Perfectionist Mothers and their Idealistic Demands: Shakun Batra’s Exploration of The Darker Shades of Motherhood
By Yamini Sargotra
“All these years, you’ve made me feel that I am just not good enough” (Arjun, played by Siddharth Malhotra, Kapoor & Sons)
Shakun Batra’s films, releasing nearly across a decade, are often seen as relationship dramas for their fresh perspectives on love, family, and everything that revolves around human relationships. The figure of the mother, though apparently marginal on screen in two of the three films, looms large in the lives of the main protagonists, especially because mothers in Batra’s films are demanding individuals. Rescuing mothers from the burden of sacrificial responsibilities, Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (2012), Kapoor & Sons (2016), and Gehraiyaan (2022), take them into relatively unexplored territory in cinema by investing them with dreams, hopes, and desires of their own, often intertwining these with a need for the ‘perfect’ child. Shikha Kapoor (EMAET), Sunita Kapoor (K&S), and Sonali Khanna (Gehraiyaan) are not just flawed like the usual negligent mother in Hindi cinema that sees mothers as either extremely responsible or extremely neglectful; they are presented as actively flawed because of their biases, differentiation or partialities among children, their near-aggressive demands for the children to fit into models/casts they have imaginatively created, and their need for a life independent of family and motherhood.
Mothers work hard on their children here, but in the process, they push their children even harder towards an ideal, a concept of the ‘perfect child’ that is a product of their imagination as well as social aspirations. In Gehraiyaan, Sonali physically holds on to Alisha, her only child, for comfort and emotional succor, transferring her anxieties for a different life onto her, without even understanding the impact it would leave on Alisha as she grows up and tries to become her own person, find her own comforts in relationships. Reversing the idea of the clingy child, Batra here presents, in just two or three scenes, a clingy mother who possibly expects her child to heal her while failing to understand that she and the child need to grow as independent individuals rather than one unit. Though the film shifts the focus to extra-marital affairs and their impact on the mental health of entire families, in its brief, sensitive moments, it shows problematics of motherhood that understands the child as a natural healer, a support system against family and husbands, and also reveals the pressures of being a mother while dealing with an unhappy marriage.
Batra explores the emotional violence of relationships, especially the mother-child relationship, as he presents relatively supportive or apparently non-judgemental husbands whose efforts at saving the family often destroy the wife/mother. Vinod Khanna’s (Alisha’s father, Gehraiyaan) efforts at holding the family together, in the face of Sonali’s extra-marital affair and her love-child, prove counter-productive, resulting in Sonali’s suicide, since he seems to be working around the idea of the sacrificing wife and mother who would agree to start life ‘afresh’ for her child. His attempts at rescuing the family from the burden of Sonali’s affair plunges her into deeper despair with the possibility of a life of compromise looming large around her. Her suicide, superficially appearing to be a selfish act, can be seen as her final cry for help or even her final act of rebellion against assumptions about motherhood that expect mothers to lead loveless lives for their children. Despite her love for Alisha, Sonali seems to be gasping for a life beyond the clutches of conventional motherhood.
Kapoor & Sons presents such desperate gasps in its climactic moments after subtly and simultaneously representing and undercutting the idea of a perfect mother-child relationship. Right from the beginning, Sunita Kapoor’s elusive but definite bias for her elder son, Rahul, is tangibly shown through actions like cooking Rahul’s favorite food, when both the sons have returned home together after five years and engaging in heartfelt conversations with him while dismissing Arjun as immature. Arjun’s apparent tantrums are clearly indicative of an undercurrent of tension in a dinner scene, early in the film, where Rahul shares his success story while Arjun is berated for being a wastrel. Sunita, while quick to jump to Arjun’s defense, is herself willingly ignorant of his life and uninvolved in his choices. Across a range of conflicts, it is made increasingly clear that Sunita has progressively imposed the burden of ‘perfection’ on her eldest child while letting the younger one fend for himself. The imperfections of her marriage drive her to a desperate need for Rahul to be the ‘perfect bachcha’, stifling his natural disposition and sexuality, while making Arjun feel neglected.
Brilliantly portrayed by Ratna Pathak, Sunita is the epitome of a middle-class mother who wants the best for her children, even if they don’t consider it the best for themselves. The mirage of perfection she has created breaks down with the revelation of Rahul’s sexuality, and her reaction demonstrates her inability to understand her children as independent individuals with private lives of their own. Rather than giving a thought to Rahul’s feelings of suffocation, she considers his homosexuality a betrayal of her ideals, her vision of perfection. As she bemoans his betrayal, Rahul asks her, “Aapko mere jhooth bolne ka gham hai, ya meri sachchai ka?” (Are you hurt because of the fact that I lied or for the truth behind it all?). In a moving as well as sharply written dialogue, Rahul tells her, “Maine aapse ye sab chhupa kar aapko dukh pohochaanya hai, uske liye main aapse maafi maang sakta hun, par jo main hun uske liye main kaise maafi maangu” (I know I’ve hurt you by hiding certain things from you, and I can apologise for that, but how can I tender an apology for who I am).
