Can Bollywood mothers speak: Exploring motherhood agency and subjectivity in mainstream Hindi Cinema

By Debadrita Chakraborty

When representing mothers and motherhood onscreen, Bollywood (post the box office success of Mother India in the 1950s) has stuck to formulaic portrayals of the mother as a character symbolic of sacrifice, devotion, and compassion. Presenting the mother as an epitome of purity who unwittingly accepts the mythic ideals of motherhood and an out of focus character who is referred to only in times of criticism and complaint (regarding her child) whereby all ills are attributed to her, Bollywood has seldom questioned its representations of ‘motherhood’ that have for decades failed to take into account of what women might say or want of the maternal. 

The institution of motherhood in India is built on ‘brahmanical patriarchy’ that is an extension of the British ‘coloniality of power’ (that attempted a full reduction of the colonised to less than human primitives, infantile, aggressively sexual, and in need of transformation) along with ancient Hindu lawgiver Manu’s three stage model of socially accepted domination of women under patriarchy: women have to live under the authority of the father in childhood, under the husband in her youth and under the son in her old age (Bagchi, 2017). The brahmanical social order introduced its hierarchical, patriarchal codes both for Indian men and women ensuring gender hierarchy and repressive control of the female body, sexuality and her agency. Brahmanical strictures and patriarchal expectations for most women begin with would-be mothers and then continue through pregnancy and into childrearing. Women are expected to accommodate each ideal construct as they move from one status to the next, and the onus is on woman regardless of her circumstances and situations (Pearce and Moraes, 2021). Replicating the socio-cultural and political shifts, mainstream Hindi cinema has been echoing unrealistic expectations that too often become the model to which women hold themselves and to which their societies likewise measure them. In fact, mainstream Hindi cinema from 1950s until the early 2000s have rarely portrayed characters where a woman develops a world of experiences and gain confidence during the actual process of mothering despite being socialised into the strictures of motherhood. 

Since the inception of mainstream Hindi cinema, tearful widowed mothers clad in white sari (symbolic of their widowhood) have been known to depict the agony of motherhood embedded in social structures – be they in the form of class, caste, and religious divide. However, seldom have these intersections of prejudice, heterosexism and racism and their relationship with motherhood been questioned by filmmakers and film critics. According to Jhamtani, the most popular archetype of the mother figure in Bollywood is a widowed woman whose weakness and vulnerability is insinuated by the absence of her male counterpart since, according to patriarchal standards, a woman without a husband or a male provider is incapable of surviving (2016, 340). Mothers like Nirupa Roy in a film like Deewar (1975), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) and Suhaag (1979) is shown to be able to use her agential capacities in a constrained sense when she accepts her subordinate status under patriarchy. In fact, Roy is able to use her voice and agency to motivate her sons to avenge the moral and economic injustices against their mother in order to drive the narrative forward and ensure heroic success that proves idealised masculinity. About the seventies mainstream Hindi cinema’s portrayal of motherhood, Sardar writes, “Here Maa becomes an empty vessel for an outpouring of cheap emotions, a vehicle for perpetual and misguided suffering, a hollow character whose existence is worked out through the desires and actions of the male characters” (1998). At a time when the world applauded India for electing a woman prime minister to lead the nation (Indira Gandhi, from 1966 to 1977), Indian cinema was uninspired and undeterred by the potential of this significant phase in India’s history. Bollywood continued to pay its dues to patriarchy (Jhamtani, 2016, 342). Further, dialogues such as “Ek aurat jab tak maa nahi banti woh adhoori rehti hain” (a woman’s life remains unfulfilled if she is barren), “aurat ke ek nai teen janam hote hain…pehla jab vo kisiki beti bankar is duniya mein ati hain…doosra jab vo kisiki patni banti hain aur teesra jab vo maa banti hain” (a woman is born thrice – first as a daughter, second as a wife and third as a mother) and “main tumhare bacchon ki maa banne wali hoon” (I am the mother of your child) have congealed the fate of motherhood representation in mainstream Bollywood cinema. Moreover, mothers like Nirupa Roy and Nargis (who displayed the epitome of sacrifice, devotion, tolerance, selfless love and whose motherhood was a celebration of the imagery of the nation as a mother) in Mother India (1957) were granted agency and voice under patriarchy due to them being mothers of sons. As Kakar observes, a mother’s power in the house and within the public sphere is derived from birthing sons since, according to the Hindu tradition, it is sons and not daughters who perform duties towards the paternal home (1980). Compare yester year’s cinematic representation of motherhood with its contemporary counterpart and what we see is the myth of motherhood pervading across time and space which continues to give an effective boost to patriarchal control over women, not just her body, but also her mind. It is as if Bollywood mainstream cinema consumed by millions of Indians (145.7 million) is trying to portray that a woman’s physical potential for motherhood is her single destiny and justification in life. 

