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Reclaiming Mother India: Mother, Nation, and the Other in Safina Uberoi’s ‘My Mother India’

By Soumitree Gupta

The mother has occupied a symbolic place in Hindu nationalist and cultural imaginaries since colonial times. The idealized trope of the sacrificing mother in the iconic Hindi-language film Mother India (dir. Mehboob Khan, 1957), for instance, is reminiscent of the layered textualities of Mother India/Bharat Mata in Hindu nationalist iconography in colonial India. In this essay, I focus on Australian-Indian filmmaker Safina Uberoi’s personal documentary, My Mother India (2001), which critiques as well as reclaims the celebrated trope of Mother India from gendered and ethnonationalist discourses.

Safina Uberoi, the filmmaker, is the daughter of academic couple Patricia and J. P. S. Uberoi, who met and married each other in Australia despite objections from Patricia’s family. At the center of Uberoi’s documentary are the intertwined narratives of her Australian mother Patricia and her Sikh father Jit after they arrived in India as a newly married couple in 1965 and settled down in Delhi. In particular, My Mother India documents the filmmaker’s “rather eccentric and multicultural upbringing in India” (Safina Uberoi, 2003), along with her family members’ experiences of alienation and displacement at crucial historical junctures of postcolonial nation-building in 1984 and 1947. The daughter-filmmaker bears witness to these multiple, intersecting narratives and temporalities primarily through her voiceover narration[1] and audiovisual testimonies of her parents and siblings. These utterances, as Bhaskar Sarkar and Janet Walker would argue, are mediated at least twice-over – at the level of the speaking survivor who organizes their trauma memory into testimony (Sarkar and Walker, 2009: 7) and at the level of the media text – “in the narrative movement created in the medium itself” (James Young quoted in Sarkar and Walker, 2009: 8). I argue that a crucial aspect of the narrative movement in Uberoi’s cine-testimonial is the layering of testimonies as well as voice and image, which foregrounds the daughter-filmmaker’s subversive engagement with the idealized trope of Mother India within the Indian cultural imaginary.

Reclaiming Mother India: My Mother India as a Subversive Daughter Text

In My Mother India, the mother is not a symbolic figure; rather, the daughter-filmmaker complicates and deconstructs the mother-goddess-nation trope in everyday cultural and nationalist discourses. Significantly, Uberoi’s documentary begins with an image of her Australian mother’s underwear hanging in the clothes-line, accompanied by the daughter-filmmaker’s witty voiceover narration:

My mother’s panties were like flags, proudly declaring their foreign origin to the world. They were proof that she belonged to that wicked breed of Western women, and everyone knew that Western women were licentious creatures. They showed their legs and divorced their husbands, and I was a daughter of one of them.

Uberoi’s sardonic commentary on her mother’s underwear as a visible marker of her foreignness is further juxtaposed with mass-produced “calendar or bazaar art” (Patricia Uberoi, 1990: 46) images of sexualized Western and Indian women along with those of Hindu goddesses. While these images were originally collected by Uberoi’s parents as part of their shared intellectual interest in kitsch, the daughter-filmmaker’s strategic juxtaposition of these images in the opening frame situates Patricia’s femininity in relation to the tensions between not just Western and Indian femininity, but also eroticized and deified iterations of Indian (Hindu) femininity within mainstream Indian culture. These commodified images of sexualized and deified femininities are further disrupted by Patricia’s embodied testimony.

About a minute into the opening clip, we see and hear Patricia – a blonde-haired white woman in salwar kameez – recollecting the neighborhood “debate” about her attending the parents’ meetings at her children’s school, “disastrous” suggestions about what she should wear at those meetings, and the ceremonious passing down of the golden bangle on one of her hands from Biji, her Indian mother-in-law and the first to greet Patricia when she arrived in India with Jit. As Patricia recollects this moment, her body is framed in a medium shot – she is seated comfortably on a chair, with one of her legs lifted up in a horizontal posture and resting on the other leg that is on the floor, and her hands either resting on her raised leg or moving energetically. This shot is briefly intercut with a calendar image of a young Indian woman wearing a red sari that covers her slightly lowered head, a red bindi on her forehead, and red bangles on her hands that are neatly folded on her knees. The young woman looks coyly at the camera, mimicking the posture of a demure Hindu daughter-in-law, in stark contrast to Patricia’s relaxed posture throughout this sequence. This scene cuts to a close up of Patricia working at her desk in her home with the camera softly focusing on her golden bangle as the daughter-filmmaker’s voiceover reveals that the golden bangle – which Patricia never removed from her hand – became “one of the few things that linked my mother to all the other Indian mothers, each of whose bangles clinked with an individual music.”

