Mamma mia, what happened to our screen matajis?  

Has the spunky ‘Hey Mom’ replaced the dutiful ‘Mataji’ in Bollywood? Post Mother’s day, Monojit Lahiri dicusses the new-age face of ‘Maa’

 Mamma mia, what happened to our screen matajis?  

Monojit Lahiri

Right from the golden age (late 40’s, early 50’s till the late 80’s), the screen mothers were a critical and intrinsic component of most Bollywood movies. Across family-fare, romance, comedy, even in the violence-prone products of Salim-Javed (courtesy the ‘Angry Young Man’), the mother-son relationship took centre stage. In fact, it was in one of their super-hit films, Deewar, that the defining line - ‘Mere Paas Maa Hai’ featured, freezing the words and the moment forever.

However, contrary to popular belief, Nirupa Roy’s high-profile and solid, consistent innings with Maa-dom was preceded by perhaps the most famous mother in movie history – Mother India. The 1957 classic showcased the enormous, untapped range of the 27-year-old Nargis who pulled out all stops to play a de-glam mother of two sons – gutsy, spirited, fearless, constantly battling against overwhelming odds to emerge victorious even at the cost of personal loss. The role got her applause, accolades and numerous awards in India and abroad. Her role and the film, however, was a bold departure from the general pattern that coloured this persona…the coughing, virtuous, suffering, sacrificial, caring creature, forever keeling over a dilapidated sewing machine, rustling up her laadla’s favourite goodies or gently cajoling him to get home a nice bahu!

Lalita Pawar, Sulochana, Achala Sachdev and Leela Chitnis were some of the actresses who epitomised this role to perfection. It would be fair to say that for around four decades, Hindi films were, largely, Maa-centric.

So what happened to the moong-ki-daal, aloo paratha and gajar-ka-halwa rustled up in record time for ‘mere laal’ by these beta-fixated devis? Film critic Rauf Ahmed believes that this creature came with an expiry date and her time was up. He explains, “Post liberalisation, somewhere tradition and innocence took a fatal hit and made a quick exit.

A raw, blatant consumerist culture came centre-stage. Overnight, revered attributes like restraint, moderation and sacrifice were flung to the trash bin, replaced by the power of acquisition. It was a nation and society in transition, in deadly fast-forward, and fittingly Maa turned Mom!”

Filmmakers agree. Even high-profile directors like Mahesh Bhatt, Rakesh Roshan and the Yash Raj gang seemed to have pulled the trigger on the old-fashioned Maa. The general reaction and response was that in these new age times, this creature would appear corny, fake and hopelessly out of place. Besides, adds another Bolly tracker, “Forget moms, even grand-moms of today are so hep n’ cool and completely in sync with the world they live in! Sure these daadis and naanis love their grand kids, but they also (Vicky Donor) have a life of their own.”

Veteran Bolly-watcher Promod Singhal adds his own bit to this debate: “It’s simple. If you track some of the biggest hits of recent years, you will notice that not one have mothers in central roles, or of any significance. Thrillers, romance, drama, comedies … where does dear Mother India have a hope in hell to get a look see, forget starring roles!

Sad, but true. And not everyone is happy about screen-moms being handed the VRS. Screenwriter, actor and theatre person Amole Gupte (Taare Zameen Par) offered Tisca Chopra a solid flesh and blood part which, even today, is remembered and talked about. Eminent filmmaker Gulzar gets it spot on however: “Technology is a reality and because of that, modes of self-expression have changed. Hurried, stolen looks and meetings have been replaced by mails and SMS. Similarly, with the march of time, the contours of the mother son relationship, too, has changed. She is no longer somebody to be blindly worshiped and revered, but loved and respected. The challenge for today’s filmmakers is to attempt to strike the right balance – present the new-age Maa in a contemporary, credible and relatable way, and make Mom a buddy and confidante without eliminating the core attributes that define the basic tenets of a mother-son relationship.”

If Kiron Kher’s hysterically hammy and ludicrous take in Dostana was any indication, or the ghisa-pita Rekha-Hema turn in Sadiyan, then Gulzar Bhai’s suggestions will be tough to crack. Thank God for sweet, charming, realistic portrayals like Supriya Pathak’s in Wake up Sid and the fantastically path-breaking performance of Sridevi in English Vinglish and of course Neena Gupta’s in Bhadhai Ho.

So will ‘Maa’ return? Have the mother-son vibes lost their popular draw? Are gajar ka halwa and aloo paratha out of fashion, replaced by burgers, pizza and coke? Looks like it’s ‘wayto-go-Mom era’ for now!

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Published: 9 Jun 2019, 2:30 PM