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10 June 2012

There's no place for Maa

Hindi films delight in stereotypes. Especially when it comes to women's roles. There are parameters that may not be broken, boundaries that may not be crossed. None more so than for the heroine, who, with barely superficial changes has lingered on until now. But this post, and the preceding one, is about characters that seem to have vanished from our films. The two conspicuous absences from my earlier post were Maa and Pitaji. That was not deliberate, not at first. However, when I began to write about Maa for instance, it occurred to me that one couldn't lump all mothers under one blanket stereotype. (Neither could we the fathers.) There were many sub-genres under that one word, all archetypal. And each sub-genre had its own 'face' if you will. It seemed easier to give them the honour of their own post, considering that even today, the catch-phrase that even a Hindi film neophyte would recognise is Mere paas maa hain.

So, without much ado, let's get on with categorising the various species of Maa that have populated the world of Hindi cinema for the longest time, but seem to be a dead or dying breed in recent years. Let's start from the beginning (with faces to match), shall we? 

1. The suffering Maa

She is always the mother of the hero, abandoned or widowed, cast into penury by circumstances beyond her control, who single-handedly raises her son and waits considerately until he is old enough to collapse and die. She is the reason he turns into a thief, for she is ailing and needs the food and/or medicine; it is for her that he will vow to 'take any job' so he can send her to a sanatorium, and it is her death that will see him either change his ways, or take revenge against an uncaring society.

And the award goes to: Leela Chitnis
I mean, the poor woman suffered from every possible ailment known to man, including, but not limited to tuberculosis. I have lost count of the number of films in which she coughed and hacked her way through the requisite number of reels before she died. Just seeing her on screen was enough to make me reach for my migraine medication.

Leela Chitnis entered the ranks of suffering mothers with Shaheed, where she played mother to Dilip Kumar. For the next two decades or so, she played mother to almost every hero - Raj Kapoor (Awara), Dev Anand (Guide), Dilip Kumar - again (Ganga Jamuna).

2. The imperious / domineering Maa

There are several nominees to this position. Durga Khote, Lalita Pawar, Sulochana, etc. They belong to the rich families; their henpecked husbands are usually Om Prakash, Nasir Hussain, Raj Mehra; they are hung on khandaan ki izzat and zimmedaari... It is they who run the house, and everyone from their husbands to their children, servants to pets, quake when they appear.  They decide everything, from what the family will eat, to whom the children will marry. Family, caste, position, wealth, all matter more to them than the emotions of their children. They always relent in the end, having been taught the error of their ways - usually by the 'poor' daughter-in-law whose steadfast devotion shows them how the poor hold a monopoly over goodness.

And the award goes to: Lalita Pawar.
No one, but no one could do the imperious, we-are-so-superior-to-everyone-else role like she could. She played the same role and made it seem believable each time, making her the mother we loved to hate. Shammi Kapoor (Junglee), Dev Anand (Patita), Nutan (Chhote Bhai), Madhubala's aunt (Mr & Mrs 55), Rajendra Kumar (Sasural), etc.

3. Help, I've lost my kids Maa

Self explanatory. She is the most careless of them all. In film after film after film, she is separated from her child / children. 

The award goes to: Nirupa Roy. (There was no competition in this category. Many thanks to bollyviewer who alerted me to Nirupa Roy's irresponsible ways.)
It is amazing that anyone still wanted her to be 'mother'. (Or perhaps they took one look at the script(s) which called for children being separated from their parents, and said Achcha, is role ke liye Nirupaji ko hii bulaiye.) One could almost guarantee that by the end of the first reel (which was enough time to tattoo the children, or give them identical lockets, or even teach them a song), she will have mislaid her offspring. And will therefore spend the next 16 reels looking for them.

In the meantime, however, she will run into them several times, even mother them, all without knowing they are hers. One thing you can be sure of, however. By the time the film ends, she will be reunited with her child / children. Even if they were babies when she misplaced them, and they didn't have tattoos or lockets or any identification mark whatsoever. She is usually the mother of the hero; one notable exception was Chhaya where she played Asha Parekh's mother.

