If you’ve cringed at the Mother’s Day wishes that flooded social media a few weeks ago, which were basically variations of ‘she is the world’s smartest, strongest punching bag’, (go Leslie Knope!) you’ll probably see a valid point in what I have to discuss.
Mothers are strange creatures. But do you know what’s stranger? The myth of motherhood, carefully curated by patriarchy and capitalism in India. What’s in it for them? Well, everything. This myth furthers their profiteering ventures through the sinister exploitation of a sentiment. They show mothers as goddesses, whose only joy lies in serving you, and her family well. She has no personal wishes, and her sexuality can very well be forgotten about.
Advertisements portray women with ten hands (and I do not mean this figuratively), happily cooking up idlis, dosas, and parathas to serve a perfect breakfast to each member of the family. The grandfather nonchalantly reads the newspaper, the three petulant children complain (among whom is her husband, complaining the loudest about the late breakfast, so go figure), when the mother magically appears with trays full of scrumptious food. The mother is supposed to flutter her eyelashes and cry tears of joy when her husband decides to make her breakfast once a year.
The Indian mother is supposed to selflessly love and consistently deliver. The ‘progressive’ advertisements are no better. The mother has short hair, works outside the house but god forbid if she comes home and lies down on the sofa after a long day. The ‘woke’ ads are packaged to comfortably suit our definition of empowerment without radically questioning it or demanding any action. The mother must juggle office work and domestic duties dexterously because, well, human fatigue does not apply to mythological beings, and this is what motherhood has mostly been depicted as in popular culture. A myth.
I’m choosing to bypass Bollywood because that would require a separate article of its own, but I am sure you can make the connections. I choose standard examples from advertising because they’re made specifically to appeal to consumers, to make them relate to its essence. The mother usually applies oil to the daughter’s scalp, or some lotion on her skin, or they’re exchanging recipes because what else can mothers and daughters talk to each other about except skin care and cooking?
Our relationships with our mothers is not one only of careless laughter and light banter. It is the core love story of our lives till adulthood, and it is a burden and a duty. Thankfully, there exist refreshing counter narratives to the myth of motherhood that question the iconic status of motherhood in popular culture.
Rituporno Ghosh’s Titli is the story of Urmila (played by Aparna Sen) and Rohit Roy (played by Mithun Chakraborty) who were lovers in their youth. Urmila was married off at 20 to a tea estate manager, and Titli is their daughter. Blowing bubblegums and restlessly shaking her legs, the 17 year old Titli develops a massive crush on Rohit, who is now a Bollywood film star. In the beginning of the film, Titli is seen hovering around her mother, asking her to dress her up or put on a specific perfume. There is clear admiration and longing in her voice. This longing is something the myth dare not acknowledge; the physical envy between the mother and the daughter. While the daughter struggles through awkward breasts, menstruation and pimples, the mother is a graceful lady comfortable in her womanhood and her sexuality.
When Titli wistfully asks her mother, “Ma, why can’t I marry someone 20 years older? Grandpa was 20 years older than Grandma. Was grandma unhappy?” Urmila casually replies, “My mother wouldn’t dream of asking her mother this question”, the conversation shows the shift between the mother-daughter dynamic over the years.
In a chance meeting, where Titli and Urmila meet Rohit, Titli learns of her mother’s past and the adoration she had changes to jealousy and malice. Titli can not bear that fact that prior to her, her mother had a romantic past. To her, this feels like an intense betrayal.
The same is seen in Ghosh’s film Unishe April (19th April), where the mother, Sarojini, a renowned classical dancer, is always elegantly dressed in sarees and jewelry. The daughter, Mithu, training to be a doctor, despises dressing up and covers herself in baggy t-shirts and long skirts. She holds the grief of her father’s death against her mother. Her grief makes her powerful, and in her eyes, a better person who conforms to traditional norms.
During her father’s funeral, the other female relatives of the house, while serving tea to guests also spill some gossip. “Sarojini is in Madras…or Mumbai. Who knows? If she wanted to become a famous dancer so badly, she should have just limited herself to that. Why would you marry and have a daughter as well?” There is a tinge of jealousy in this woman’s moralising; Sarojini is living the life she probably was too afraid to.
Incidentally, eighteen years later, on the father’s death anniversary, Sarojini receives a National award, which sets off a chain of reactions between her and Mithu. One can sense the constant ego tussle between the mother and the daughter, but the audience knows that this is due to miscommunication. When Mithu sits and cries in front of the telephone because her boyfriend has refused to marry her (because her mother is a dancer), Sarojini interprets this as her daughter’s jealousy towards her success.
What I loved the most about these films were their explorations into two important facets of the mother-daughter relationship: envy and miscommunication.
