There is no Bad Mother: ‘Beta’ and the Indian Mother-Law Against the West’s Asian Mother Phobia
By Suneel Mehmi
A few years ago, Crazy Rich Asians (2018) dominated the Western box office. Presented as a win for diversity, it featured an all-Asian American cast in a field of representation traditionally dominated by white faces. However, the film perpetuates racist and misogynistic stereotypes of the Asian mother. An American woman, albeit an Asian American one, is set against a materialistic, status-obsessed Asian mother for the love of the son. In other words, home-grown American woman (mentally, if not physically white) is to triumph over a caricature of a foreign woman. The film borrows a typical structuring of the Whites against the Outsider which finds its form in a cultural campaign directed against the will and mind of the foreign woman, the opposite of the Western political elite who are white men.
Thinking about it, there are few powerful representations of mother-son relationships in Western cinema, in stark contrast to father-son relationships which are given an obscene amount of film time. Not surprising given the conditions of patriarchy, which include a patriarchal state founded on the exclusionary love for the father figure as judge. Compare this to India, where relationships between mothers and sons are depicted on screen with regularity and given sufficient importance.
The West’s mother phobia and its political separation of mother from child was given definition by Sigmund Freud when he advanced the idea of the Oedipus complex. He wrote that the western (legal) subject is defined by his forced separation from the figure of the mother under the conditions of patriarchy as he accepts the father’s law. One’s love for the mother – defined by Freud as an incestuous longing – has to be cut short in the formation of legal identity. However, what Freud did not mention was the staggering level of taught patriarchal misogyny (infected by racism) it takes for the child subject to be separated from his mother, evident in Western cultural productions such as Crazy, Rich Asians.
Unlike Freud, India knows that the West has an Asian mother phobia informed by both misogyny and racism and it has responded to it in its cinema. Katherine Mayo‘s 1927 book Mother India, presented Indian culture as degenerate and inferior, particularly because it was associated with the figure of the Asian mother. The film Mother India (1957) was made to challenge American criticisms of India as foreign mother from which identity, citizenship and the law has to free itself. For the Indians, Mother India is the source of all love, power and excellence, despite the fact that the Western narrative deplores her. As many have noted, Mother India is depicted as a goddess in the movie. Crucially, she is also the personification of the law and the law-giver. In the film, she kills her own son to preserve the legal contract of marriage when he abducts a would-be bride from her own wedding. And incest? Several commentators such as Jyotika Virdi and Rachel Dwyer have noted that the film is marked by an implicitly incestuous relationship between mother and son, something that also doubled off-screen in the marriage of Mother India (Nargis) to her on-screen son Birju (Sunil Dutt). In other words, the love and unity between mother and son is not forced into separation.
Mother India is not a one-off in Indian cinema. India is convinced that there is no such thing as the West’s bad Indian mother and that it is not separation from the mother which defines identity and the acceptance of the law. In Hindi film, legal culture is founded on the union of son and mother. Thus, misogynistic, racist Western films like Crazy Rich Asians can be contrasted with Indian ones such as Beta (Son, 1992) which glorify the figure of the mother and literally put her on a pedestal to be worshipped. A considered scrutiny of the film reveals that it reworks Mother India and its themes of mother-son incest and the law to further define Indian citizenship and the Indian legal subject.
In the film, the step-mother is Laxmi. She is delivered to Raju who has never had the love of a mother, since his biological mother died in childbirth. Laxmi is Raju’s utmost wish. At first, following traditional Indian glorifications of the mother figure, Laxmi is good. Kind, loving – a beautiful song seems to define the relationship between Raju and Laxmi, one of happiness and perfect harmony.
This picture of joy is suddenly and shockingly shattered by the intrusion of the misogynistic Western caricature of the Asian mother. When we first discover that Laxmi has married for money, there are three repeated close ups and zooms on her face and her turning of her head from facing her brother Totaram to the audience’s eyes, accompanied with intense dramatic music. A reflection of a traumatic nightmare which we return to again and again, compulsively, the scene strikes surprise and dismay in the Indian viewer’s heart. Laxmi now becomes the opposite of the law: a Western, misogynistic construction of the Asian mother (in Crazy, Rich Asians, the Asian mother threatened to disrupt the legal contract of marriage between her son and the American woman). Laxmi is now presented as an evil stepmother that wants to disinherit her son, Raju, whose legal property derives from his deceased mother’s will. However, Laxmi cannot immediately disinherit her son. According to the terms of the powerful will, and the mother’s legal protection, Raju’s has to get married and his wife has to agree if he is to transfer wealth to anyone else such as Laxmi.
