"The cinema is truth 24 frames per second."
~ Jean-Luc Godard
"Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life."
"Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life."
~ Oscar Wilde
The mother figure, as immortalized in Indian cinema since time immemorial by actresses such as Leena Chitnis and Nirupa Roy, has been an integral part of our films. The roots of Indian cinema can be found in the oral folk tales told to small gatherings under peepal trees, and, considering that most of these tales were offshoots of Indian myths and legends, it is no surprise that they were usually morality plays. Therefore, by association, Indian cinema started off- and still plays, to a very large extent- with morality tales.
The morality tale comprises of four essential roles: the protagonist, the antagonist, the crisis and the protagonist’s support system. The protagonist is, obviously, the wonderful, all-Indian virtuous hero, on whom the lives and happiness of many depend. The antagonist, in our gloriously polarized films, is the all-black wretched character who lures our hero into some form of crisis. The fourth role, of the support system, is what is at stake for hero: the reason he must solve the crisis and defeat the antagonist. This ‘support system’ can be of many forms: it could be revenge, for his sister’s rape, or father’s murder or mother’s insult, it could be winning the love of the heroine, or it could be redeeming himself in the eyes of a female character- be it his lover or his mother.
Therein lies the importance of the mother character. While the female lover may join the protagonist in any circumstance- she may, for instance, be Parveen Babi in Deewar who meets Amitabh Bachchan only after he becomes a smuggler- the mother is the one constant in his rapidly changing lifestyle. Thus, she may be Deewar’s Nirupa Roy who sees her son’s journey from a bitter atheist to an affluent smuggler, or she could also be Company’s Seema Biswas who watches with pride as her small-time-crook son rises in the gang. She could also be Rakhee in Karan-Arjun who watches with pride as her sons embark on their quest for revenge. Her role, in this scenario, is to be the keeper of her son’s conscience. It is only by looking at her and registering her opinion of him that the son realizes when he is wrong. That is why Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay in Deewar, who is accustomed to all forms of pain, is the most hurt when his mother chooses not to stay in his house but to go with his brother to an impoverished but honest lifestyle.
This mother is also reflected in Nargis’s seminal Mother India where she plays the woman who suffers all hardships to bring up her family but would dutifully murder her son before he can force himself on a girl. Contrast this with the other child killer, played by Reema Lagoo in Vaastav, who murders her increasingly paranoid son to relieve him from further pain and punishment. While both mothers kill sons who are criminals, the former does it as a woman’s duty to stop a crime from happening, and the latter does it out of pity when her son is no longer a criminal but just a pathetic runaway. This perhaps would be a good platform to compare the changes in the mother figure’s psychology.
As it seems, mothers initially were harassed and miserable women who stood for all that is right and proper- their staunch white widow’s sarees reflecting their all-white personas. Mothers of today, however, no longer seem to be that rigidly bound in a given social straitjacket. They are allowed to have their own judgements, which can, like the protagonist’s, be swayed by money and glamour, as we see in Company. They are also allowed to behave like human beings, and the unwritten rule that the mother must be an epitome of goodness, sensibility and love no longer applies.
A perfect glimpse of the mother who inhabits today’s films is seen in Kunal Kohli’s Hum Tum. Both the protagonists in this film have several interactions with their respective mothers, as well as with each other’s. The mothers are played by Kirron Kher (as Parminder Prakash urf Bobby, Rani Mukherjee’s mother), who seems to have replaced Farida Jalal and Reema Lagoo as the favourite on-screen mother today, and Rati Agnihotri (playing Anju Kapoor, Saif Ali Khan’s mother), the yesteryear actresses making something of a comeback opposite Rishi Kapoor.
Kirron Kher’s theth Punjabi character is a very interesting variation on the caring mother. Firstly, here is a widow who does not resort to wearing only white (and therefore, when her son-in-law dies, her daughter too does not wear white). She is seen happily in elegant, colourful sarees, who is ever ready to flirt with other men. She understands her daughter’s plight, and is supportive of her decision to relocate to a different city, far away from all two-faced well-wishers after a tragedy. Her daughter’s happiness and loneliness are far more important to her than society’s opinions, and she sees nothing wrong in asking her daughter’s male friend to find a suitable boy for her. She is seen acting goofy and silly at times, ruining a tender, quiet moment by commenting how cute Indian children doing potty on the streets look.
On the other hand, Rati Agnihotri plays a highly educated career woman who not only has better things to do than run around smothering her grown-up son with maternal affection, but also, in a fresh new approach in Indian cinema, treats her divorce with utmost normalcy. She single-handedly runs her wedding planning business in a man’s world without needing a man’s backing, and never pleading anyone for compassion or help: in fact, in a particularly well-etched scene, she admonishes her son for waking up late and being scruffy, INFORMS him that he will be helping her that afternoon, and that he should fix up his own breakfast as she is very busy; all the while haggling on the phone with flower-sellers.
This is an important scene because, perhaps for one of the first times in Indian cinema, we had a mother who had decided to cut the umbilical cord. She undoubtedly loves her son, but sees no reason why he should be the centre of her universe- or, for that matter, in a bold, subtly hinted feminist statement- why any man should. Therefore, as she is very busy and her son is capable of getting his own breakfast without hurting himself, she feels they should both go about their respective work. Love does not imply sacrificing your own life, and here was a mother who understood that.
It would be a fair assumption if it was said that Rati Agnihotri represented the new breed of mothers, who are increasingly starting to infiltrate today’s society. The question is, therefore, how can companies and marketers take advantage of the “new mother figure”?
Mothers today, and women in general, are busier with their own lives, and more reluctant to give up everything else and live only for the sake of her son and husband. She wants her own life, her own career, her own bank account, her own money, her own car, her own independence and her own leisure time. This is clearly reflected in increasing sales of microwaves and washing machines, as more and more women discover the time-saving properties of these devices.
Kellogg’s Corn Flakes is working today not only because of its appeal to children’s pester power, but also because mothers are increasingly beginning to understand the convenience and comfort involved in serving breakfast cereals as opposed to the traditional parathas and puri-sabji. Thus, a mother who has to get her children ready and send them off to school before going to her own office can see multiple benefits of the quick, neat and healthy breakfast cereals.
Marketers too have started cashing in on these concepts. Similar reasoning as above explains the growing consumption of microwaveable dinners and pizza take-aways, as both are depicted as the ultimate solution to the dinner problem after a long hard day. Mothers, with increasing levels of education and awareness nowadays, can be lured towards products better suited for the children with the promise of more scientific and medical benefits, be it health drinks, tonics, diapers, sanitary napkins, water purifiers or even refrigerators- all traditional mother/housewife items are now marketed with an assumption of an educated customer who is worried about her family’s health.
Thus, the marketer who is trying to get to the Indian family today via the mother/wife, must focus his strategy on two aspects: one, the mother’s enhanced education and awareness of the world, and two, her insistence on putting herself and her needs at the centre of her universe. If he or she can appeal to the customer by promising benefits that adhere to either of the following, success cannot be far away. After all, he or she now has the mother as the loyal customer; to paraphrase a classic line, “Uss ke paas Maa hai”.