One of the reasons why the figure of the maternal in mainstream Hindi cinema continues to reinforce and perpetuate patriarchal norms as the passive sufferer, as individuals lacking agency and subjectivity, as individuals that are self-sacrificing, and devoid of any worldly pleasure is due to the lack of existing film studies on motherhood in India. Research works that emerged in the last few decades which, includes Jashodhara Bagchi’s Interrogating Motherhood (2017) examined how motherhood became a nation building tool against the colonizers and post colonialism became a tool for female enslavement situated within the framework of family, culture, state, and scientific and technological enterprises. Similarly, Maitreyi Krishnaraj’s edited volume Motherhood in India: Glorification without Empowerment? (2010) examined varied experiences and representations of motherhood in India from ancient to modern times while Spectres of Mother India: the Global Restructuring of an Empire (2006) by Mrinalini Sinha examines the plight of mothers amidst social evils. Recently, it is Zinia Mitra’s The Concept of Motherhood in India : Myths, Theories, and Realities (2020) that explores motherhood from a postcolonial lens. While Hollywood film studies have examined concepts of motherhood focussed around marriage, work, female agency, IVF, and surrogacy, in India, it is Anu Aneja and Shubhangi Vaidya’s Embodying Motherhood: Perspectives from Contemporary India (2016) that explored motherhood discourse from a feminist perspective covering the spectrum of religion, literature, cinema, and psychoanalysis. Although there has been a proliferation of research on motherhood in the last decade, the needs and experiences, struggles and desires of contemporary mothers and motherhood has not yet been the focus in Indian film studies on the feminine. Going by Bollywood’s obsession with glorifying the patriarchal institution of motherhood and the lack of sustained study of motherhood in Bollywood, this paper will explore the ways in which motherhood, including a mother’s subjectivity and agency is represented or is absent in contemporary Hindi films. Next, I will examine the reason(s) why Bollywood continues to negate and silence feminist discourses on motherhood through their myopic representations of mothers. 

‘Out of focus’ mothers of contemporary mainstream Hindi cinema: Introducing the patriarchal feminine

From being a maternal figure on screen that reinforced and perpetuated patriarchal values between the 1960s and the 1980s to the social erasure of the female subject’s subjectivity upon entering the realm of motherhood in contemporary Bollywood, fictional mothers haven’t come a long way. Apart from glimpses of mothers who every now and then are able to detach themselves from patriarchal expectations and explore individual desires, mainstream Hindi cinema, despite its ‘woke’ representations of caste, class, and gender inequalities in India, continue to portray regressive forms of motherhood, reducing the mother to the role of a care-giver, a nurturer, imposing stereotypical norms and traditions on her children, having internalised patriarchy herself. Cases in point are the likes of what I have called ‘out of focus’ mothers in female centric films such as Sandhya who plays the female protagonist Amrita’s mother in the film Thappad (2020) and the female protagonist, Bitti Mishra’s mother, Sushila in Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017). Thappad revolves around Amrita, a young homemaker who seeks divorce from her husband when he slaps and disrespects her in public, Bareilly Ki Barfi is about a feisty, small town girl who defies patriarchal strictures to live life on her own terms. While the female protagonists of these films reveal repressed resentments of women’s oppressive placement within the Indian patriarchal public and private spheres, their mothers are cast within the maternal sacrifice paradigm that embodies the patriarchal unconscious and represents women’s positioning as lack, absence, signifier of passivity (Kaplan, 2013). Both Sandhya and Sushila as keepers of the patriarchal order cajoles their daughters to fulfill the scriptural injunctions of Manusmriti as a compliant daughter/wife/mother. While Sandhya cajoles Amrita daughter to reconcile with her husband when she files for divorce on account of physical assault, Sushila remonstrates Bitti for her rebellious nature which makes her unfit for arranged marriage in an Indian small town. In fact, Sandhya’s advice does play a role in Amrita’s decision to fulfil her wifely duties and that of a daughter-in-law when she realises that she is pregnant with her husband’s child. Similarly, Bitti keeps questioning her choices and considers herself a misfit among the small town girls post her mother’s remonstrations who tries to situate her within the Indian patriarchal ideology. The mothers depicted in these films are the products of the 1990s, an era when the meta-imagery of the stay-at-home mother asserting gender roles and laying out feasts from her family was portrayed alongside working mothers who found a new found sense of empowerment as they negotiated the domestic demands being placed on them. These mothers are a reminder of how Bollywood as a self-assumed guardian of patriarchal values, diffused this implicit wave of feminism (Jhamtani, 2016, 346) and instead represented mothers as keepers of traditions, confidants for her children, and nurturing images of comfort and love such as Kaushalya in Maine Pyar Kiya  (1989) and Mamta in Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999). What these films fail to portray, to quote O Reilly is that it is critical for mothers to understand that “what daughters most need from [them] is not self-sacrifice, or selflessness, but selfhood and, a healthy dose of selfishness (2014). 

