Written by Priya Arora
“Women are born to make sacrifices for men.”
This dialogue comes from the 1995 Bollywood film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, where the main character, Simran, has fallen in love but her family has already arranged for her to marry someone else. Her mother asks her to sacrifice that love in deference to her father’s wishes.
For Bollywood, the world’s largest film industry, the road to an authentic portrayal of women has been bumpy. In India’s Hindi film realm, onscreen mothers have long been depicted as passive housewives who bow to patriarchal pressures.
But this portrayal is being challenged. A number of movies in recent years have shown mothers, and women overall, as full and complex human beings — not melodramatic side characters, but outspoken, independent leads who are in charge of their own fates.
Tribhanga, which was released on Netflix in January, is one such film. The story follows Anuradha (Kajol), an actress and dancer, who must face the demons of her past when her estranged mother, Nayantara (Tanvi Azmi), ends up in the hospital. Nayantara, who is a highly accomplished writer, gets to tell her side of the story in flashbacks, through conversations with a disciple who is recording material for a biography.
Written and directed by the actress Renuka Shahane, Tribhanga covers topics not typical of Bollywood films, like single motherhood, sexual abuse and open relationships. Nayantara herself is shown leaving her husband so she can pursue a career, date as a single mother and casually drink when she feels like it. What she doesn’t realize is that one of her boyfriends sexually abused Anu — and the cycle of trauma repeats when Anu’s daughter gets bullied for being born outside marriage.
“My mother has always shared her fallibility with me,” Shahane said in a video interview last month. “The fun aspect of growing up with her was that I could see her as a human being.”
Shahane took this real-life inspiration and incubated it into a script she worked on for nearly six years. For the characters, she said, it was important to depict women as complex, if flawed, people. “They are individuals first, and they are very talented, beautiful, strong women, but they also have their feelings.”
But audiences, and the industry, haven’t always been so welcoming — women-led films in the past decade like The Dirty Picture (2011) and Kahaani (2012) did well at the box office, while others, like the 2018 film Veere Di Wedding did not. Still, mothers were often depicted adhering to traditional gender roles, doting on their families and wholly focused on their children’s lives. In the 2001 family drama Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, the mother (played by Jaya Bachchan) is shown as being telepathically aware of her son’s emotions and presence, whether he is physically near her or not. And the 1999 film Hum Saath Saath Hain placed the mother’s preference for her youngest son at the center of the story’s conflict.
The move toward having a more three-dimensional portrayal of onscreen mothers has been developing for decades. According to Beheroze Shroff, a professor of Asian-American Studies at the University of California, Irvine, it began in the 1950s, when post-independence India was breaking the shackles of colonialism. Shroff said that in the 1957 film Mother India, the ideal mother was depicted as a daughter of the nation, both committed to her domestic duties and to her country. But as India globalized, transnational trends and free-market capitalism proliferated, and by the 1990s, there was a growing need to address a then-burgeoning diaspora audience. This created a conflict between showing women as dutiful versus as they really are, when more viewers worldwide were petitioning for more accurate representation.
Regarding the recent, women-led movies like Tribhanga, Shroff said that the challenging of the mother figure role was necessary to make the characters more true to life. “A mother has to be three-dimensional, and her sexuality has to be valued. Especially when she is no longer dependent on financial assistance from the husband.”
In more recent years, the growing investment of global streaming platforms in India has also sped up the progress, Shroff said. “Somehow capitalism aids creativity and aids new voices.”
A lot of this comes back to the audience. International viewers on streaming platforms, especially in large markets like the United States, tends to be more open to seeing women in different roles — which makes catering to them more logical, and profitable.
Shroff said that streaming services “have a certain sensibility that they want to see in the kind of narratives that they are promoting on their platform. That has been a great boon for women filmmakers, women writers, women behind the camera and in front of the camera.”
Alankrita Shrivastava, the director of the 2019 film Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare (streaming on Netflix), agreed that the shift is happening now because of women who have worked their way up within the industry, but thinks change is also happening because of more eclectic audience interests. “I feel like the audience may also be opening up a little more to stories which don’t necessarily have the male, upper caste, cisgender heterosexual hero at the center of the universe,” she said.
Motherhood is also a theme in Dolly Kitty, which tells the story of two women who are on parallel paths of self-discovery. One of them, Dolly, is a middle class mother of two who is exploring the reasons she doesn’t feel sexual desire toward her husband. At first, she blames herself — but on her own journey, she ends up questioning her estranged mother, whom she had long faulted for leaving the family to pursue her own dreams. And in so doing, Dolly realizes the problem is not her, but her unsatisfying marriage, which is stifling her own ambitions and desire.
The 2020 film Shakuntala Devi (streaming on Amazon Prime) presented the life story of the celebrated mathematician. Devi, as depicted in the film by Vidya Balan, struggles to carry out her duties as a mother while balancing her career and passion for mathematics. Told from the lens of Devi’s daughter, this film also highlights the toll that intergenerational trauma can take — Devi grew up hating her own mother, and, in the end, her daughter expresses a similar inability to understand Devi.
With similar themes of intergenerational trauma present in Tribhanga, actress Kajol reiterated the importance of expanding the view of a mother in Bollywood movies.
“We, as a country, put this whole idea of a mom in a very small, tight box,” she said. But this kind of thinking is set up for failure, and limits possibilities for women on- and off-screen. “It’s an unfulfillable dream that you will be the perfect mother — you can’t. There are just too many tightropes and you’re bound to fail if you go by that parameter.”