My mother introduced me to film, both Hollywood and Bollywood. She patiently sat through countless terrible children’s movies, she slowly introduced me to good cinema. She insisted on staying through the credits. Ma loved pop culture and celebrities and knowing who actors were. “Did you know So-and-So played such-and-such?” she’d ask.
Ma loved musicals and dramas and comedies. Mel Brooks, the Coen Brothers. Shahrukh Khan. She loved to read, too, and loved the theater, and did some acting in high school. She loved stories.
As a kid, you watch movies and look for yourself on the screen. You learn valuable life lessons, gain emotional touchstones. You see who you can be. This process is more difficult for little girls (and even more so for ones who are in a cultural or ethnic or other minority). Girls can be princesses, sidekicks. Mothers, obviously, wives, hopefully. They get to watch, they watch the movies to learn how to watch life. Boys, of course, can be heroes, princes, kings, men.
While I am not a mother myself, I am certainly of maternal age. When my mother was my age, I was already seven. Already old enough to have a personality, likes, dislikes, goals, dreams. Nearly 30 years later, my life looks very different from what seven-year-old me imagined. And even though I am not a mother myself, because of my age, that is generally with whom I identify onscreen.
And where is Mom?
Ma lived a pretty simple life. She was a great cook, and made dinner most nights. She hated cleaning and only did the minimum; conversely, Dad loved cleaning and was happy to do it when he had time. Dad worked full time, was the main breadwinner, so Ma worked around that, a string of part-time jobs here and there, working around his schedule, and mine too. The jobs weren’t glamorous but needed to be done, and they didn’t string together to make a career, but they did support the family.
My father’s job required we move across the country, and so we did, though my mother missed her birth family terribly, even though they were a rather dysfunctional clan. No wonder she loved stories. A tough childhood, a fun young adulthood, and then those maternal and wifely duties, far away from the familiar. Those stories were familiar and provided an escape, goals, ideals, dreams.
But what did Mom get to see on that screen? Women don’t exist much in movies anyway; who represented the middle-aged ladies, who worked hard and loved hard and otherwise lived “normal” lives?
Some stats for Hollywood in 2016, Seven years after my mother died, women were thus represented:
- 52% of the audience
- 4% of directors
- 11% of writers
- 29% of the protagonists
And some stats for Bollywood in 2017, eight years after my mother died:
While many movies are about the pursuit of romance (whether main or subplot), actual marriage is often depicted in a negative light. The wife is a nag, focused on the kids. How easily is Dixit’s wife thrown aside in Dhoom 2, pregnant, fat, annoying. Trisha goes from being Siddharth’s wife to their child’s mother, focused only the child to the detriment of her relationship in Shaadi Ke Side Effects. Happy New Year really only has one female character, but still takes time to show one man’s ball-busting wife.
But even if marriage is miserable, children are a must. In Parched, Lajjo is thought to be barren. She is pitied by her friend, blamed and abused by her husband for her failure. Alka aka Revolver Rani is able to be brutal because she thinks she cannot have children; she softens when she finds herself pregnant.
Though children ruin lives. Kia is incredibly upset about the idea of being pregnant in Ki & Ka. Trisha wants to abort her child, only to have it at the last minute; she loves her daughter so much that her marriage has problems. When her daughter-in-law moves in, Parched Rani thinks she can rest after caring for her son and mother-in-law on her own, but the girl is still so young that Rani essentially must raise her, too; her son, meanwhile, runs wild.
And even if a woman marries, has children, and finds a way to correctly balance her relationships, she faces ruin if something happens to her husband. In Ki & Ka, Kia explains her father died when she was very young and her mother had to work to support them, and how difficult that was, which is what fuels her desire for a career. Rani, in Parched, also lost her husband early in her marriage, and struggled to support herself and her small family. Gajrobai, in Paheli, one of the most female-friendly films, must deal with the shame, pity, loneliness, and grief of a husband who has disappeared. Rohan’s parents in Dil Bole Hadippa! are separated and he has spent of his life with his mother, the movie focuses on his relationship with his father, and his parents eventually reconcile. What was life like for Mom? Who cares?
An important exception is Vijaylakshmi in Queen, who is a single mother enjoying her life and helping Rani to enjoy hers. I bet she isn’t so exceptional in the real world, that there are hundreds, millions of women like her. But on screen, she is the rarest of the rare.
All of these women are lucky, because at least they get to exist. The entire premise of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai rests on poor dead Tina, who knew she had a complicated pregnancy and also knew her husband really wanted a child. Something happened to the second Om’s mother in Om Shanti Om, but we never learn what; she isn’t even mentioned after he is born. That we don’t hear anything of Neha’s parents in Dostana wouldn’t be that odd (we don’t learn anything about the male characters’ families), but we do meet her aunt. Aisha doesn’t have a mother in Aisha. Veera doesn’t have a mother in Dil Bole Hadippa! And so on.
And so my mother, and all mothers, and all women older than about 25, when they look at the screen, who do they see? A woman berated for having children or for not having children. A nag, a bore, someone who is asexual. Someone to push aside or leave without looking back. A memory, or not even that. These women endure, work hard, cook, clean, caretake, perform paid and unpaid labor, they make it so the men can have actual lives.
But women, even mothers, have lives too. They can feel sad about infertility and happy about pregnancy, love both child and husband, stay at home or have careers. They deserve to have their stories told. Movies like Paheli, Parched, and Ki & Ka definitely make strides in to showing these stories. Even something like Shaadi Ke Side Effects shows how difficult and rewarding women’s lives can be.
As we move in to 2018 and beyond, I hope all of us in the audience, women, men, nonbinary, mothers, fathers, childfree, young, old, continue to question the stories we watch and read, and push for more voices and more lives.