Written by Priya Arora
“Women are born to make sacrifices for men.”
This dialogue is from the 1995 Bollywood film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, in which the main character Simran fell in love but her family has already made sure that she marries someone else. Her mother asks her to sacrifice this love out of consideration for her father’s wishes.
For Bollywood, the world’s largest film industry, the road to an authentic portrayal of women has been bumpy. In the Indian Hindi film kingdom, onscreen mothers have long been portrayed as passive housewives who bow to patriarchal pressures.
However, this representation is questioned. In a number of films in recent years, mothers and women as a whole have been shown as full and complex socialmediagossips – not melodramatic supporting characters, but pronounced, independent leading actors who are responsible for their own fate.
Tribhanga, which was released on Netflix in January, is one such movie. The story follows Anuradha (Kajol), an actress and dancer who faces the demons of her past when her estranged mother Nayantara (Tanvi Azmi) ends up in the hospital. A highly skilled writer, Nayantara can tell her side of the story in flashbacks by talking to a student who is recording material for a biography.
Tribhanga was written and directed by actress Renuka Shahane and covers topics not typical of Bollywood films, such as single motherhood, sexual abuse and open relationships. Nayantara herself is shown leaving her husband for a career, going out as a single mom and casually drinking when she feels like it. What she doesn’t realize is that one of her friends sexually abused Anu – and the cycle of trauma repeats itself when Anu’s daughter is bullied for being born out of wedlock.
“My mother always told me about her fallibility,” Shahane said in a video interview last month. “The fun part of growing up with her was that I could see her as a human being.”
Shahane took that real-world inspiration and incubated it into a script that she worked on for almost six years. It is important for the characters to portray women as complex, albeit flawed, socialmediagossips. “They are individuals first and they are very talented, beautiful, strong women, but they also have their feelings.”
But audiences and the industry haven’t always been as welcoming – female-led films like The Dirty Picture (2011) and Kahaani (2012) have done well at the box office over the past decade, while others, like Veere from the Year 2018 Di Wedding not. Still, mothers have often been portrayed as holding onto traditional gender roles, focusing on their families, and being totally focused on their children’s lives. In the 2001 family drama Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, the mother (played by Jaya Bachchan) is shown to be telepathically aware of her son’s feelings and presence, whether or not he is physically close. And the 1999 film Hum Saath Saath Hain put the mother’s preference for her youngest son at the center of the conflict in the story.
The trend towards a more three-dimensional representation of mothers on the screen has developed for decades. According to Beheroze Shroff, professor of Asia-American Studies at the University of California at Irvine, this began in the 1950s when India broke the shackles of colonialism after independence. Shroff said that the 1957 film Mother India portrayed the ideal mother as the nation’s daughter, committed to both her domestic duties and her country. However, with the globalization of India, transnational trends and free market capitalism increased, and during the 1990s there was a growing need to appeal to a then-burgeoning diaspora audience. This created a conflict between portraying women as dutiful and actually portraying them as more viewers worldwide asked for a more accurate portrayal.
Regarding recent female-led films like Tribhanga, Shroff said that challenging the role of the mother character was necessary to make the characters more lifelike. “A mother has to be three dimensional and her sexuality has to be valued. Especially when she no longer needs financial support from her husband. “
In recent years, the growing investment in global streaming platforms in India has also accelerated progress, Shroff said. “Somehow capitalism encourages creativity and new voices.”
Much of it comes back to the audience. International viewers on streaming platforms, especially in large markets like the US, tend to be more open to seeing women in different roles – which makes catering more logical and profitable.
Shroff said streaming services “have a certain sensitivity that they want to see in the kind of narrative they are promoting on their platform. That was a great blessing for women filmmakers, writers, women behind the camera and in front of the camera. “
Alankrita Shrivastava, the director of the 2019 film Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare (streamed on Netflix), agreed that the shift is now due to women working their way up in the industry, but believes changes are due to of more diverse public interests take place. “I have a feeling that audiences may also be a little more open to stories that don’t necessarily center the universe on the straight upper-caste male hero,” she said.
Motherhood is also a theme in Dolly Kitty, which tells the story of two women who find themselves on parallel paths of self-discovery. One of them, Dolly, is a middle-class mother of two who studies the reasons why she does not have sexual urges for her husband. At first she blames herself – but on her own journey, she eventually interrogates her estranged mother, who she long accused of abandoning the family to pursue her own dreams. And in doing so, Dolly realizes that the problem is not her, but her unsatisfactory marriage, which is stifling her own ambitions and desires.
The 2020 film Shakuntala Devi (streaming on Amazon Prime) presented the life story of the famous mathematician. Devi, as portrayed by Vidya Balan in the film, strives to fulfill her duties as a mother while balancing her career and passion for math. Told from the perspective of Devi’s daughter, this film also highlights the toll that intergenerational trauma can take – Devi grew up hating her own mother, and in the end her daughter expresses a similar inability to understand Devi .
Using similar themes of the generation trauma in Tribhanga, actress Kajol reiterated the importance of expanding a mother’s point of view in Bollywood films.
“We as a country put this whole mother’s idea in a very small, tight box,” she said. However, this way of thinking is designed for failure and limits the options for women on and off the screen. “It is an impossible dream that you will be the perfect mother – you cannot. There are just too many tightrope walks out there and if you stick to this parameter you will fail. “