Representing the Single Mother: An Analysis of Tribhanga and Shakuntala Devi
By Tracy Jose
The Hindi film industry has had a fairly long and wide-ranging history when it comes to its portrayal of mothers. This holds true especially if we look at the way in which single mothers are represented in Hindi cinema. It ranges from the pitiful and melodramatic Radha in Mother India (1957) to the ‘modern’, broad-minded, often career-oriented and sometimes selfish single mothers in films from the twenty-first century. Two films from recent times – Shakuntala Devi (2020) and Tribhanga: Tedhi Medhi Crazy (2021) – stand out in their treatment of the subject of motherhood, especially since the key characters in both the films are single mothers. Both films strike a similar chord in their attempt to show their central characters as being career-motivated, ambitious, and also desirous of not wanting to repeat the same patterns that they were subjected to during their childhood because of their mothers.
Shakuntala Devi is a biographical film based on the real life mathematician of the same name. The film was largely based on director Anu Menon’s conversations with Devi’s daughter, Anupama Banerji. Whether or not it truly depicts the real Devi is debatable because it seems to be based largely on Anupama’s perception alone (we are told at the beginning that the story is “as seen through the eyes of a daughter”). For example, one of the key plot points of the film is the revelation that Devi authored a book about homosexuality where she (dishonestly) claimed that she wrote the book after finding out that her husband was gay. The film implies that Devi selfishly misrepresented the reality about her husband’s sexual orientation for the ‘larger good’ of opening up a conversation about homosexuality in India. Regardless of the accuracy of the biographical elements of it, it still stands as a unique representation of an Indian career woman from a STEM background, trying to establish a balance between life as a mathematician and as a mother.
Tribhanga is much more ambitious in terms of the number of female characters it tries to zoom in on. The film spans three generations of women – starting with Nayantara Apte (a Sahitya Akademi award-winning writer), Nayantara’s daughter, Anuradha (a Bollywood actress and Odissi dancer) and Anuradha’s daughter, Masha (a housewife). In spite of this wide focus, the film spends most of its time looking at Anuradha (portrayed by Kajol) as a daughter and as a single mother. The title of the film is a term for an Odissi stance where three parts of the body (knees, hips, and shoulders) are bent opposite to each other. This explains the subtitle of the film – ‘tedhi, medhi’ (bent and out of order), and ‘crazy’ and is also used by Anuradha to describe herself. She talks of the three generations of women in the Apte family as representing three stances – Nayantara is abhanga (in Anu’s words, she is ‘weird because she is a genius’), Masha is samabhanga (‘completely balanced’, from Anu’s perspective), and Anu is tribhanga.
The success of both of these films lies in showing three single mothers (Shakuntala Devi, Nayantara, and Anuradha) as flawed women who are also flawed as parents. There is no attempt to show them as all-sacrificing, selfless icons of motherhood who live for the sole benefit of their children, without any personal and professional aspirations of their own. Each of these characters has her own identity apart from being a mother. In a lot of ways, this different treatment sets both these films apart from other Hindi films where mothers are often shown as being submissive, functioning within the boundaries laid down by a patriarchal society, and performing the duties of motherhood religiously. Single mothers are also often depicted with a major emphasis on their victimization by the society in the absence of a male figure.
In Tribhanga, we see the different repercussions of the choices made by Nayantara and Anu and how it affects the mother-daughter relationship. While it succeeds in giving us a unique take on single motherhood, it teeters on several other fronts. In order to show us a modern, liberal, and broad-minded mother, the film heavily leans on the typical tropes of alcohol, smoking, promiscuity, and foul language. In an opening, introductory shot, we see Nayan in conversation with the writer of her biography with a glass of whisky next to her on the table. At a later point in the film, as she mentions her choice to stay away from Masha’s very conservative family, Nayan raises her glass of alcohol and says, “I’m happy with my audacious life”, as if to suggest that her audacity in living her life on her own terms is to be equated to the consumption of alcohol. It is not rare to see such a reductive understanding of female autonomy but what is more bothersome is that this autonomy is repeatedly linked to superficial choices about smoking or alcohol in an attempt to pass it off as some version of feminism. One would imagine that these tropes from a few decades ago would be considered outdated now but the film makes use of them to show that these women are not ‘ordinary’ or docile in any way. It seems as if their ambition and career aspirations have to be connected to the morally questionable and sometimes even reprehensible choices they make in their lives.
Through a series of flashbacks, we are told about the reasons that led to Nayan separating from her husband. As her mother-in-law censures her for not doing any work related to the house and for ignoring her children’s needs in order to continue writing, Nayan argues with her husband and tells him definitively that she cannot give up writing (although her husband never suggests that she should). A few scenes later Nayan walks out of the house with both her children. The way this transition has been dealt with raises several questions. There is no attempt made by Nayan to understand her children’s needs or to discuss co-parenting options with her father. We also see that her choice of changing her children’s surnames from Joshi (her husband’s name) to Apte (her maiden name) leads to Anu being ridiculed in school and Nayan remains oblivious to this as well.
The breaking point for Anu is when Nayan’s new husband, Vikram, begins to sexually abuse her. Nayan says in her autobiography that she was unaware of this abuse until Anu opened up about it in an interview years later. It is ironic that in Anu’s relationship with her daughter, Masha, the same pattern of being unable to recognise what their child is going through is repeated. Although Anu had sworn that she would never be a mother like Nayan, it is revealed at the end of the film that Masha was also ostracized and humiliated for her mother’s choices (just as Anu was) while growing up. Masha talks about the embarrassment she had to face with being born out of wedlock and later, with Anu bringing her ‘latest boyfriend’ at the time to all her PTA meetings. In a cyclical repetition of events, Masha dreams to have a life very different from her mother’s and decides to choose the other extreme of marrying into an orthodox joint family so that she would be able to provide a ‘stable’ environment for her future child and never have any questions raised about the paternity of her child. For a film that is supposed to be entirely focused on the three women, there are barely any conversations that do not revolve around men — whether they are their fathers, boyfriends, or husbands.
