“Sex ho gaya na? Important before commitment”. The question is popped by the latest Bollywood mum and is aimed at her daughter and the man she intends to get hitched to. The film is Ki & Ka, in which Kareena Kapoor wears the metaphorical pants and Arjun Kapoor flaunts an apron.
The gender role reversal founders and the film doesn’t make of itself what it could have. But it does for Bolly mums something that’s long overdue: pull them in sync with the real world.
Mark the words, milord. This, not from the hero’s buddies. Nor from the heroine’s best friend, the two kinds of people who are allowed to bring up the ‘S’ word, and kick it around in a jocular nudge-wink manner. But from a a leading lady’s mother.
There’s a sort of simper in the voice of Swaroop Sampat, who plays Kareena Kapoor’s mum, when she says this. It is a dialogue fully aware that it is being said for effect. But make no mistake, it is a Bollywood marker. It acknowledges that a mother won’t keel over and collapse if she knows that her daughter’s had sex before committing to a relationship. Please note further, your honour, that Kapoor’s character used the ‘M’ for marriage word, not her mater: “commitment” may not necessarily lead to marriage in this day and age.
Welcome, Cine Ma, to a new world. Where there are temporary relationships, break-ups and hook-ups, and swiping right and casual chat about dating and norms. And, yes, sex.
It’s been such a long journey. In 1957, Nargis hefted a hal on her slender shoulders, fought against immense odds, battled poverty and a greedy, lustful money-lender, raised two sons and killed one of them. Mother India created this indelible image of the ideal mother in India, who toils tirelessly to maintain izzat, her own, and by extension, the nation’s.
And in so doing, Radha, Nargis’s character, did a huge disservice to the mothers of Hindi cinema: if there was one thing they were allowed to excel at, it was sacrificing the self. They could also sew at a machine day and night to bring in meagre earnings. They could lie on their sick-bed, suffering from incurable tuberculosis and offering up hacking coughs, and become the reason why their sons turned into thieves of bread and medicine. They could be depended upon to come up with gajar ka halwa which needed to be fed, by spoon, to grown men, because, you know, how else is a mother to show her love?
Hindi cinema scriptwriters could have taught ol’ Oedipus a thing or two. Bolly mothers didn’t just have pallus to wipe the kitchen shelf with; they also kept their sons tied with it. Anytime there was a stepping over the gentle boundary, especially when it came to the wicked daughter-in-law, out would come the pallu, a great instrument to wipe tears with.
This noble mother could make life hell for her bahu and the household. But the Bollywood saas couldn’t hold a candle to the Bollywood ma: the saas merely a temporary glitch which would be fixed by the end of the movie; the ma was a forever thing, her glow a permanent fixture.
Shashi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan fought over Nirupa Roy in Deewar. Kapoor had his ma, but Bachchan was vijayi, the real winner, because he got to keep his head in her lap as he was breathing his last. Reema Lagoo smiled beatifically and spread cheer on her spouse and samdhi and extended family in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. Kirron Kher was the perennial Punjabi mom, making parathe, and twirling parandis, and being not just stern mom but affectionate, understanding mum (Hum Tum, Rang De Basanti, Dostana).
A real blow to the prescribed notion of motherhood came with Ratna Pathak Shah’s pert mum in Jaane Tu who uses unexpected tartness to tell her son just where the years have gone: “phone pe beta phone pe”. Deepti Naval played a conventional-but-modern mum grappling painfully with her son’s real sexual identity in Memories Of March. That was another step forward.
And now, this year, two mothers have re-written the rules of the game. There’s Sampat. And then there is a real triumph in Kapoor and Sons, played again by Ratna Pathak Shah. As Mrs Kapoor, she has no compunction in liking one of her sons better than the other, will do stuff that’s not strictly kosher and be preoccupied with stuff that’s not necessarily maternal. She’s got other things on her mind. And those things are to do with her as a woman, not an identity kit called mummy, or ma.