It is challenging to watch a film like Badhaai Ho (2018) which although ably portrays the taboo around middle age pregnancy and late motherhood does not do justice to the character of Priyamvada whose pregnancy becomes a catalyst to the plot of the film rather than taking centre stage which unfortunately is given to Ayushman’s romantic track. Although she shares equal screen time and space with her co-actors, the narrative is blind to the psycho-social struggle that an urban Indian woman undergoes when she experiences unplanned pregnancy in her fifties. Instead, the film valorises the patriarchally constructed feminine, a passive sufferer who is seldom allowed to take charge of the narrative. The film never consciously critiques Priyamvada’s position especially her lack of agency and voice which gets buried under middle class patriarchal expectations. Between the second-hand embarrassment felt by her sons, Nakul and Gular and their reconciliation with their parents in the climax, Priyamvada is seldom shown to defy mythic paradigms of the ‘Angel in the House’; instead, she reifies patriarchal notions of motherliness and nurturing as a woman’s true destiny. 

The new age mother and ‘Mother Question’

Bollywood has recently added an interesting twist to the “good” mother figure. Portraying the dichotomy between motherhood as a (patriarchal) institution and motherhood as experience are films like Ki and Ka (2016) and Good Newz (2019). While the former attempts deconstruction of gender identities and roles where Kabir a stay-at-home husband fulfils the role of a homemaker and his wife Kia dons the hat of the family breadwinner, the latter addresses the controversial issue of motherhood through in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Subverting the representation of the patriarchal feminine Ki and Ka (2016) endorses the idea of Kia’s preference of her career over the need to conceive a child soon after marriage. Although in the film she receives support from her husband and her father-in-law who decides to make her the CEO of his company, the film itself failed miserably in the box office since most in the audience refused to forgo their patriarchal privileges as hegemonic and compliant individuals and accept changing gender roles and gender deconstructions in a (post)modern Indian family. The representation of the ‘New Mother’ (taking cue from the concept of the ‘New Woman’ a feminist ideal that emerged in the late 19th century Europe) with films like Good Newz creates a new level of debate about “the woman question,” that not long ago solely focussed on the maternal and the conflict between female desire for an independent career and an autonomous life-style, and male desire to keep the heroine focused only on himself. In Good Newz, the female protagonist Deepti Batra is an eminent journalist whose character is consistently transgressive in the way she educates her husband, Varun when he becomes emotionally unavailable for her despite the physiological and psychological challenges she confronts as a soon to be mother. In doing so Deepti does to an extent presents both transgression and desire in her search for an independent existence beyond and outside the discourse of the male (Kaplan, 2013). Another film that subverts the representation of the patriarchal feminine is the 2021 film, Mimi. The film opens with a dance sequence that violates the traditional codes of the “good” woman in initiating and sustaining the erotic gaze. Although the dance number contributes towards the notion of a woman as a spectacle, an object of gaze, the lyrics tell otherwise. It captures the essence of Mimi’s character who refuses to be shackled by patriarchal norms, who is a dreamer and is carefree like the wind (‘Pairon mein payal ki bedi se bandke main na rehne wali/ Main alhad purva ke jaisi hoon pardeson tak behne wali/ Mujhe gehno se badhke sapno ki chahat hai’). She refuses to be positioned in passivity, objectivity, negativity when she gets trapped in a surrogacy mishap and decides to birth the child who has been abandoned by his white American parents for fear of having to raise a child with Down syndrome. But then again as the audience we are never allowed inside Mimi’s mind to understand her psychological turmoil as a newbie mother who sacrifices her aspirations of stardom in the Bollywood film industry. Instead we can only deduce the conflicts and difficult choices before her through camera-use, lighting, mise-en-scene and editing, and secondarily through verbal language. It is interesting to see that during pregnancy, Mimi is shown to be articulate in terms of continuing her pregnancy contrary to terminating it on advice of her parents. However, she becomes inarticulate, helpless and at times falls silent upon becoming a mother. Does motherhood then immobilise her, lead her to lose her power as an articulate, independent woman? Does motherhood deprive, contract and reduce a woman to the patriarchal feminine? Why is Mimi suddenly rendered inarticulate, unable to use the realm of the Symbolic to get what she wants? What exactly are the constraints put upon her? Or that she puts upon herself? The film does not ultimately provide clear answers to these questions since, as noted above, it refuses us full access to Mimi’s thoughts.  

