Popular cinema adheres to popular myths. Like the icon of the mother. The mother figure is, by and large, a prototype of virtues. Of givingness and caring. Of sacrifice and suffering. We have several examples of these sorts in popular Indian cinema. Mehboob Khan produced and directed Mother India released in 1957. Since then, in public perception the image of that Mother has been engraved as the epitome of motherhood.
This myth has largely remained a constant in Hindi cinema with the edified figures like Durga Khote, Leela Chitnis, Nirupa Roy and most notably Nargis in Mother India. The character portrayed by Nargis in the film, makes the supreme sacrifice of killing her son portrayed by Sunil Dutt( Nargis married him later) when he turns a dacoit.
In real life, Nargis was often accused of indulging her son Sanjay Dutt who by all recorded and self confessed evidence had grown up as a drug abuser in his teens. Nirupa Roy played the righteous mother in the 1975 classic Deewar starring Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor as her two sons on opposite sides of the law. The dialogue “Mere paas Ma hain”, has become iconographic in its resonances. According to grapevine of her period, Nirupa Roy was a woman who smoked, drank and used abusive language in personal life.
We may argue that any actor need not embody the virtues or the vices of the characters they portray on screen in their personal life. But the above examples were drawn upon to establish that in reality there has remained a disconnect with the perceived myth. The counter narrative is as much real as the mainstream narrative of the good mother. But as an audience, we tend to wish away the harshness of this part of reality. We expect our film makers to create myths about mother figures and sanctify them as ‘holy cows’. If they do to the contrary, their films cause consternation and widespread public disapproval.
In Requiem for a Dream released in 2000, Ellen Burstyn was nominated for the Oscars in the Best Actress category. She played a drug abusive uncaring mother lost in her own world. In the 2009 release, Precious, Mo’Nique won the Oscar as the Best Supporting Actress. She played a mother who is aware that her daughter is repeatedly raped and abused by her current husband. She does nothing about it. Hitchcock’s classic Psycho released in 1960 opened Hollywood to accept the reality of the immemorial Oedipal Complex. Today, mainstream American cinema does not shy away from such personal truths.
Bollywood still justifies its negation with the premise that Indian audiences are not yet grown up enough to accept such disturbing truths. It is the same Bollywood that takes a dig at homosexuality with stunning success in Dostana released in 2008, starring two current male icons of Hindi cinema. It is the same Bollywood that has portrayed numerous female protagonists, father figures and siblings in negative light. The fault, if any, is not primarily with the film makers. It is with an audience that negates the notion. Step moms can be vamps. In fact, they are expected to be so. But real mother’s need to be bathed in holy light.
I wonder if this negation stems from the fact that the majority of the nation worships the mother goddess. My notion of the goodness of my mother in personal space does not obliterate the other point of view.