The juxtaposition of the daughter-filmmaker’s voiceover, her mother’s embodied testimony, and calendar images of Western and Indian femininities in the opening frames of the documentary situates Patricia as a woman and mother that does not fit neat categories. Specifically, Patricia’s embodied femininity disrupts popular cultural imaginaries of the unruly Western(ized) woman, the deified/eroticized Indian woman, and the docilized Hindu daughter-in-law and mother that is routinely portrayed as the bearer and preserver of national (Hindu) culture. This layering of voiceover, testimony, and images at the beginning of the documentary not only offers critical insight into the mother-daughter’s fraught relationship with hegemonic constructs of both Western and Indian femininity, but specifically foregrounds the daughter-filmmaker’s cynical gaze at the idealized trope of Mother India, as referenced in one of her interviews:

[…] it was very deliberate that when people came to see a film called, My Mother India, expecting a B&W Nargis sacrificing her son for India, the mother country, the first thing they see is a pair of panties on the washing line belonging to a white woman struggling to come to an understanding with ‘Mother India’.

When we were thinking about the poster for the film, one idea was a map of India with a pin-up calendar girl from the ’60s — her white sari clinging to her wet breasts. Not exactly the ‘Mother India’ archetype, but a play on that. (Uberoi, 2002)

The possessive case in Uberoi’s documentary title, My Mother India, is an enactment of the daughter-filmmaker’s re-appropriation of the multi-layered mythographies of Mother India in the postcolonial cultural imaginary. Through her subversive appropriation of the Hindu nationalist trope of Mother India, the daughter-filmmaker provocatively engages the following questions: What would it mean to replace the idealized construct of Mother India with a diasporic Australian woman and her rebellious Indian mother-in-law? And what does it mean to reclaim the Hindu nationalist trope of Mother India from the vantage-points of a daughter with multiple, hyphenated identities and genealogies (Sikh-Indian-Australian), and her Sikh father post-1984?

Uberoi’s documentary engages with these questions by intertwining her mother’s embodied experience of being marked as a “stranger” (Sara Ahmed, 2000) within the postcolonial nation with her own and her family members’ lived experiences of alienation, displacement, and otherness during her growing up years in Delhi. The lighthearted, witty tone at the beginning of My Mother India changes into a somber mood as Uberoi’s voiceover jumps to 1984 when the sacrilege of the Golden Temple during Operation Bluestar, Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards, and the violent aftermath of the Sikh genocide ripped apart the Sikh community and the filmmaker’s family in Delhi. Uberoi’s father Jit transformed from being a liberal atheist into a turban-wearing, practicing Sikh man. Jit’s experience of alienation in a nation where “Sikh” and “Indian” became polarized identities, in turn, caused Patricia to question her own place within the postcolonial nation. Uberoi’s younger siblings, Prem and Zoe, were particularly impacted by the xenophobia directed at Sikh communities, and Patricia was forced to make the difficult decision of relocating Prem to Australia, with Zoe and Safina (filmmaker) following suit in a few years while Patricia and Jit stayed back in India. The familial testimonies of alienation and displacement in the aftermath of the 1984 events are further layered with intergenerational memories of another violent and traumatic event, the 1947 Partition, passed down to the filmmaker from her paternal grandmother Biji:

It was Biji who told me about the blood on the tracks from the trains on which every man, woman, and child had been slaughtered. And Biji also told me that she was seven months’ pregnant with a child who died during the long train journey. Biji was very sick when the family finally reached the refugee camp. She said that Papaji [paternal grandfather] would have left her there to die if the children had not refused to leave her. When she recovered, it was she who left Papaji.

Earlier in the documentary – in the opening scenes referenced above – Uberoi shares how Biji at a young age of nineteen had made the unconventional choice of eloping with Papaji, a “handsome poet ten years her senior,” and was consequently shunned by her family of origin. This is the same woman that responded to her husband’s abuses by divorcing him five years after her traumatic border-crossing during the Partition. Notably, Uberoi introduces Biji at the beginning of her documentary as her “fierce matriarchal grandmother” that “personified” the daughter-filmmaker’s “claim to Indianness.” Yet, neither Biji nor Patricia is the archetypal Mother India that is celebrated in Hindu nationalist and popular cultural representations. Rather, both of these mothers are embodied women whose lived experiences and memories – along with those of the daughter-filmmaker and other members in Uberoi’s family – disrupt the idealized trope of Mother India and bear witness to the toxic impact of gendered and ethnophobic nationalist narratives on women and non-Hindu communities within the postcolonial nation.