Mothering, motherhood and mother-child relationships

In a pronatalist society, where becoming a mother is naturalised and reified, unbecoming a mother—be it in the form of choosing of one’s own needs over those of the child or living apart from biological children – is variously regarded as unnatural, improper, even contemptible. This is why rarely, if ever, do we see mainstream Hindi cinema examining the changing relationships between mothers and their teenage or grown up children or about ways to cope and receive support for a mother’s empty nest syndrome or representation of the aging mother with an opportunity for reconnection with the self. Characters like Eela  in Helicopter Eela (2018) and Jaya in the sports film, Panga (2020) aren’t able to play out a single mother and athlete mother’s external and internal struggles (respectively) as they depart from the idealised, self-sacrificing trope of motherhood in Bollywood in the hope of realising their dreams of becoming a singer and a national Kabaddi champion respectively. For instance, Eela’s loneliness as a single mother who tends to smother her son by micromanaging his life in order to compensate the vacuum she experiences as a woman who not only experiences societal stigma as a single mother but also tries to figure out her desires barely gets a look-in. So does Jaya, whose moments of anguish due to the constant struggle between her ambition and personal goals, and motherly duties are resolved with almost unrealistic expediency and no lasting repercussions. An exception to this norm has been the 2012 film English Vinglish that provides a multifaceted and complex understanding of women’s experiences of reproduction, family, and care. Shashi constantly questions the qualities expected of a patriarchal feminine that include caring, tending, and compassion, which by extension include cooking, washing, or other necessary activities entailed by the patriarchy from which others/fathers are released. Towards the end of the film, the protagonist Shashi not only realises her value as an entrepreneur but also her desires as a woman. She finds agency when she is able to speak in English, a language foreign to her in her niece’s wedding and in doing so is able to break away from the ideals of motherhood that society (including her husband and children) had vested upon her. This authentic representation of motherhood ushered a cultural discourse on women’s subjective pleasures in mothering, portraying as to how mothers can detach themselves from patriarchy’s expectation of motherhood and explore their individual desires. Following Shashi, mainstream Hindi cinema birthed the likes of Sunita Kapoor in Kapoor & Sons (2016), representing motherhood with all its flaws, limitations, disappointments and ambitions and Najma in Secret Superstar (2017) who fights domestic violence, patriarchal codes and an abusive husband to help her daughter realise her dream of becoming a singer. Breaking away from the analogy of the wicked stepmother or the stepmom as the “femme fatale” of Bollywood, contemporary Hindi films have also delved into the complex narrative of stepmother – teenage daughter relationship. In the 2017 film, Mom we see how a middle-age teacher, Devaki exacts revenge on a bunch of perpetrators who sexually assaults her teenage stepdaughter. However, instead of focussing on the nuances of a mother-daughter relationship, the film engages with the age-old representation of anguished motherhood who is ready to sacrifice and submit to ameliorate a detached mother-daughter relationship. Devaki’s character verges on playing the nurturer and crusader, a legacy that mothers on screen have been known to convey since the 1957 film Mother India.