4. Torn between love and duty Maa

This is the mother who is torn between her husband and her son. As the two men clash in a game of one-up-man-ship, she bears the brunt, sometimes stoically, at other (very rare) times making an attempt to intercede on her son's behalf. To be told, in not so many words, to shut up and keep to 'her place'. Inevitably, her 'duty' to her husband wins over her love for her son. Many mothers have played this role - Achla Sachdev in Janwar comes readily to mind, Raakhee in Shakti, and even Lalita Pawar in Junglee, though in the last case, her husband was dead, and she owed her duty to his portrait. But the award goes to: Durga Khote.
As Jodha Bai in Mugha-e-Azam, she warns her son that Hindustan cannot be ruled by a nautch-girl. However, when he rebels, she also shows the temerity to question the Emperor of Hindustan, Baadshah Akbar himself. And the emperor going to battle against his recalcitrant son, informs her at his cantankerous best that if she cannot send him off to battle with the customary aarti, she can wipe the sindoor off her forehead. She chooses to hand him the sword.

5. The 'Mujhe insaaf chahiye' Maa

She is the wronged woman. Usually a widow, definitely the mother of son(s), she has been the eyewitness to her husband's brutal murder, most often at the hands of his step-siblings. Once rich, she is thrown out of the haveli and ekes a precarious living to raise her sons to adulthood. She stokes the flame of vengeance in her breast, and raises her sons to redress her wrongs. 

The award goes to: Raakhee (The competition withered before her fiery gaze.)
Raakhee should now be able to play this role with her eyes closed. She has been the wronged mother in Falak, Ram Lakhan, Karan Arjun, Saugandh, Pratikar, Shyam Ghanshyam... she continues to seek revenge. 

6. Maa jaisi

She is the brevet mother. She could be a friendly neighbourhood aunty, the guru, or the Anglo-Indian landlady. She will have a rough tongue, a kind heart, and will bully the poor hero (always the hero!) mercilessly. Yet, she is the one who will feed him, be the keeper of his conscience, and will dote on him, even giving him money to tide him over a lean period. 

This is a no-contest. The award goes to: Lalita Pawar
Think of her roles: The kelewali in Shree 420, the rough-tongued Matron in  Anand, the foster mother in Parvarish, Mrs Gomes in Naseeb, and who can forget her definitive portrayal of the loving Mrs D'Sa of Anari?

7. Bhabhi-Maa

A Hindi film actress' career is limited. By the time she turns 30, she is taken off the 'heroine' pedestal and is coerced into playing bhabhi. Adding insult to injury is that she is playing bhabhi to the same actors with whom she was once paired. Even Meena Kumari, who ended her career still playing lead roles, could not escape the dreaded curse. 
The bhabhi-maa is married to the eldest brother, who always seems to have younger brothers who are young enough to be his sons. His wife usually has no children, preferring to look after her brothers-in-law, or she does have children but favours her devar(s) over her own offspring.
There is no one person who can be singled out for this role. Pandhari Bai, Nutan, Waheeda Rehman, Meena Kumari, Mala Sinha, Raakhee, and countless other actresses have all been in this role at some point in their careers, but reader Anoushka Dave points out that Kamini Kaushal was the eternal Bhabhi-maa. And so, the award goes to:
8. The 'principled' Maa

She is poor (Of course! No one else has principles.), is usually widowed, works hard to raise her son(s), and will not sacrifice her principles to ease her life. She brings her son(s) up to be honest and is shocked, shocked! when one of them (only one, never both) takes to crime, even if it is to bring her medicines when she is ill. At some point in the film, she will excoriate him for bringing shame to the family, leading to an estrangement that will only be remedied in the last scene - either with the son's repentance, or his death, or both. And sometimes, if the son remains unrepentant, she is even forced to take steps herself.

While Nirupa Roy in Deewar comes to mind, the award can only go to: Nargis.
She is Mother India, the mother of them all. Enough said.

All these stereotypes have vanished from our screens today. Scripts today, where there is one, do not have a place for these women. Does that mean, though, that all stereotypes have been vanquished? Not really. The original archetypes have just been replaced by others. The woman's role is still the same. Maa has just evolved into 'Ma' or 'Mom' or 'Mamma'. She is no longer poor and suffering. She is usually upper middle class to rich, adores her children and dotes on her daughters-in-law, makes spaghetti with much the same nonchalance as she cooks up gajar ka halwa, and her place is obviously at home.

Two modern 'mother' stereotypes are:

9. The Rajshri Maa

She is young, pretty, sweet-tempered, and loves her children to bits. She's not beyond teasing them about their girlfriends, actively supports their plans, and is the woman behind her successful yet traditional businessman husband. She lives in the Rajshri's (Karan Johar / Yash Chopra) idealistic world of multi-generational families, where women still sing bhajans in the morning, yet actively encourage their daughters-in-law to help with the family business - until the children are born.

