a wife, even.

    Liked by 2 people

    • 1. I think a lot of Hindi films don’t fit this pattern either. But the basic idea that “mother” is a standard character and character type does seem universal from the Indian films I have seen in all languages. Not in every film, but the character type exists which is not true of non-Indian film industries. I can’t think of an Indian language industry were you would not be able to describe someone as playing “a mother role” and be understood.

      2. As you say, these women are from the affluent classes. If women and families were going to movies more often, we would not be seeing the domination of action films at the box office. Nor would we be seeing the obvious global/local divide where women aimed Indian movies do phenomenal business overseas but not in India. Anecdotal experience may see shows with women and families, but the mass data from the box office tells a different story.

      3. As I say, it is difficult for women to use their economic power and to leave the house. The films that are being pirated at home rather than watched in theaters, based on box office data, are the movies that are aimed towards a female and family audience. The movies that still do well in theaters, despite the existence of pirates, are the ones that men want to see as they have more economic power and ability to leave the house. You can even look at non-pirated data, “female” genres like romance do very well once they hit legitimate streaming sources (googleplay, Netflix, etc.). It is the inability to leave the house and spend larger amounts of money by their chosen audience (women) that is damaging these films in theatrical release, not a lack of interest.

      4. I think you could say of every society that there are legends of strong women? That doesn’t change the fact that in the present day, it is a patriarchy, therefore all my arguments here about choices made by modern filmmakers based on economic reality to appeal to an audience, and social reality to reflect the actual state of their characters. You can even argue that the focus on the legends of strong women is damaging, as it distracts from the problems of today, or suggests that strong women belong in the realm of myth and fantasy, not the present.

      On Thu, May 7, 2020 at 9:35 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. Sorry, just one more point:

    5. Mothers are often the moral arbiters, or the moral restraint, for the hero, especially in masala films.

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    • Yes! Ganti’s Big Book, Producing Bollywood, spends a lot of time talking about film producers talking about people. They would sit around in their Bombay offices worrying about whether this film will please an imaginary auntie in Bihar. This is back in the late 90s/early 2000s and the main concern was pleasing that Auntie, because she controlled the family audience. I don’t know what they are talking about now, but working backwards based on what films are being released and what films are making money, I think they don’t care about the auntie any more and are more focused on pleasing the alt-right family man, or the wealthy urban yuppie in India and overseas.

      On Thu, May 7, 2020 at 11:42 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. The television show you show pictures of is Pakistani. I wonder if a) Pakistani movies and television in general have stuck to the more important mother role or is it b) Indian and Pakistani television that is different from film, Zindagi Gulzar Hai the show you picture is fabulous and the heroines mother has a lot of screen time but it a very traditional way the heroine doesn’t really become herself until she is a mother. Again is that television or Pakistan or both? Mpollak711

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    • I haven’t watched enough Indian TV to know a good still to pick, I was afraid of accidentally putting up a still of a neighbor or something and looking a fool, but I have read about it and the mother roles are FOR SURE important. The standard show format of the popular soaps is “Saas-Bahu” meaning “mother-in-law/daughter-in-law”. It’s a struggle for control within the home and the mother is assumed to be the one who currently has all the control with the daughter in law fighting her way up the chain. And then in other shows, the mother-in-law is the saintly wise one who has to constantly slap down the evil daughter in law. Not all shows follow that format, but it is the most familiar format. And the mother roles are still a big deal, and female leads in general, in all the popular Indian serials.

      On Sun, May 10, 2020 at 8:10 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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