Why Bollywood Needs to Get Over Its Mother India Syndrome

Director Laxman Utekar’s latest release “Mimi” checks all the boxes for a successful small-town dramedy — Kriti Sanon’s confident protagonist, her loyal best friend (played by Sai Tamhankar), whimsical side characters (portrayed by the excellent Pankaj Tripathi, Manoj Pahwa and Supriya Pathak) and a perfect semi-urban setting in Rajasthan. An aspiring actor, Sanon’s character in the movie decides to be a surrogate for an American couple in a bid to earn money and move to Mumbai. However, midway through the pregnancy, the couple is told that the child might be born with Down syndrome, causing them to panic and leave, abandoning Mimi with their unborn child. 

At this point, the filmmakers were at a crucial juncture — go the clichéd route of celebrating what ‘true’ motherhood means, or take the path less travelled and deliver a thought-provoking story on the challenges faced by surrogates in India. Unfortunately, the filmmakers took the wrong turn and what we end up with is an age-old romanticization of motherhood. Because, what are we without our ‘ma,’ right? 

Be it Nargis in “Mother India,” or Jaya Bachchan in “Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham” — Indian cinema has long venerated mothers as the epitome of love, sacrifice, and devotion. A mother’s love, or mamta as it’s called in Hindi, is sacrosanct. Over the years, the portrayal of mothers in Bollywood has changed from chaste, saree-clad figures such as Nirupa Roy in “Deewar” to more unconventional, single mothers such as Kirron Kher in “Main Hoon Na.” While this evolution is welcome, it is still complicit with the largely archaic notion of motherhood as a woman’s ultimate purpose in life. Even while depicting ‘modern,’ career-driven women most Bollywood films treat pregnancy as the be-all and end-all in the women’s character arcs.

What are we without our ‘ma,’ right? 

Films such as “Salaam Namaste” and “Good Newzz,” which depict career women navigating pregnancy, are vehemently anti-choice, a stance that is dangerously regressive and denies women any autonomy over their bodies. In “Mimi,” Sanon’s character too rejects abortion right away. Instead, in true Bollywood fashion, when she sets her eye on the baby, Sanon is overcome with what can only be termed as her mamta and her free-spirited, career-driven character does a 180-degree turn to become a doting mother to a child that isn’t biologically hers. However, abortion was not the only option available to her. The plot had set up side characters who both wanted and had the ability to raise a child; Mimi could very easily have given the child to them and retained some semblance of her character’s priorities pre-surrogacy. 

While we cannot deny the depth of a mother’s love, the problem arises when popular culture tries to tell women they have the ‘motherly instinct’ buried deep within them, ready to spring into action when needed, irrespective of their choices and aspirations. The validation of motherhood as the biggest priority in every woman’s life seems too much like an attempt to chart out one specific course of life for all women, leaving them no choice or room for negotiation. 

While depicting ‘modern,’ ambitious women, most Bollywood films treat pregnancy as the ultimate goal.

Currently, two kinds of women exist in the Bollywood universe —  the ones who love and want children or grow to want them due to their ‘instinctive motherhood,’ or the ones who don’t want children and are villainized for it, as cold and unloving. 

With these depictions, it becomes obvious that Bollywood has no space for the women who don’t want children, who have no deep-hidden maternal instincts, who are caring and kind but don’t wish for their own progeny. It is high time Indian cinema started telling women that it is OK to not want children or to recognize that they will not be able to care for them. The notion that children bring fulfilment to women’s lives contributes to the reduction of women to only their biological selves, as baby-producing machines, or worse still, as emotional beings that invariably want to take care of those around them, including children. Every woman should be allowed the freedom to choose her own priorities, and a baby needn’t be anywhere on the list.


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