It's a toss-up between Farida Jalal and Reema Lagoo, but I think the latter wins - by a whisker.
Simply because I think Reema Lagoo holds the record for playing mom to the most number of heroes, all of whom would probably be younger than her by just a few years. And in one case (Sanjay Dutt in Vaastav), she was just a year older than her 'son'. Reema Lagoo is probably Salman Khan's favourite screen mother. 

10. The Punjabi Maa
Quick, raise your hands if you know the answer. And no, no prizes for guessing, either. She is probably one of the finest actresses of our times (reference: Khamosh Paani, Sardari Begum, Darmiyaan, Pestonjee); yet, she is the worst stereotype of the loudmouthed Punjabi that you can find in the annals of Hindi cinema.

And (let the drumroll begin) the award goes to: Kiron Kher
Think of her as the mother in a slew of movies - Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, Om Shanti Om, Dostana, Hum Tum, even Devdas (where she was a Punjabi in Bengali clothing. Sarat Chandra Chatterjee would have turned in his grave in horror at her portrayal.) No one, simply no one does the loudmouthed turn quite like she can. 

And that's that. If you can think of any sub-genre of Maas I have forgotten to add, please feel free to add your choices. I'm sorry I gave the fathers short shrift but I don't think I can go through another list such as this. :) 


  1. Hehehehehehe :-D :-D

    Delightful post, Anu. And I especially love your description of what all the "Help, I've lost my kids Maa" could always manage to achieve before she lost her kids. ;-) Incidentally, besides Chhaya, another major movie in which Nirupa Roy played a different kind of mum was Munimji, where she deliberately switched her baby (who grew up to be Pran) with another (who grew up to be Dev Anand) just so that her son could grow up wealthy and powerful. The "Anything for my son Maa", I guess, even if it hurt the hell for the man who thought he was her son.

    How about a "Main chup rahoongi Maa"? The unwed mother who'd keep the name of her child's father hidden, just to 

  2. Terrific post, Anu, on all the Maa's of Hindi cinema!  Yes, I agree - Leela Chitnis was always sick and ailing, and it was usually a hacking cough, and she usually died, too!  And Lalita Pawar was the MIL we prayed we wouldn't get!
    Talking of Nirupa Roy, I just saw this article on Yahoo! and was reminded of it when I read your blog:
    I guess that's the next Nirupa starrer!

  3. What a wonderful post! I found myself nodding my head and saying "yeah" all the time! You have clssified the screen-maas wonderfully. You should have become a systematist.
    How about the step-mother? No category for her? Or does she get her own post?
    In which category do unwed mothers belong to? I think they should get their own category.

  4. Thanks, Madhu. :) I'm glad you enjoyed it. I did think about the unwed mother, but I couldn't find one single face to put to it. I even began writing about it, then trashed it because it didn't seem to fit.

  5. Welcome back, Lalitha. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. That story is incredible, isn't it? I want to read the second part now.

  6. Thanks, Harvey. 'Systematist'? :)

    I did think of having step-mothers, then decided that the domineering mother would be the evil stepmother anyway, and that would be Lalita Pawar so what was the use?

    Unwed mothers - again, I began writing about it, then I couldn't find a single face, though I agree that the tropes behind it are very stereotypical.

  7.  unwed mother would be sharmila (aradhana) for me, though she also holds the position of the bikini girl. other would be mala sinha (dhool ka phool).
    but these must be a real fertile lot, one roll in the hay and they are pregnant. (hope that wasn't sexist)

  8.  just saw that madhu also mentioned unwed mothers.

  9. No, that was not sexist. :) And if it was, Harvey, then I'm as sexist as you are because that is what I wrote about that category - that they were an unbelievably fecund lot, and more importantly, they showed us the need for sex education in our schools!

    There were too many unwed mothers for me to make put a definitive face to that category. Of course, I could have left it openended the same way I did for Bhabhi-maa. But I ended up scratching that completely.

  10.  in dharamputra also nirupa roy manages to keep her children from getting lost, in fact she goes a step ahead and adopts one as well. but that was before she tasted blood.