Mother India, Hindutva Nationalism, and Postcolonial Feminist Critique

At the end of her documentary, Uberoi says, “My father is Indian, and so is my mother.” In this simple, yet profoundly powerful statement, the daughter-filmmaker stakes claim for her parents’ belonging to a Hindu mother-nation that has rejected and even violated those that do not fit the profile of the ideal citizen-subject – Hindu, upper-caste, heterosexual, conforming to conventional gender roles, and preferably, with class mobility. In a significant scene in her documentary, Uberoi strategically juxtaposes her voiceover narration of the anti-Sikh violence under the Congress regime in 1984 with a calendar image of Indira Gandhi’s face that is superimposed on a deified image of Mother India armed as goddess Durga. This image depicts Mother India/Indira Gandhi in danger of being violated by enemies on ships, but the two lions on her side relentlessly crush the men in green uniforms. While the “enemy” in green uniform possibly refers to the Pakistani military during the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war, Uberoi’s disjunctive juxtaposition of this image with her voiceover narration and family testimonies about the anti-Sikh violence in 1984 encourages a radical reading of Mother India/Indira Gandhi as a violator rather than the violated.

The daughter-filmmaker’s counter-gaze gains further significance as several minutes later, Uberoi’s reference to her Sikh father’s “blood-splattered” idea of India is layered with another calendar image of a deified Mother India superimposed on the map of the Indian subcontinent. In this image, Mother India is flanked by two freedom fighters sitting on their knees as a gesture of worship: a decapitated Bhagat Singh offers himself up as a martyr while holding his bloodied head on one side, and Subhas Chandra Bose salutes and reverently looks up to Mother India from the other side. While such cartographic images of Mother India within the calendar art genre functioned to convert the Hindu nation from an “empty social space” into the affective “bodyscape” of a “mother-goddess” (Sumathy Ramaswamy, 2001: 98), Uberoi’s incorporation of this particular image – layered with her voiceover narration – produces an ironic affect. Specifically, the layering of voice and image in this sequence enacts the daughter-filmmaker’s mournful gaze into the shift in the status of the militant Sikh son from protector/martyr to enemy/Other in 1984.

Uberoi’s incorporation of militant Hindu nationalist iconographies of Mother India – layered with her voiceover as well as testimonies of her Sikh father and siblings – gains specific inflections not just in the context of the 1984 Sikh genocide under the seemingly secular Congress regime, but also in the current context of anti-Muslim violence mobilized by the Hindu right. As Sucheta Mazumdar points out, “[w]ith Indira Gandhi, an ardent and overt practitioner of Brahmanical Hinduism and promoter of all sorts of right-wing forces despite rhetoric to the contrary, the use of Hindu symbolism in the name of Indian culture increased dramatically in government functions” (1995: 7) in the years leading up to the 1984 Sikh genocide and the rise of Hindutva nationalism in the 1990s. Uberoi herself highlights these continuities as she reflects on the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in connection to the organized Sikh genocide in Delhi in 1984:

I was weeping over an email the other day from someone in Gujurat. In 1984 the people rioting had lists of who people were. Now the civil violence in Gujurat is organised. They have lists and are trucked-in wearing khaki uniforms with a saffron band. In that sense it’s very like the fascists. What’s more frightening is that it’s a popular movement in parts of India. (Uberoi, 2002)

Common to the Hindu nationalist discourse in 1984 and 2002 is a revitalization of gendered discourses about the Hindu nation as mother-goddess that is defined in relation to its ethnic and religious others. Notably, the pedagogical writings of the Hindu right, which had adopted the Nazi political rhetoric of the 1930s, originally invoked the Indian nation as a “fatherland.”[2] However, the term “fatherland” did not gain much popularity in Indian politics. During the eighties and nineties, Hindutva nationalist discourses, in continuity with the Hindu nationalist legacy, were deploying the trope of Mother India as both a goddess figure and the progenitor of a unified Hindu nation (Akhand Bharat).[3] In Hindutva nationalist imaginaries, Bharat Mata is reimagined as carrying a saffron flag (as a Hindu symbol) and symbolizing the territoriality of an undivided Hindu nation in order to reproduce nostalgic, purist, and heteropatriarchal discourses of India as an exclusively Hindu nation that had been defiled by Muslim (and Christian) invaders in the past, and must now be reclaimed.

