Tribhanga: Of ‘flawed’ women, bad mothers and female bonding

In a time when women in India are being told by men in power who they can love and marry, it is refreshing to see non-compliance of gender roles and expectations presented in such a rational manner

Photo Courtesy: Social Media
Photo Courtesy: Social Media

Smita Singh

I recently watched Tribhanga - Tedhi Medhi Crazy, a film by writer-director Renuka Shahane, a well-known actor herself. Suddenly, I realised how little Bollywood has made female bonding films. It should make more of them as they really work. It was on my must-watch list due to the many recommendations but I did not know what to expect. What I like about this OTT platform film is that it deals with the difficult mother-daughter relationship.

Having watched the fabulous Autumn Sonata starring Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann based on a mother and daughter relationship I knew what to expect. Of course Ingmar Bergman’s creation is perfect in every way; at least it had introduced me to the fact that there can be a toxic relationship between mothers and daughters.

In a time when women in India are being told by chest thumping men in power who they can love and marry, it is refreshing to see a film in which non-compliance of gender roles and expectations is presented in such a rational manner.

So, we have Tanvi Azmi playing Nayantara Apte, an acclaimed writer and mother of Kajol who plays Anuradha, a Bollywood actor-dancer, is as complex and fierce as her mother and also a single mother. Mithali Palkar, plays Masha (Anu’s daughter). These are the three generation of women around whom this emotional drama revolves.

Anuradha is an Odissi dancer so she explains the characteristics of her mother, daughter and herself in her own way. According to her Nayantara is Abhanga, a slightly mad genius, Mashsa is Samabhanga, completely balanced, and she herself is is Tribhanga who is skewed and weird. And hence the title.

The film also has multiple elements like sexual assault, domestic violence, and professional aspirations all of these try to justify the sour dynamics between the three central characters. These women need to dig up their past that holds the key to unlocking the family secrets that have driven a wedge between the mothers and daughters.

Women at odds with society

These are women seen as ‘flawed’ by the society standards, who incidentally become mothers. They carve out their own path against great odds in a world that expects them to kill their dreams and desires for their spouses, offspring and social acceptance.

Their ‘flaws’ are continuously reminded to them by the patriarchal society. Over the course of 90- odd minutes, we get a piercing picture of the pressures of motherhood on women who want to live their lives on their own terms. And society does not give women this liberty does it? Modernity is forever at odds with tradition when it comes to women.

Mothers and daughters

Nayantara is an award winning author but she is a mother and daughter-in-law too. This conflict ruins her marital life. Through her mother-in-law we are shown what society expects of a mother. Nayantara rebels, she does not want to restrict herself to this one dimensional view and leaves home with her two children- Anuradha and her brother Robindro.

We get to know that Nayantara is no longer addressed as ‘Aai’ by her children. She is simply Nayan to her children. The story centres on whether she can reclaim her maternal status in their eyes.

Although Anuradha avoids making the mistakes that Nayantara did, it doesn’t stop her from ending up as a ‘bad mother’ too. Anuradha nurtures immense hatred for Nayantara that she shoves her out of her life after calling her a “sick woman” and a “bloody b*tch”. When Nayantara goes into coma after a brain stroke she is happy because Nayantara is finally in “a silent zone.” Somewhere in the film Nayantara calls Anuradha stone-hearted and rude.

We get to know the reason for her hatred for her mother by and by. Nayantara goes on to have two more relationships. First of who molests her, of which her mother has no clue.

Anuradha pledges to correct her mother's mistakes, decides never to marry, or bring any creepy men close to her own daughter, Masha, who is born out of wedlock. However, for Masha, who was tormented all through her childhood due to her mom’s various relationships and boyfriends, Anuradha was anything but a perfect mother. She, instead, goes onto accept a traditional family setup, so conservative that they are almost toxic, just so her child never has to suffer the same humiliation as her. Masha is seen covering her head while on a video call with her in-laws and going in for sex determination test at the behest of her marital family. Nayantara and Anuradha, two feisty non-conformist women are more alike than Anuradha can tell, and completely unlike her daughter Masha which she realises at the end.

Do daughters trying to be better mothers to their children succeed? Maybe not. That seems to be the theme of this film. The cycle continues with every generation, proving that there is no perfect way to be a parent or mother.

This theme of daughters trying to be better mothers for their own daughters was recently dealt with in Vidya Balan’s Shakuntala Devi. The theme that ‘faulty’ mothers are people who are geniuses in their own right has been explored in Tribhanga too.

Are ambitious women bad mothers?

The film brings up the question of whether we ever see a ‘normal’ woman being a ‘bad mother’. It is always the women who are achievers, geniuses and ambitious, who are questioned about their motherhood. This suggests that if not for their urge to be independent, they would be considered excellent mothers.

I remember one scene where Nayantara says, “Sometimes I wish my children were my characters so that I can write them the way I want to, and make them love me.” Have you heard of onscreen mothers say that ever? I certainly haven’t. We are tuned to seeing them as ideal beings on a pedestal. Through the film, Renuka and her wonderful characters show us that mothers are layered and multi-dimensional beings and are as flawed as any other human.

Renuka’s note on imperfect mothers and difficult daughters says far more on the subject than is usually seen and I am thankful for it.

At heart the film deals with the dilemma that continues to plague women even today. What’s better? Having the independence to make your choices even if they turn out to be wrong or giving in to society’s expectations of you.

Men lurking in the background

Stories about the men in the lives of the three women surface as the conversations in the hospital where Nayantara is in coma frequently veers towards the most decisive points in their lives begins in the hospital room. Their back stories tell of instances of sexual abuse, domestic violence and abandoning of duties as well as the consequences of freedom-curtailing orthodoxies, perpetuated as much by pompous patriarchs as by insensitive mothers-in-law.

The fathers are not questioned much, but that I guess is because the director prefers keeping the spotlight firmly on the mothers. In fact, while calling out errant men and societal ills, the film does not resort to male-bashing thankfully.

The men around Nayantara, Anuradha and Masha, are shown as decent guys who themselves appear to be caught in situations that they have little power over. So, we see two feckless husbands, an abusive partner and a violence-prone lover who are contrasted against two men in the hospital room. They stay on the periphery of this story of three strong women fighting to hold their ground.

The film deals with helicopter parenting, the drawbacks of being in a dysfunctional family, and the price a woman pays for having an indifferent attitude about parenting and family. Because women, no matter how independent they are, overcoming patriarchal road blocks is a huge challenge. It always was. It still is.

That women bond too was the clear message of the film, contrary to what the public conversations tell you, women can be allies of women. Also, those women are not always goddesses or every man’s ideal mother, sister or daughter of the nation. Women are flawed yet incredible in many ways in spite of not conforming to patriarchal stereotypes.

It is a film about the impossibility of being the perfect parent and that children come to realise their mistakes when they become parents themselves.

As in Autumn Sonata so is the film Tribhanga exposes not only a mother’s mistakes but also her intense terror of what those mistakes have wrought on her daughter and if she will be forgiven.

The views expressed are personal

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