The advent of feminist fathers in mainstream Hindi cinema

In the recent times, the representation of mothering and motherhood onscreen has received a blow with the advent of feminist fathers in the mainstream Hindi cinema scene. In the last few years, Bollywood has produced the likes of Sachin Sethi (played by Kumud Mishra) in Thappad (2020), Bhaskar Banerjee (played by Amitabh Bacchan) in Piku (2015) and the characters of Colonel Anup Saxena and Narottam Mishra played by Pankaj Tripathi in Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (2020) and Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017) who have been portrayed as the harbingers of feminism, equalism and humanism in 21st century India, seldom succumbing to hegemonic patriarchal values and raising their daughters to become gender-neutral cosmopolitans. However, focus on the feminist fathers, urban middle class dads who do a better job than onscreen mothers to burst the gender bias by treating his daughter as fairly as he does his son – has either written the mother out of the story or marginalised and negated her subjectivity. This new focus on the father brings home the notion that Bollywood is simply interested to create discourses for mothers as an agent of reproduction or as nurturers – images that fall within the strictures of the patriarchal feminine. Otherwise how do we account for such empowered representation of the father – the male and such marginalisation of the mother – the female in mainstream Hindi cinema? Is the feminist father trope reiterating Bollywood’s need for a ‘hero’ (this time, the father) to impart discourses on gender equality? Is the focus on the feminist father the latest form of the age-long male utopian urge to control a female centric narrative, to control the female body, perhaps to the extent of eliminating the mother’s agency and subjectivity altogether?

Representation of motherhood in Bollywood: The onward journey

Given mainstream Hindi cinema’s national and global reach, its impact on the audience and both Indian and the diaspora societies at large, it is crucial that filmic representations begin to question the depiction of the maternal figure who either conforms to the role of the patriarchal feminine or is othered due to her non-conformist desires, her subjectivity and her individualism. Although there has been a proliferation of research on motherhood in the last decade, the needs and experiences, struggles and desires of mothers and motherhood has never been the focus in Indian film studies on the feminine. Unrealistic portrayals of postpartum women both in Bollywood and Hindi television have empowered society to ask questions such as: Are career women as mothers good? How do they balance work and mothering? Not to forget the countless articles in lifestyle magazines and portals offering both natural and surgical ways by which women can reclaim their pre-pregnancy bodies.

It is time that mainstream Hindi cinema takes into account the gap between idealized depictions of blissful maternity and the more complicated and exhausting reality that mothers undergo on a daily basis. Just as in memoirs, blogs, anthologies and zines, cinema should also deliberate on mothering experiences, their joys, disappointments, desires and struggles representing mothering in ways that resist guilt for those supposedly non-maternal feelings, that refuse to pathologize their own frustration and rage, and that seek broader contexts and communities in which to understand their experiences of motherhood, both the good and the bad (Kawash, 2011). As Mitra observes, 

“Motherhood as a lived experience is not measured in the same way as in the past – both mothers and society have undergone changes. Now we have a different familial structure in India, with working mothers, nuclear families, and changing models of parenting. There are homosexual marriages, IVF conceptions (cytoplasmic and nuclear transfers, cloning), and surrogacy to be considered. The concept of motherhood in India thus needs to be revisited.” (2020)

Further the voice of women and motherhood on the margins is yet to be represented in mainstream Indian cinema. For instance, the interrelationship between mother’s bodies, labour, global capital and class have rarely been represented onscreen. We rarely have filmic representations that deliberate on, for instance the intersections of caste, class, gender and religion and their impact on the performance of everyday motherhood and forms of mothering. In this regard, the practise of intersectionality in cinema is essential to create an inclusive environment where the concepts of mothering and motherhood can be deliberated across frontiers including race, culture, ethnicity, religion and gender. Whilst feminist scholarship in the past (primarily in the West) have focused on the various ways in which mothers cannot or will not submit to the (white, middle-class, heterosexual) norms of good mothering, it is time that studies on motherhood in India is attentive to mothers from all rungs of the Indian society. Indian film studies on the feminine need to acknowledge motherhood in all its contradictions and complexities and only by doing so will it be able to inhibit mainstream Indian cinema from representing ideal mothering practices and motherhood stereotypes wherein mothers are shown to collude in their own gender oppression by choosing for themselves the oppressive roles and tasks patriarchy has assigned them. It’s time that cinematic representations of motherhood evolve and accommodate to represent the voice and agency of mothers and in doing so honour those desires and subjectivities that have thus far been invisibilised and supressed by mainstream Hindi cinema’s patriarchal constructs. 


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