In order to control Raju so as to disinherit him, Laxmi makes her stepson into an uneducated field labourer. The scene is followed by a close up of anonymous hands making a pot on a pottery wheel with the intense, dramatic music associated with Laxmi’s villainy. We infer that the bad stepmother is shaping her son to her will and control in order to defeat the law represented by the biological mother’s will. An explicit recollection of the film Mother India follows. Raju has to make barren land into fertile land as per his mother’s wish like in the previous movie, through back-breaking and seemingly fatal work. The film comments on how India makes some citizens into uneducated field labourers, something that appears to be ‘unjust’ to a modern, urban consciousness. This picture of injustice is further developed when we learn that Laxmi’s dream is to make Ramesh, her own biological son, into a doctor. Mother India here comes across as a tyrant of favouritism, discrimination and nepotism.
The film then develops the idea of Mother India’s injustice to show that it affects not just her own family, but the whole of society. An unnamed man claims Laxmi has usurped his land and tells her that she is wicked. Raju comes at once to attack him and tries to kill the man. Raju is only prevented by Laxmi. We find that Raju, like some unbalanced nationalist, can’t take any criticism of his mother, no matter how well founded. Laxmi controls law and justice and her son, the legal subject. The villagers ask after the unnamed man is beaten by Raju, is this ‘justice’? They say that the man just asked for his rights and Raju beat him half to death, even attempting to murder him on the train tracks. The villagers comment that Raju is mad out of love for his stepmother. We find that Laxmi has also made her husband out to be mad and confined him to his room: she controls mind and thought, which is how conceptions of justice are controlled.
Thus, as in the racist and misogynistic Western mind, the Indian mother is presented as devious, calculating, manipulative, deceptive, greedy, grasping, immoral, illegitimate, materialistic, unloving. A wicked double of true law. In short, the character of the mother represents all the patriarchal nightmares of the Western conception of the Asian mother, the foreign woman, its construction of perceived outsiders to the political elite.
However, Raju then becomes united with a ‘good’ mother. He marries Saraswati (named after a mother goddess of education) who he saved from a rape and thus upheld her and her father’s honour, as per the Indian conception. Just as Raju can’t bear anyone to criticise his mother or see her negatively, he cannot allow Saraswati as mother figure to become devalued in the estimation of society. Saraswati, the educated wife-mother fights against the stepmother. But she can’t win because the son loves his mother too much. Raju threatens and tries to kill Saraswati when she tries to make him see Laxmi the way that the West sees Asian mothers.
Sensing the power of Saraswati, Laxmi actually tries to impose the Western separation of mother from son by attempting to stop the couple from sleeping together. That is, she becomes the Western law which represses mother/son incest. Ironically, as I mentioned just above, Saraswati repays the favour. She also attempts to separate Raju from Laxmi. The two women are caught up in the Western mindset in which son has to escape from the clutches of an Asian mother. Ultimately, though, both mother goddesses in the film are unsuccessful in separating the son from the mother through the idea of incest. Instead, the film is to show that the Indian law is based on the union of mother and son through a symbolic incestuous coupling.
Towards the end of Beta, the evil stepmother lets her son drink poisoned milk, a corruption of mother’s milk. The milk was intended for her pregnant daughter-in-law, when Saraswati is literally about to become a biological mother. The mother’s milk is to kill the mother. The evil, poisoning stepmother is a stock type in Western fairy tales and thought, as can be seen in such tales as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”. Disney is to make this into a live action film in the near future, demonstrating how established, relevant and popular the stereotype is in the West. In “Snow White”, the evil queen tries to poison her stepdaughter with an apple. Raju drinks the poisoned milk as a dutiful son, evoking a song lyric from the film Mother India which suggested that the poison of the world had to be drunk. When Raju realises his mother has poisoned him and Saraswati is right, that his mother is a murderer and criminal out for his property, anti-law itself, he sees her and the camera tilts from side to side wildly. The world has gone topsy-turvy, disordered, there is the sound of lightning. Significantly, Laxmi is dressed all in white, relaying the fact to the viewer that she is a western construction of the illegitimate usurpation of the white law founded upon misogyny and racism.