  11. Very, very nice post Anu, and wonderful to read. It's nice to read something like that and tell yourself: yes, she's right, she's right, all along (Harvey already said that above).
    There could have been another category, perhaps which would have listed (and awarded) the maa's maas... And also the "dying maa", perhaps! (have you seen this page: http://www.subtitledonline.com/special-features/the-5-faces-of-bollywood-mothers)
    Sadly there's no award for Jaya Bachchan!!
    But: now we'll all be waiting for the Pitajis!!!

  12. Harvey, once she began losing children, it became an addiction. She had to keep on losing them. :)

  13. Thank you so much, Yves. As for awarding the maa of all maas, I will leave it to my readers. :) I thought about Jaya, but she did too many different mother roles - there was nothing stereotypical about them. If she was the 'I'll lie down and let my husband walk all over me' in KKKG, she was the strong single mother in Fiza; her independent-mother, sarcastic-daughter-in-law turn in Kal Ho Na Ho, or the really strong mother of Hazaar Chaurasi ki Maa. (That *was* a movie worth watching for her!). I love her!

    Pitajis? I was planning to drop that post, actually. Now you are telling me I have to write that? :)

  14. Actually, the modern maa's dangerously tend towards (gasp) actually being an attractive woman rather than merely worshipful/dominant

    As for Nirupa Roy, I am always reminded of Oscar Wilde's line where the lady is aghast at her prospective son-in-law having been an orphan :- "To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness."

    Ms Nirupa steadily managed to lose husbands, sons and her eyesight/health in quick succession within the first 20 minutes of most movies ;  ) However, it is testimony to her acting prowess that she holds her own in this iconic scene (which has Amitabh, Shashi AND the title dialogue of the movie)


  15. Yes. I can imagine why you would trash it. There aren't that many examples. A number of actresses, each of them just playing that role once in their careers...

  16. Wonderful !! You are perilously close to being a profilic blogger !!!

    One Maa character that's stuck to my mind is the one from Saagar(1985). Remember Rishi's grandma in the movie?

    That's why !! :-)

  17. Sulochana Latkar played an unwed mother in a Dharmendra-movie. Remember that one? :-) Yep, you are right - "Aaye Din Bahar Ke(1966)

    And in another Dharam-movie (Pyar Hi Pyar -1969), she played mother to Pran. AND to top it !!, he was a good 8 years older to her. It was so funny when he used to say "Maa...."

  18. very entertaining post. Can't stop laughing. 
    All the awards are so fitting. What about Kamini Kaushal for Bhabhi maa? 

  19. lovehindimusic11 June 2012 at 07:03

    Waheeda Rehman of Trishul...what kind of 'Ma' she will be?

  20. Yes, unlike, for instance, if I were doing a post about a courtesan, or the 'other' woman - that would be Rekha, for me.

  21. Too many unwed mothers floating around, Shashi. :)

  22. AKM, I *thought* of paraphrasing Oscar Wilde's line to the Nirupa Roy post! I swear! 

    She was a damn good actress; it was unfortunate that she allowed herself to get slotted into the suffering mother roles, but I suppose after a 'certain' age, that is all she could do. At least, with Nirupa Roy as mother, she got to do something more than just prepare gajar ka halwa for her hulking son.

    Laughing so much at Ms Nirupa steadily managed to lose husbands, sons and her eyesight/health in quick succession within the first 20 minutes of most movies. :)

  23. Wasn't that Leela Naidu? She managed to look like a plank of plywood throughout the film. :(

    And I'm 'perilously' close to being a prolific blogger? Shashi, I thought you liked my blog!! :( :(

  24. Anoushka, yes!!!! Why, oh why didn't I think of her? While all the others did that role as a matter of course, Kamini Kaushal was the face of that role!! Thanks for the tip-off. *Scrurrying to add that to my post*

  25. The self-respecting, but bitter Maa, of course. :)

  26. Prolific doesn't mean I dislike it, Anu. In fact, MacDonalds (I am loving it) :-D

  27. "Rajendra Kumar (Sasural)" Wwwhat! -spits out Coke and falls off of bed- Oh, no. And I was going to watch that. How the-

    I mean, she bullied every single hero in the 50's and 60's (Even Dev wasn't spared! Even Dev!), but Rajendra too? o_o Oh, dear. Nutan and Madhubala too? -doesn't even know how to react-

    But you should do a post for fathers too! :S I can think up a couple of domineering fathers!