In Titli, Urmila comes into Titli’s room to shut the windows as there is a storm raging outside. In the wind, her shawl falls off and Titli watches her mother’s body, clad in a strappy nightgown, and there is a distinct recognition of her mother as a sexual being in her eyes. She tells her mother, “Whatever idea I had of you, has changed after tonight.” This might seem like an emotionally exaggerated response, but it is something to think about. Why would there be such reluctance to accept the mother as a sexual being? The simple answer is because it makes us uncomfortable. Of course, these conversations are uncomfortable, but that’s verily why they are all the more necessary.
The mother is acceptable as long as she lives her life vicariously through others - her husband’s promotion, her son’s academic performance, but never her own achievements or her personal desires. Women’s sexuality is acceptable as long as it comfortably services a man within acceptable social customs. The daughter isn’t supposed to have any knowledge of her mother’s seductive charm. Titli realises she has crossed a line, and Urmila opens up to her about her past relationship. For the first time, they converse as equals. The film Titli ends with the daughter requesting her mother to recite a poem she knew Urmila recited for Rohit. The envy has faded away, the lines of miscommunication have been bridged. We remember what Urmila had told Rohit during their meeting. “When Titli watches you, I watch her. For as long as she watches you, I watch her. When you fight villains on stage, she chews her gum faster. When you dance with your heroine, envy and anger cloud her face.” The audience realises what the film was always about: the love story between a mother and her daughter.
In Unishe April too, we have a similar reconciliation. Sarojini returns home to find Mithu has decided to commit suicide on the day of her father’s death, heartbroken by the rejection of her marriage proposal. The constant friction in their conversation fades away as Mithu breaks down and asks her mother “Why didn’t you ever ask me to join your dance class?” This is her deepest grievance, laid bare before us. All the intense tension between the two has been building up to this moment. Mithu never felt needed by her mother, and her way of coping was to immerse herself in books and be a doctor like her father. Sarojini, in between her sobbing, replies, “I did not understand you wanted to. I never asked, Mithu. I’m sorry.” The remarkable aspect of Unishe April is how Sarojini is unapologetic about her decisions. She offers an explanation for her actions but stands by them. In the end, we find Mithu writing her a prescription to help with her knee pain while Sarojini requests her to accompany her to Madras, to meet her dance guru, making an active effort to include her in her life.
Mothers make mistakes. This is something mainstream culture refuses to accept. The standards motherhood is held to are unbelievably high.
In Gilmore Girls, Lorelai and Rory come across as sisters in the first scene. Rory is often the ‘mother’ in the relationship, asking Lorelai to think through practical decisions, consume a liquid that isn’t Luke’s coffee, and managing the intense drama between her grandmother Emily and her mother. Lorelai makes mistakes, but she makes a significant effort to acknowledge and make up for them. When Rory wanted to drop out of Yale and moved out to live with her grandparents, Lorelai and her get into a huge fight. However, when Rory reconsiders and rejoins Yale, and comes home to apologise, Lorelai says “I should have pulled you out of there.”
In Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, the only moment of peace is perhaps the beginning where Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson and her mother sleep on the same bed. Two minutes later in the movie, Lady Bird jumps out of moving car as her mother tells her, “You know, with your work ethic, you should probably go to City College, then to jail, then back to City College.” From the moment the movie starts, to its very end, their relationship is one of constant pushes and pulls. Her mother reminds her of their financial status when Lady Bird wants to buy a magazine, “that’s what rich people do, we’re not rich people.” When they’re in a thrift store, Lady Bird drags her feet and her mother says “Are you tired? I couldn’t really say, because you were dragging your feet”, to which Lady Bird replies “You are SO INFURIATING!” In the very next second her mother pulls out a dress which both of them begin gushing over, completely forgetting the argument. Lady Bird is fiercely individualistic, dramatic, driven, confident, but she struggles because she wants her mother to like her, so bad. You have to love Greta Gerwig for getting it so well. Lady Bird’s mother writes and throws away a dozen letters because she felt she would judge her writing capability. Envy and miscommunication again. This gap is bridged, when after getting super drunk after moving away to college, Lady Bird calls her mother to say, “I love you. Thank you.”
The common thread that runs through Titli, Unishe April, Lady Bird, and Gilmore Girls, connecting the stories across timelines and countries is a simple one: daughters want to feel validated and acknowledged by their mothers. However, these emotions of envy, jealousy, doubt, resentment and anger that our characters feel need to be celebrated. Why? Because the myth of motherhood says unconditional love and care should come naturally. It makes no space for other healthy human emotions. Since our mothers are inherently programmed to want the best for us and see the best in us, there should be no conflict. These counter narratives show that this path towards a stable, loving relationship is not a linear one. It requires careful negotiation between power dynamics, emotions (of which, not all are pleasant) and effort, just like any other relationship.
It is rather unfortunate, even unfair, that we need a demythologising of the mother figure in popular culture in the first place. To put it reductively, I’m glad that women are finally telling their imperfect and messy stories. What we need is more of it.
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