As the on-screen mother of some of the most popular characters of Hindi cinema in the late 80s and 90s, Reema Lagoo brought a certain joie de vivre. With that, she broke the much tried-and-tested mould of the weepy and sacrificing mother prevalent in Hindi cinema. Her performances were effortless and her screen appearances delightful. This, made her stand out even as she played mother to some of the Bollywood A-listers, including Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Sanjay Dutt, Akshay Kumar, Kajol and Juhi Chawla.
The fact that she holds a unique position in Indian cinema was evident after the news of Lagoo’s sudden demise spread on Thursday morning. Bollywood — which has often drawn flak for being self-obsessed and agenda-driven — expressed its shock on social media. Politicians, as well as fans of the actress too, voiced their feeling of loss and deep admiration for the artiste, whose body of work ranged from popular Hindi and Marathi movies, Marathi plays as well as television shows.
A popular Marathi theatre actor, Lagoo played her first meaty role in Hindi cinema in Shyam Benegal-directed Kalyug (1981). Even though she featured in critically-acclaimed movies such as Govind Nihalani’s Akrosh (1980) as a lavani dancer and Rihaee (1988), it is as the mother of Prem (Salman Khan) in Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) that she gained the status of a popular “Bollywood mother”. What worked in her favour was that her performance was unaffected by the pressure of being an awe-inspiring screen mother. Instead, she had a mind of her own and, most importantly, she was a friend to the young lovers — Prem and his love interest Suman (Bhagyashree).
After the super success of Maine Pyar Kiya, she became a permanent fixture in the Rajshri Productions such as Hum Aapke Hain Kaun…! (1994) and Hum Saath-Saath Hain (1999). She also featured in some of the popular Hindi movies such as Saajan (1991), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Jis Desh Mein Ganga Rehta Hain (2000) and Kal Ho Na Ho (2003). She slipped into the character of a loving yet modern mother in movies. What made these roles a delight to watch was a certain breeziness and a very affable personality that she offered.
Even as a mother-in-law she brought in the same approach and freshness to her role. For example, she shares a camaraderie with Aman (Salman Khan), who is engaged to Anjali (Kajol) in Kuch Kuch... Sensing Anjali’s conflict, this single mother even asks her daughter if she is happy with the choice she is making. Though not much-talked about, Lagoo delivered one of the heart-touching performances in Kal Ho Na Ho. She tries to put up a strong front as a mother of terminally-ill Aman (Shah Rukh Khan) and also won appreciation for her short-hair look.
Just when it seemed like she is following a certain template, the popular supporting actor impressed the critics with Vaastav (1999) — a mother who kills her gangster son, who is trying to run away from the law and his demons. To shine in this role was a tough act, especially when Nargis Dutt had given her iconic performance in Mother India (1957) as the mother who does not hesitate to pull the trigger on her beloved son when he is in the wrong side of the law. Yet, Lagoo managed to make the character of good-hearted Shanta, living in a Mumbai chawl, her own. Earlier, she even showed a mean streak as the domineering matriarch in Yeh Dillagi (1994). In one of her last iconic ‘mother’ outings in the Marathi satire Jaundya Na Balasaheb, Reema Lagoo played an indulgent mother to an eccentric Girish Kulkarni in a rustic setting, which brought out her understated grit.
Even as there is an outpouring appreciation, after her demise, over how Lagoo redefined the Bollywood mother, what is upsetting is that for the last few years her roles had shrunk and, even, reduced to caricatures. A case in point, the cranky aunt with a phoney Punjabi accent in I Love New Year (2015). Filmmakers could have tapped into their imagination when it came to Lagoo — an actor who possessed such an amazing range.