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Issue Editor’s Note: Exploring Motherly Instincts: Representation of Mothers in Indian Cinema

By Srija Sanyal

The cultural representation of the mother figure, especially that in Indian cinema, has generally been enclosed in extremities of black or white with no greys in-between. The traditional mother figure has generally been represented as a lonely woman trying to fit in a patriarchal system. The character of the mother figure began to change since the seventies, as women were being increasingly projected as liberal and educated, an outgrowth of the post-Independence Western liberal education. Most often the characters were shallow, ill-sketched and ill-developed desperately striving to come out of the clutches of an archetypal representation and which in turn helped perpetuate the presumed secondary role they play in society.

However, occasionally filmmakers and academic thinkers have strived to push this stereotypical representation to accommodate various layers conventionally associated with motherhood. These filmmakers, through their works, attempted to push the boundaries challenging the narrow definitions that mothers and motherhood have always been enmeshed in the public media and that continues to position and represent ‘motherhood’ in a questionable way. It has therefore been the idea of this issue of Café Dissensus to explore the maternal world in the highly digitized, globalized and gender-neutral environment wherein, like several other definitions, that of motherhood is also undergoing a shift, or even a metamorphosis. The proposed issue thus intends to be an enriching assimilation of studies on select Indian films, both on the celluloid and digital screens. This issue is part of an academic exercise that deals with motherhood in a different light away from the conventional portrayal, popularized by the likes of Nirupa Roy and Rakhee Gulzar (in strictly Hindi commercial cinema style), that tried to equate the essence of (being a woman, and) motherhood only with umpteen sacrifices and unconditional love toward her offspring(s).

It is significant to note that Hindi commercial cinema consists of only a part of Indian cinema and cinema produced and directed in various other languages in India has significantly shaped the ‘idea’ of mothers and motherhood in India. While dealing with Indian cinema as a whole, it is noteworthy to understand that the socio-political milieu of one particular time and region significantly influences the cultural space of that particular region in the country. This issue therefore attempts to look into different films in different Indian languages in order to accommodate the polyphony of many voices spanning across the country’s cultural, and linguistic in particular, timeline. Besides cinema, this issue has also tried to delve into cinematic contents released in the digital space in order to keep up with the current scenario of rapidly evolving dynamics wherein gender as a discourse is witnessed as a spectrum instead of binaries, thus pushing the peripheries of being a (wo)man and, therefore, of motherhood.

Bengal has been known not only for its tradition and culture but also about its cinema that has always dared to challenge, subvert and transgress the boundaries set by the rest. Three articles in this issue, titled “Twinning Compassion and Murder: On the Question of Motherhood in Shubho Muharot” by Aparajita De, “Rhetoric Construction of Motherhood in Ritwik Ghatak’s Films” by Debjani Halder, and “Myriad Shades of Motherhood in Ray’s Films” by S N Banerjee, explore the evolving definitions of motherhood as reflected in Bangla films. Situating the essence of motherhood in Malayalam films, Sony Jalarajan and Adith K Suresh’s article, “Screaming Mothers in Malayalam Cinema: Motherhood as a Genre-defying Identity in Malayalam Cinema”, contests the space as witnessed over time in Malayalam films, and how it has also been influenced by the overall visual language of Indian cinema as a whole, i.e., melodramatic and sentimentalist tradition of Hindi commercial cinema in particular. Rohit R furthers this argument closely in the context of Tamil cinema in his article, titled “The Space of Amma Sentiment in Tamil Cinema”. The argument also extends to the significance of cinema in the construction of ideologies and gender identities engulfing the dynamics of caste and ethnicities, along with nationality and sexual politics. For instance, Athira Unni’s article “Utopian Motherhood in Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women (2005)” attempts to see motherhood through the utopian lens in the context of a country rather obsessed with goddesses-worshipping but also exhibiting the woman’s body and the associated motherhood as a site of barbaric violence.