  28.  Post on fathers coming up next. :)

  29. Just the tag line please :-)

  30. Anu - You must, MUST, must, must include Mehmood from Humjoli (1970) in the fathers' post !! Khandaan ki izzat ka sawaal hai !! :-)

    Do sound like Shammi Kapoor from Betaab, Hero?

  31. I have a tough time managing my time and therefore always end up coming in quite late here by which time you have already finished with quite few posts. Anyway now that I am here I would like to add my 2 bit for whatever it is worth; there is one particular Ma who like Lalita Pawar was quite heartless, domineering and if I mayadd much more than what Lalita Pawar portrayed, she almost showed no softness and the lady who played this character in  most of her later films was Veena- take a look at Aashirwad for instance, one of her earliest films in which she played   this allmost cruel and stubborn character was Dastan co-starring Raj Kapoor and  Suraiya in this one she  was the elder sister

  32.  And the deserting father, like the one in Deewar or Mother India! :P

  33.  Chalo, that makes me feel better! :)

  34.  The 'Khandaan ki izzat' - wala baap is there in my post, but as for the rest, you will have to wait and see. :)

  35.  You people are writing my post for me already. :))

  36.  Yes, actually, I think Veena played the domineering mother role as well, if not better than Lalita Pawar. Maybe I should have awarded it to both of them. Now I'm too lazy to go and change my post. :(
    Thanks for that one, Shilpi.

  37. What about "evil-moms", I would nominate Manorama, possibly Sudha Chopra of Trishul (well slightly evil anyway), and possibly Shashikala. Maybe some of them were evil aunts or evil step-moms, but evil nevertheless. ROTFL on the post !!

  38. Glad I provided the laughter quotient. Manorama *and* Shashkala would share, I think, though I'm more used to seeing them as aunts/stepmothers/bhabhis... :)

  39. Dina Pathak, the domineering matriarch in "Khubsoorat!"

  40. Yes, but in one film. Usually, she was playing widowed mom. 

  41.  Madhu, now that I think about it, Sharmila would have been a good choice for 'unwed mother' - Daag, Aradhana, Mausam, Aa Gale Lag Jaa, Satyakam, Sunny, Swati.... What say? :)

  42. A great post. There is omething in the disply, I am not able to see the other comments, so I do not know whether it has been said earlier. One sub-genre could be Sauteli Ma who hates the hero, but pretends to love him, the gullible hero worships her. Aruna Irani in Beta; recently the Ma in the TV serial Bade Achche Lagate Hain.

  43. A great post. There is omething in the disply, I am not able to see the other comments, so I do not know whether it has been said earlier. One sub-genre could be Sauteli Ma who hates the hero, but pretends to love him, the gullible hero worships her. Aruna Irani in Beta; recently the Ma in the TV serial Bade Achche Lagate Hain.

  44. Sorry, Anil. Either blogger or Disqus was acting up. Thanks for dropping by. As I mentioned in the comments, either the step-moms would go into the 'evil moms' category or they need a whole post all to themselves.

  45. A good take on the philmy maas....one more angle could be the ghost maa in 'Maa' played by Jayaprada and the friend maa in 'Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na' by Ratna Pathak.

  46. Aalaap, welcome. There weren't many 'ghost' maas to make them a genre; the 'friend' mother fits into what I termed the 'Rajshri' Maa. :) Though I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed Ratna PathaK Shah's dry wit in JTYJN.

  47. Have you changed the configuration? I am not able to read the comments.

  48. I haven't done anything! It must be blogspot up to its old tricks again. I'm not getting email intimations either, when comments are posted. Drat and blast!

  49. Subodh Agrawal18 July 2012 at 05:15

    How about the dead ma? The picture on the wall with a garland? There was this movie named Maa in which the Ma was an avenging female elephant!

  50. The dead maa is a good one, but there weren't very many of them, were there? I think there were more dead baaps than maas.

  51. I think not only hindi films, "maa" is always been in important charater of Indian television serials too. Remember "Kyun ki"? Maa ho ya sasu maa, story always have one of these characters for sure.

  52.  I think films in general had 'maa' as a pivotal character.

  53. Brilliant writeup.But its a fact that there was a time when such strong willed ,hardworking and sacrificing moms were there in real life too.

  54.  Thank you, roby. :) I'm sure there were, and still are, quite a few women who are strongwilled and hardworking, and sacrifice much. It is just that when you (filmmakers, that is) stereotype a whole gender, you do everyone a disservice.


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