There’s no dearth of the ‘sauteli maa’ syndrome in Indian cinema. Rekha has a field day keeping her stepdaughter Preity Zinta on her toes in Dil Hai Tumhaara. Lalita Pawar terrorises her stepson in Bindya. Even eternal matashri Reema Lagoo has her Kaikeyi moment when she sends her stepson and stepdaughter-in-law to exile aka Rampur, in Hum Saath Saath Hain. Basically, the Indian film industry — along with most forms of pop culture — has managed to give stepmothers a bad name.
Stepchildren are no less when it comes to giving their stepmothers a tough time, on screen. In the Tamil film Keladi Kanmani, actress Radhika’s character stands frustrated by her to-be stepdaughter’s refusal to accept her. In We Are Family, Kareena Kapoor walks through the same burning coals. This refusal is largely projected even in the the widely popular Tamil television show Chithi. The central idea sent across from all of them remains the same: motherhood is biological or GTFO.
Fast forward to Ravi Udyawar’s MOM, Sridevi’s third film after her return to screen with English Vinglish. In MOM, Sridevi plays a schoolteacher, Devki, who shares a tense relationship with her 18-year-old stepdaughter Arya (played by Sajal Ali). Arya repeatedly rejects Devki’s affections while Devki, in the fulsome generosity of motherhood, continues to shower Arya with love. In one scene, Arya leaves the table in anger during a discussion and Devki quietly leaves a plate of food in Arya’s room. Arya gives Devki the cold shoulder on a daily basis, but she continues to care for her stepdaughter without complaint.
So when Arya gets gangraped by a classmate and his accomplices, Devki goes on a rampage to avenge Arya, after they get acquitted (oh the law and its many appendages). Helped by private detective DK (played magnificently by Nawazuddin Siddiqui), she plots and succeeds in punishing the wrongdoers. This entire time, Arya still rejects Devki, referring to her as ‘ma’am’, as she does in school. Devki, pained but determined, quietly goes on with her fierce revenge.
It’s only when Arya finds out that it was her stepmother who went to great lengths to seek revenge, that she accepts Devki as her mother. In the predictably climactic scene, Devki holds one of Arya’s rapists (Abhimanyu Singh, in excellent form) at gunpoint. Trembling with superb rage and fear, she hears Arya scream “MOM!” for the first time in her life. After a second’s shock — BAM! — goes bullet after bullet from Devki’s gun into Singh’s head. Motherhood aka achievement unlocked.
In a world where the likes of transgender activist Gauri Sawant, who adopted and raised a daughter on her own, are trying to dispel frigid notions of motherhood, why do film plotlines run in archaic thought circles of what makes a mother? We have intertwined the notion of motherhood so deeply to biology that screenplays take extreme situations like rape and even more extreme measures like murder to “prove” someone’s motherhood. Sure, MOM gives mothers a fiercer identity. But it also reinforces the dangerous, unquestioned stereotype that a woman has to possibly jump through hoops of fire to establish her bona fides with non-biological children. Because, simply loving them and caring for their well-being is not enough. In true Wonder Woman-style, she has to fight more battles than necessary in a post-apocalyptic 2017, to earn a description in her family.
MOM isn’t an isolated case of extreme hoops of fire for the stepmom. The one I remember most clearly is the 1999 Tamil TV show Chithi, in which Sharadha (played by Radhika) loves her stepdaughter Kaveri dearly. All is well till Kaveri grows up and decides that since Sharadha is not her biological mother, she does not deserve her affections. Many episodes pass with Sharadha trying to win her stepdaughter back. Only when Sharadha saves Kaveri from nearly getting assaulted that Kaveri stamps ‘omg you da mom’ on Sharadha’s forehead. Sharadha, grateful for her motherhood puraskar, lives happily ever after in unquestioned societal conditioning. The end.
On another note, cinema seems to have much less trouble normalising stepfather and stepchildren relationships, so why blow hell-fire towards stepmoms? In Gautam Menon’s Tamil movie, Yennai Arindhaal, Ajith raises his dead lover’s daughter as his own. His character received praise for setting examples of ideal fatherhood. No one questioned his fatherliness. No one questioned his right to call his stepdaughter his own. The stepdaughter did not wait to be assaulted and rescued to accept him as her father. Then why are the likes of Sridevi and Radhika made to run through courtrooms of crisis to be accepted as mothers?
As frustrating as this notion is, can a basis in real life be ruled out? As with films, so with life and vice versa? My aunt Meena married my uncle Kittu after his first wife lost her battle to cancer. Meena aunty spent her life taking care of her stepson and my cousin brother. In all my years of knowing them, I have never had reason to question her affections. Apparently, I was alone. I found out recently that Meena aunty has been watched by everyone in the family like a hawk. “What if the sauteli maa snaps, à la wicked step-witch from Hansel & Gretel? Will my cousin be fattened up and eaten up too?” This apparently was the reigning feeling.
Unfortunately (and fortunately), there was no crisis to present Meena aunty with an opportunity to win her stepson and the extended family over. Meena aunty remained Meena aunty. No Sridevi-ness came to her affections’ rescue.
It made me wonder, what more would it take for a woman who has given nothing but her time and effort to be accepted as a mother? Rigid notions of motherhood manifest in reel and real life — they feed off each other in a symbiotic relationship. If our attitudes towards motherhood in real life accommodate inclusive ideas of motherhood, we’d make better material for its projection on screen.
According to a report based on Census data, there are more divorced, widowed or separated women in India than men. The same report states that the gender ratio is tilted favourably towards older women than men. The natural progression points at a rise in blended families as a result of dispersed family units. Given these numbers, there’s an even greater need to break the stereotype of evil stepmother. As family structures update, shouldn’t our attitudes also change?
It’s not mothers but our national gameshow of prove-your-motherhood that needs some violent shaking up.