The pretenses behind Sunita’s performance of motherhood are unravelled quickly from here onwards as it is revealed that she had ‘stolen’ Arjun’s book/draft to help Rahul, and the strained relationship between the two sons is a direct product of her betrayal. As she confesses this to Arjun, the audience can see a woman bogged down by the demands of motherhood. She might have loved her children equally at some point, but social expectations and aspirations have led her into actively discriminating against one of them. She invests her care and affection into the child who shows potential for brilliance while blaming the one trying hard to please her for his lack of focus. As the series of confessions and confrontations continue, Arjun tells Sunita, “Main kuch karna chahta tha, apneaap ko prove karna chahta tha, par aapne who mauka bhi mujhse chheen liya” (I wanted to do something, to prove myself worthy of your love, but you snatched that opportunity from me). All this while, Sunita is barely able to understand the imperfections of her decisions. As she starts blaming herself for all the men in her life detaching themselves from her, one is made aware of the pressures of being a homemaker mother who is forced to make her life revolve around her children. With the unavailability of possibilities of brilliance and success for herself, she is compelled to invest all such expectations into her children, even if it comes at the cost of their happiness.
Batra’s first film, Ek Main aur Ekk Tu, had caricaturized this motherly need for a ‘perfect child’ with Shikha Kapoor (also played by Ratna Pathak with hilarious perfection), who, along with her husband, wanted her only child to be ‘number one’ in anything he attempted. Though appearing to be comic initially, this demand from the child to excel in activities he doesn’t necessarily like is quickly shown in its full-blown toxicity as the parents try to force Rahul into marriage for the progress of their business. Rahul’s refusal upsets Shikha because she is worried about the family’s reputation and not because of his general state of unhappiness. By social standards of performing motherhood, Shikha is an ideal mother as she wants Rahul to have a decent haircut and “chew his food thirty-two times” though she is just far from ideal when it comes to his emotional or mental well-being.
With this film, Batra communicated more through a mocking satire on people, especially mothers, who consider motherhood more of social performance rather than a possibly fulfilling relationship. The figure of the mother, here, is employed to comment on the social demands of motherhood, and not just to critique individuals who fail at their motherly duties. Rahul’s near-public confrontation with his family is not so much a derisive or emotional cry for help but a rather clear break from such concepts of motherhood and family. Rahul’s objective perspective on his family and Shikha presents a refreshingly mature take on family and mothers in Hindi cinema as he tries to understand and express the social causes behind his mother’s conduct rather than blaming her as an individual.
Shakun Batra’s palette has grown darker with each film, especially when it comes to the representation of mothers and their space in the family. Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu presents a mother so rooted in her class that the audience can understand her problematic relationship with her child as a social issue created more by unrelenting husbands/men and economic standards of life. Her quirks and lack of emotional-intellectual depth can be easily blamed on her class privileges and class prejudices. Distant and ambitious, it is not as if she doesn’t care for her child but her social limitations enable her to care only in specific ways and not according to her child’s needs. Adjusting to her own shallowness, to the extent of using it as a social excuse, she works on principles of self-preservation and social status. Kapoor & Sons takes this mode of self-preservation into darker territory as Sunita’s motherly interventions into her children’s lives prove actively destructive. Affected by her demands and diktats, both her children grapple with emotional uncertainties, repression, and neglect. Shikha’s distant mode of motherhood is, in a way, shown to be easier on the child than Sunita’s active involvement. The film remains sensitive to Sunita’s character and the social pressures on her, specifically revealing the lack of a career, financial instability, and emotional marital neglect as the causes behind her desperation as a mother.
With Gehraiyaan, the role of the mother in a child’s life is made murkier as she is shown to unknowingly transfer her mental traumas and anxieties onto her child. Sonali dies before she could actively participate in or interfere with her child’s life but her suicide and emotional emptiness prior to that creeps its way into Alisha’s life and all major choices she makes. Alisha’s life is an example of generational trauma getting transferred into people’s lives, despite the best efforts of families and mothers to prevent such transference. The final, surprising revelation of the father’s benevolent and self-sacrificing nature further demonizes the mother as a destructive presence that wrecked a family.
Extremely problematic in its portrayal of extra-marital affairs and mental health issues, Gehraiyaan is an ironic and indirect example of the pressures of motherhood and family. By denying Sonali any space to present her perspective on her husband’s apparent generosity and his attempts to keep the family together, it ironically reveals the lack of such space for women and mothers in general. While the father gets an opportunity to explain himself and also blame the wife/child’s mother for ‘breaking’ him, the mother doesn’t get such a chance to present her life beyond her roles as an adulterous wife and a depressed, distant mother. She is rather forced to be a wife and mother, in life and death, even if she might not want to be.
Despite his sensitive and nuanced understanding of family drama and tragedies in his first two films, Batra fails to break barriers of prejudice about extra-marital relationships and mental health in Gehraiyaan. Shikha and Sunita are given space to express and defend themselves while Sonali is denied any such possibility, probably because of her infidelity. Gehraiyaan reduces the mother to a home-breaker since she dares to go beyond normative family conventions, in the process becoming more regressive than the earlier two films, despite its claims of boldness and sensitivity towards mental health. The climax of the film reduces Sonali into a woman who not only betrayed her husband but also her child, actively avoiding the social or personal causes behind such a betrayal. In attempting to present Sonali’s anxieties and dilemmas, even if superficially, it does scratch the surface of non-normative motherhood and its pressures on women as well as cinema/art. It tries opening a space for conversation, however trouble-ridden, and creates possibility of more such portrayals in the future. Despite and because of their failures, flaws and lacks, mothers in Batra’s films are a few steps ahead of their ideal(istic) cinematic predecessors, voicing their opinions, expressing their fears and needs, and challenging conventional notions and representations of motherhood.
Dr. Yamini Sargotra teaches English at Dyal Singh College (M), University of Delhi. She completed her doctoral research from the Department of English, University of Delhi. Her doctoral project analyses the significance of political Hindi novels (1940s-1970s) in the Indian postcolonial context. Her areas of interest include Indian literatures, theories of Nationalism, Postcolonial literatures and theory, Gender studies and Translation studies.
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