Mere paas maa hai’ — the four words from the 1975 film Deewar catapulted Nirupa Roy into the quintessential Bollywood maa. Now, in 2020, that maa has returned to Hindi TV serials. StarPlus serials Anupamaa and Shaadi Mubarak, and SonyLIV’s Indiawaali Maa have brought back the ‘bechari maa’ after three decades of the ‘bechari bahu’ phase.
And don’t be in a hurry to turn up your book-city, English-speaker nose at these serials. They are far more significant in the nation’s mind-space than you can imagine. Anupamaa, for instance, is among the top five Hindi shows on-air currently and has topped TRP charts this past week. Most of these shows are also actively discussed by fans and viewers on dedicated forums such as India Forums. Debates range from major disappointments about latest episodes, to what from these shows to what was ‘great’ about them. There are fanfictions, episode analysis, short stories, music videos — every requirement of serious fandom culture is fulfilled in these forums.
While one hopes that this sacrificial mother figure is left behind in the 1970s, we have no such luck. There are at least four serials on-air at the moment that are centered on mothers who are reviled, harassed, and underappreciated. And in true ‘Mother India’ style, they endure their hardships with a smile on their face and eulogies on what a wonderful thing motherhood is.
In reality, these serials are not about individual characters but about ideals. They are moral lessons, delivered to you on your TV, tablet or phone screen, on what it means to be the perfect Indian mother.
Farcical progressive lens
One can never really look towards Hindi serials to offer any semblance of reality in life. Most producers even operate with this deliberate suspension of reality while setting up these soap operas. They function in a sab chalta hai attitude. And often, this attitude extends to absolutely bizarre storylines that constantly show women in a poor light. After all, these are the very serials that once portrayed a housewife to be so naive that she literally washed her husband’s laptop and put it out to dry, and another was so ‘scheming’ that she waged a conspiracy in her home over a mysterious boiling pot of lentils.
The two shows on StarPlus — Anupamaa and Shaadi Mubarak — are about middle-aged mothers who serve their families hand-in-foot, and are paragons of virtue, just like Indian mothers are expected to be.
Anupama, played by actor Rupali Ganguly, blindly trusts her cheating husband, cleans up after her ungrateful children almost like a servant. Shaadi Mubarak’s protagonist Preeti, originally played by Rajshree Thakur but now played by Rati Pandey, does everything possible to plan a successful wedding for her bull-headed son, who has his own plans of keeping her in their house as a domestic worker. The two serials are supposedly about how these two women break away from the vicious cycles woven by the intersecting threads of family, society, marriage and patriarchy. But for the first 50 episodes, at least, the show goes to painstaking lengths to depict how these two women are harassed. Their emotional trauma is capitalised in every possible way. Ungrateful children, husband, in-laws — the characters are abused and reviled constantly, and even after all that, the only thing we hear from them are homilies on how motherhood is tough and thankless, but is ultimately a ‘rewarding’ experience. Nobody really knows what this reward actually is.
This narrative of ultimately ‘finding themselves’ beyond their familial identity is also rather farcical. After 93 whole episodes, Anupama finds out that her husband has been cheating on her, but instead of that becoming a moment of conflict in which her character evolves, the writers plunge deeper into making her role about personifying the ideal mother — with all requisite virtues that make her at par with Goddess Durga herself.
Similarly, Preeti opens her own wedding planning business, but not with the goal of being self-independent, but to become ‘worthy’ of her abusive son.
Mother India of 2020
A show on SonyLIV called Indiawaali Maa, unsurprisingly, centers on a mother, her sacrifices and struggles for her son. Who she is outside that relationship is of little consequence, as long as her pristine, goddess-like piety can be extolled.
Kaku, the protagonist of the show, is ill-treated by her son to the extreme. She is made to work as a server, waitress, and take up other odd jobs to help her son with finances, who heads a business that has run into debt. Indiawaali Maa is like the Mother India of our generation — and that is no compliment.
In one episode, Kaku says that as a mother you have to keep doing things for your children, just because they are your children. The worst part is that the show never problematises this attitude. Her identity and very existence is the sum total of her relationship with her son and daughter-in-law, there is nothing beyond that.
There are other shows like Hamariwaali Good News on Zee TV and Yeh Hai Chahatein on StarPlus that are also guilty of such narrow-minded portrayal of mothers.
Regressive, but supremely popular
For Hindi serials today, a mother has to be holy, pious, virtuous, hardworking, self-sacrificing, and at the same time, independent, business-oriented and resourceful. In short, they can do no wrong. Motherhood is complicated but this complexity is not something that has space on screen. And not every woman wants to be a mother either — something that is an alien concept in the Hindi serial world.
People who identify themselves as liberal progressives might feel that looking at Hindi serials is not important because no one really takes them seriously. However, these serials are widely watched. Anupamaa, specifically, grabbed the second spot on the BARC (Broadcast Audience Research Council) TRP report in 2019. With higher viewership, and dedicated fandoms to each of these shows, they are hard to ignore as a significant part of India’s pop culture discourse.
Some things indeed have changed for on-screen mothers in 2020, she not only cries and curses her life — but she also embarks on a journey of self-discovery or her pehchaan (identity). But be warned, there are certain caveats involved in this journey, the foremost being that once a maa, always a maa.
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