This is when the most powerful scene of the film comes and the misogynistic Western representation of the Asian mother and the false narrative associated with her is completely defeated. The supposedly evil stepmother, Laxmi suddenly decides to save the son by calling the doctor and let him keep his inheritance. She becomes the preserver of the law. As Totaram, Laxmi’s brother says, her mamta (the love of mother for child) suddenly awakens. But Ramesh, Laxmi’s biological son, won’t let Laxmi’s mamta prevail. He wants her to remain the Western caricature. He starts beating his mother. The shocking brutality of the way Ramesh assaults his mother for the property papers builds on cultural nightmares of gendered violence against women. It is a scene dominated by misogyny and the corruption of the son and mother relationship.
Now, the mother is in a precarious position looking after the son’s legal property and protecting him legally, as the law. The stepmother then calls out loudly for Raju in a desperate cry. The camera oscillates between the precarity of the son dying from poison as he lies unconsciously on the ground and the precarity of the law-mother.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, Raju, who we thought was dead or dying, makes a spectacular entrance. He smashes a locked, glass door to get in. Even though he has blood streaming from his mouth from the poison, he beats anyone that is against his mother. He becomes like the god Shiva who swallowed the poison to save the world. Shiva the dancer, Shiva as destroyer of false, Western narrative (and creator of Indian narrative of the mother’s power and goodness). Someone tries to kill Raju’s mother with a sword and Raju catches it with his hands against the blade. We are in the situation of the extreme precarity of the mother – when the sword is about to kill her – and the precarity of Raju who is at death’s door through poisoning. If the mother dies, the son will die, if the son dies the mother will die. Blood from Raju’s hands drips onto his mother’s forehead (in Hindu marriage, sindoor or vermillion adorns the centre parting of a wife – his stepmother is both his wife and mother, an incestuous coupling). Raju saves his mother.
In the ending of the movie, stepmother and son are reconciled when it appears that Raju and Saraswati are leaving the family home and effecting a separation between mother and son. Laxmi persuades Raju to stay, and she tears up a legal document which was to disinherit Raju from his biological mother’s wealth, proving that she is not pretending to love him for his money. Indian law which derives from the source of the mother is preserved. The film closes on the embrace between mother and son and the happy song from when Raju’s mother came into the house; effectively, the ending deletes the role of mother as villain from the viewer’s memory.
Through intertextual allusion, Laxmi is a thinly veiled metaphor for Mother India and its mother-law. There is no separation from mother and son in India, between mother and legal subject. The son’s wife cannot win in separating him from his mother, nor can Western racism and misogyny. The film even goes beyond Mother India by symbolically preventing Nargis from killing Birju, her son-husband, as the personification of the law, since it stops Laxmi from killing Raju. Mother and son are united through symbolic incest and marriage.
Beta claims there are no bad mothers in India, that union between mother and son is the basis of the law. Whether you accept the fervent nationalism of the movie, the mother is not defeated, she is won by love and wins by love. Beta says the triumph of the Indian law and its wisdom, of Indian cinema, is that love triumphs over hate and its brainwashing, that the power of the mother orchestrates our very being and identity. If Indian law and the Indian state is legitimate, this legitimacy is based on a radical revolution from misogynistic Western frameworks of identity and belonging.
 Freud, Sigmund (1913). The Interpretation of Dreams, Third Edition. Trans. by A. A. Brill. New York: The Macmillan Company.
 Sinha, Mrinalini (2006). Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 248.
 Virdi, Jyotika (2003). The Cinematic Imagination: Indian Popular Films as Social History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 114-118; Dwyer, Rachel (2006). Filming the Gods: Religion and Indian Cinema. Abingdon: Routledge, 148.
Dwyer, Rachel. Filming the Gods: Religion and Indian Cinema. Abingdon: Routledge, 2006.
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams, Third Edition. Trans. by A. A. Brill. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1913.
Sinha, Mrinalini. Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.
Virdi, Jyotika. The Cinematic Imagination: Indian Popular Films as Social History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003.
Dr. Suneel Mehmi, who lives in London, has publications in the fields of Film Studies, Critical Race Theory, and Law and Literature. His current projects include a book length study of how the law is modelled on madness in English fiction, an analysis of racist stereotypes of Indian men in Marvel’s Eternals (2021) and how these relate to the idea of legal/sexual judgement, and a study of how a patriarchal and white supremacist law structures contemporary American film by silencing Critical Race Theorists and feminists.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.