While women within Hindu right organizations (such as Durga Vahini) have enthusiastically embraced iterations of Mother India/Bharat Mata as a fair-complexioned Hindu mother-goddess, subaltern women’s cultural practices and postcolonial feminist discourses have resisted this trope from a multiplicity of locations (Nivedita Menon, 2007). A recent example of this resistance is the Pinjra Tod (Break the Cages) movement, led by college-going female students in Delhi, which asks:

Why is India a mother, why is Bharat a Mata, why? … Does the imagery of the nation entrap women into pinjras where we are reduced to biological reproducers of its members (‘sons’); limited to ‘mothers’/’wives’/’sisters’ in need of protection; contained into cultural signifiers who are the markers and reproducers of cultural boundaries/differences; idolised into figures whose bravery is realised through self-sacrifice/erasure?[4]

The quote above is from a statement published by the Pinjra Tod movement, which critiques the everyday invisibilization, criminalization, and violence experienced by women – Muslim, Dalit, Adivasi, working class, rural, and urban – who do not fit the Brahmanical Hindutva nationalist image of Mother India, and in turn, questions this very trope of Mother India that has silenced and entrapped women “in a swirl of pinjras [cages] of domesticity and alienation” (2016). Significantly, this statement is accompanied by a poster image of Nargis portraying the iconic mother in the 1957 film Mother India (referenced at the beginning of this essay), alongside the caption: “We Won’t Mother India. Nationalism Cages Women. Women Fight This Patriarchal Brahmanical Nation State.” If the daughter-filmmaker of My Mother India disrupts and reclaims the Mother India archetype from exclusionary Hindu nationalist and popular cultural imaginaries, the “unruly daughters” (Nivedita Menon, 2017) of the Pinjra Tod movement completely reject this mother-nation trope. I conclude with the suggestion that a concerted reading of these feminist critiques may potentially open up liberatory frameworks for reimagining the nation and especially, the Other’s relationship to the nation across multiple, intersecting identities and lived experiences.

[1] In an interview, Uberoi shared her motivation behind using voiceover narration in My Mother India: “Well I hate voiceover, but it’s a traditional kind of dislike because I don’t like to be told what to think. But I felt there was no other way of telling you what think is the story. I didn’t want to say, ‘This is everybody’s story’ or that, ‘This is the story of the migrant, this is the story of identity and culture. This is the story of civil violence’. I just wanted to say, ‘This is my story.’” (Safina Uberoi, 2002)

[2] See V. D. Savarkar’s essay “Hindutva” (1949), which is considered one of the fundamental pedagogical texts within the Hindu right: “Let this noble stream of Hindu blood flow from vein to vein . . . till at last the Hindu people get fused and welded into an indivisible whole, till our races get consolidated and strong and sharp as steel . . . Thirty crores of people, with India as their basis of operation, for their Fatherland and for their Holyland, . . . bound together by the ties of a common blood and a common culture can dictate terms to the whole world” (quoted from Sucheta Mazumdar, 1995: 8).

[3] See Bishnupriya Ghosh, “Queering Hindutva: Unruly Bodies and Pleasures in Sadhavi Rithambara’s Performances” (2002).

[4] See “No Nation for Women” (2016) on Pinjra Tod’s website: https://pinjratod.wordpress.com/2019/10/16/no-nation-for-women/

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. London and New York, Routledge, 2000.

Mazumdar, Sucheta. “Women on the March: Right-Wing Mobilization in Contemporary India.” Feminist Review, vol. 49, no. 1, 1995, pp. 1-28.

Menon, Nivedita. “Bharat Mata and Her Unruly Daughters.” The Wire, 18 July 2017, https://thewire.in/gender/bharat-mata-unruly-daughters. Accessed 1 March 2022.

Ramaswamy, Sumathi. “Maps and mother goddesses in modern India.” Imago Mundi, vol. 53, no. 1, 2001, pp. 97-114.

Sarkar, Bhaskar and Janet Walker. Documentary Testimonies: Global Archives of Suffering. New York and London, Routledge, 2010.

Uberoi, Patricia. “Feminine Identity and National Ethos in Indian Calendar Art.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 25, no. 17, 1990, pp. 41- 48.

Uberoi, Safina. “Selling My Baby: Marketing Independent Film.” Scan: journal of media arts culture, November 2003, http://scan.net.au/scan/magazine/display.php?journal_id=4. Accessed March 1, 2022.

—. “On India, Undies and NRIs: An Interview with My Mother India’s Safina Uberoi.” Interview by Catherine Simpson. Senses of Cinema, issue 20, 21 May 2002, https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2002/documentary-australia-and-beyond/mother_india/. Accessed 1 March 2022.

Bio:
Soumitree Gupta is an Associate Professor of English at Carroll College in Montana. She received her doctorate from Syracuse University, USA. Her research and teaching focus on global literatures and cinema at the intersections of postcolonial studies, diaspora studies, transnational feminism, and trauma and memory studies.

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

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