The film, very often, does not give us any insight into the motivations of these characters. While it is not un-feminist to have flawed women as protagonists, it seems like an anomaly to be unable to see why these women make the choices they do. We are never given any background to Anu’s reasons for going to her daughter’s PTA with a boyfriend in tow when she also strictly forbids men from staying over in her house (this, of course, is a result of her experience with sexual abuse in her mother’s house). Similarly, it is also difficult to comprehend why Nayan waits till the very end of her life to apologize to her children for her past wrongs when they were on speaking terms shortly after Masha was born. Masha’s character almost seems to be used to prove that no matter how hard Anu, a single mother, tries to undo the mistakes of her and her parent’s past, she is bound to fail.
At the end of the film, Masha is revealed to have been indirectly pressurized by her husband’s family into determining the sex of her future child. The film offers little in way of an elaboration into her choosing to accept this misogynistic and illegal practice except for Masha claiming that she had ‘no choice’ because sometimes being in a family means “not having the freedom to choose.” This is also directly contradictory to Nayan and Anu’s claim that all the women across the three generations had a choice. The film seems to suggest that Masha toeing the line with her extremely patriarchal family or being a submissive wife who covers her head while on a video call with her in-laws – all this is a result of the ‘unstable’ life Anu put her through, just as Anu’s trauma with sexual abuse is a result of Nayan’s choices. In the world created by this film, women can be a participant only in either polar opposite – either be a victim, stand up to patriarchy and inadvertently bring harm to others or choose extreme regression and conformity to lead a conventionally ‘stable’ life. There is no middle ground.
In Shakuntala Devi, we see a similar repetition of faults from one generation to the other. As a child, Devi is critical of her mother for never standing up to her father and for being meek and subservient. She also blames her mother for not fighting hard enough to give Devi a normal childhood as her father drags her from one mathematical show to the other to make more money. Years later, as Devi takes her daughter across the world while she goes on shows, her daughter (Anu) accuses her of never providing any normalcy during her childhood, of never being a ‘normal’ mother. Anu yearns for a stable school life like others and pins all her hopes on her father, while being angry with her high-flying, career-oriented mother. As a biopic, the film comes across as being lopsided because of the filmmakers’ tendency to connect nearly everything related to Devi to her role as a mother. The first half of her life, before she has a child, is rushed through. We catch glimpses of a real genius who is able to crack world records and beat computers without having undergone any formal education whatsoever. Apart from being the best at what she does, Devi’s personality is also quite intriguing. She is every bit a show(wo)man – flamboyant, confident, and witty – an aspect that has been barely touched in the film.
The main criticism Anu has against Devi is that she is extremely possessive about Anu and feels entitled to be the only person in her life, to the extent of trying to isolate Anu from everyone else. As a way of staking the sole claim to Anu (in arguments with Anu’s father as well as Anu’s husband), Devi brings up the three inch stitches she got during her pregnancy in at least three different arguments. She uses the same argument while telling her husband, Paritosh, that she has more rights over Anu as a mother and deserves full custody over her.
The only period in Anu’s life when she feels some sense of normalcy and happiness is when Devi decides to take a break from her Maths shows for Anu’s sake. Since Anu had accused her of never giving her a stable home, Devi buys a house in London so they can live together in one place. Things start falling apart when Anu decides to get married and much to Devi’s shock, the newly engaged couple does not intend to uproot their lives and stay with Devi in London. Devi tries hard to bring in feminist justifications for wanting to be with her daughter. She questions why it is societally acceptable to expect a woman to move into her husband’s parents’ house but when she suggests that her daughter stay with her after marriage, it is deemed unacceptable.
We see Devi clutching at straws to retain her connection with Anu. At the end of the film, in a desperate attempt to meet her daughter (who has cut all ties from her), Devi decides to sell all the properties that she had bought for Anu’s business, knowing that Anu would retaliate and probably sue her. In a very melodramatic sequence, we see Anu’s lawyers accusing Devi of being an unfit mother and listing all her faults. Devi, in a very dramatic plot twist, tells Anu that she will be signing all the profits to her. The ending, where both of them reconcile and Anu realizes that her childhood was not that terrible after all, seems a bit forced. She confesses that she only saw Devi as a mother and never as a woman. At an awards show in the final section of the film, Devi admits to having made the same wrong judgment about her mother. In spite of this final statement that the film makes, on its own, it does largely focus on Devi as a mother first and woman second and struggles to maintain a balance. A final voice-over from Anu tells the audience that their relationship “wasn’t built on reverence or sacrifice” and that Devi was different because she knew how to live her life and value herself. This contradicts the final depiction of Devi as the selfless mother who has always wanted the best for Anu. It also brushes aside all the questionable, mostly selfish choices Devi made for her in her childhood.
Much like Tribhanga, where the ending seems to absolve Nayan and Anu, there is a perfect reconciliation and reunion at the end of Shakuntala Devi as well. In spite of the many shortcomings of these characters, we still see both the films attempting to leave the audience with a feel-good ending although the rest of the film raises several questions about the real motivations of the characters while also giving us a problematic representation of the single mothers often being inconsiderate/insensitive towards their children owing to their ambitions. While the Hindi film industry is still tackling some of these basic issues related to representations of different identities within the world of motherhood, it would seem fair to also acknowledge that there is some slow (but unsteady) improvement and a long way to go.
Tracy Jose is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Stella Maris College, Chennai, India. Her areas of interest are film studies, food history and food literature, popular culture, and children’s literature.
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