“The Reluctant Mother: A Study of ‘Motherhood’ as a Tool of Patriarchy in Bollywood Films” by Rituparna Das commences with a mention of representation of motherhood in the advertisement sector, which can be seen as an extension of and also integral to the overall picture of continual upholding of the patriarchy in Hindi films even when a significant amount of screen space is devoted to the character of mother, who is ultimately reduced to a mere channel of fertility, lack of which strips her of all the glory that has been bestowed upon her by the patriarchy. Continuing with this line of argument, Priyam Sinha’s article “Kahaani’s Vidya Bagchi: New Woman, Goddess and Avenging Mother” focuses on the character of Vidya Bagchi from the 2012 Hindi film Kahaani to exemplify how intensely tangled are the concepts of woman and motherhood with that of cultural practices of India, and how, with the changing times, such conventional ideologies are also undergoing an evolution within the ‘modern world’ framework, thus making their space in a coexisting manner with the didactic. On the other hand, Yamini Sargotra in her article “Perfectionist Mothers and their Idealistic Demands: Shakun Batra’s Exploration of the Darker Shades of Motherhood” attempts to deconstruct the very didactic of motherhood by surfacing the mother as a flawed individual rather than an impeccable goddess, with noted Hindi filmmaker Shakun Batra’s works as the case in point.

“There is no Bad Mother: Beta and the Indian Mother-Law Against the West’s Asian Mother Phobia” by Suneel Mehmi and “From Shared Dreams of Music to Hot Showers: Motherhood and Changing Roles in Margarita With A Straw” by Gayatri Aich and Joy Chakraborty introduce the western lens to the theme of motherhood. While Mehmi’s article competently pins the idea of ‘Indian’ motherhood as against the western notion of the same with the 1992 Hindi film Beta as a case study, Aich and Chakraborty pick up an otherwise Hindi language film infused appropriately with the western exposure, and aptly capturing the concerns of sexuality and disability – issues actually subaltern to the conventional representation of motherhood in Indian cinema.

While the representation on the celluloid continues to be a juxtaposition of construction and deconstruction, the digital space seemingly has commenced its journey with a sincere attempt in deconstructing the conventional notions of portrayal of motherhood. “Independent, Strong yet Vulnerable: The Portrayal of Working Women in Indian Web Series” by Santharaju S and Aparna Rajesh attempts to explore such an evolving dynamic of motherhood as showcased in the digital screens, focusing particularly on the theme of working women who although do epitomize the very definition of ‘modern women’ are prone to the moralistic vulnerabilities associated with womanhood vis a vis motherhood.

In line with this, the concept of single motherhood is also a theme that has been a road-less-travelled thus far on the celluloid screens. Tracy Jose’s article “Representing the Single Mother: An Analysis of Tribhanga and Shakuntala Devi” is a remarkable commentary on the trope of ‘good mother’ – the one who always makes herself available, that faces a rather backlash with the omnipresence of single mothers spanning generations. Intermingled with the concepts of ‘work-life balance’ and ‘guilty-mother syndrome’ the article explores the ambitious individuals who are conventionally covered with the cloak of motherhood, thus engulfing their very identity as a ‘being’.

The issue also features a take on the 2001 documentary by Safina Uberoi on the rather atypical sense of motherhood – as explored by Soumitree Gupta in the article “Reclaiming Mother India: Mother, Nation, and the Other in Safina Uberoi’s My Mother India. The article is a fine addition to the issue as it delves into the lesser explored space of documentary films that are typically devoid of the larger-than-life aura of cinema but exhibits equally significant representation of issues, albeit in a much realistic and perhaps, raw manner.

The articles in this issue through their analysis of the representation of mothers and motherhood in cinema of various Indian languages gives an idea of the plurality of voices, and the evolving definition of motherhood and the idea of the mother with time. Thus, this particular issue attempts to be a significant contribution to the studies of gender as a discourse within the framework of visual representation, inclusive of both the cinematic and digital screenings, amidst an Indian-ized setting.

Issue Editor:
Srija Sanyal is associated as a Research Scholar with the Ronin Institute, USA. She has been undertaking research in the field of gender and queer theory in the Indian context. She holds Masters in English Literature from the University of Delhi, India. She is also associated with PopMec Research Blog as Associate Editor working in the field of North American cultural studies. She is currently working on an edited volume on queer representation in Indian films and digital media. As the recipient of Ronin Institute Research Scholarship, her upcoming project includes a monograph on gender and songs in Indian cinema. Her other areas of research interest include gender and visual media, South Asian studies, and women’s writing.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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