The Journey Of The Unwed Mother In Hindi Mainstream Cinema
A still from Aradhana
Twenty years from now, when today’s youngsters are mellow and wiser, what will films like Dhool Ka Phool (1959), Aradhana (1969) Julie (1975), Trishul (1978), Shakti (1982) Kya Kehna (2000) and Paa (2009) hold for them? Will these films become classics or will they become passé following the Supreme Court ruling granting Guardianship rights to unwed mothers? How will a radical law – by standards of Indian moral values and conventions- impact on films that have depicted the social and psychological trauma of an unwed mother?
The period of these films spans fifty years. All of them deal with the issue of unwed motherhood in a society where marriage is both mandatory and sanctified. But if one were to take a closer look, the parameters that defined the position of the unwed mother were different in each film and began evolving in keeping with the changes in the Indian value system where girls were getting bolder and had the courage of their convictions to take responsibility of their child outside of marriage. The unwed mother on celluloid has slowly but surely been liberating herself from social ostracisms by refusing to be bugged down by social and moral value judgements made on her position. In Dhool Ka Phool, Aradhana and Julie, the unwed mother was portrayed as victim. Gradually, films featuring the unwed mother began to evolve trying to spell out that unwed motherhood was not really a social stigma as it was made out to be.
In Dhool Ka Phool, the unwed mother traded with motherhood for a life of ‘respect’ through marriage to an established lawyer while her lover ditched her for a more comfortable and ‘safe’ life as a court judge. The focus of the film shifted from the unwed mother to the child brought up by a Muslim who teaches him the value of humanity over religion. This was in keeping with the Nehruvian ideal of secularism and thus, has become a part of the archive of socially relevant films. The husband of the once-unwed mother not only respects his wife but also accepts the child as his own.
Sharmila Tagore in Shakti Samanta’s Aradhana unwittingly becomes an unwed mother because her fiancé dies in a plane crash just before they marry. She delivers a boy and brings him up alone till she is forced to take the blame of the murder of a man who tried to rape her. She meets him after many years. She remains single all her life. The film demonstrated that if circumstances were supportive, as it was in Aradhana, it was not necessary for the woman to seek respectability through marriage. Julie treads the double-path of inter-religious love on the one hand and unwed motherhood on the other within two families – one Christian and the other Bengali Brahmin. The young girl Julie remained the central figure in the narrative and the film turned out to be a soppy, weepy, syrupy and sentimental melodrama with marriage between the Christian girl and the Hindu boy finally granting legitimacy to the little boy. Both Aradhana and Julie were box office hits.
Trishul (1978) marked a difference in the same Yash Chopra from his debut film Dhool Ka Phool. His fleshing out of the character of the unwed mother Shanti, played very subtly by Waheeda Rehman in one of her most underrated performances is one of the boldest characterisation of the unwed mother in Hindi cinema. When she realises that she is pregnant but her boyfriend has ditched her, Shanti makes no claims of the man (Sanjeev Kumar) but informs him that she is expecting his child. They never meet again. She brings up her son Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) to be a man of courage and never ever to fall susceptible to tears or crying. This sub-plot in the father-son drama carries more power than the drama itself.
Kundan Shah’s Kya Kehna (2000) turned out to be a bold portrayal of an unwed mother who sticks to her unborn baby in the face of severe opposition by the boy, the boy’s mother and for a while, even from her parents who later back up in support of their daughter. Hope Marie Childers in her M.A. thesis “You Go Girl!” Nationalism and Women’s Empowerment in the Bollywood film Kya Kehna, (1989) writes: “Targeting a younger audience, the film was hailed as a challenging exploration of female sexuality and women’s empowerment. The film in fact reaffirms traditional stereotypes of women in which their behaviour is carefully controlled within a patriarchal framework.
In spite of the awkward fact that the main character’s state of motherhood is the result of pre-marital sex, nationalist mechanisms are put into play to glorify the ideal of woman-as-mother.” The question about the film is that the girl is still in school and what impact choosing to be an unwed mother would have on her future – financially, socially and academically – is not explored. Childers insists that the young girl Priya’s blatant forthrightness often presented as the prime sign of her strength and freedom, in reality, does not work out because she does not have a voice and speaks on behalf of others which runs against the grain of the film’s insistence that she is a model of independence and empowerment which she is not.. Kya Kehna in Childers’ words, “is not the revolutionary, empowering text that its promoters would have us believe.”
R. Balki’s Paa (2009) takes the argument of the unwed mother a bit further only to compromise with the audience demand that the lead pair gets married which they do in the climax within a very unrealistic and melodramatic situation. The film mainly dealt with the rare genetic disease called Progeria. The child affected by the disease (Amitabh Bachchan) is brought up by his single mother and grandmother. The mother, Vidya (Vidya Balam) refused to abort the child 13 years ago when her boyfriend backed out of marriage to pursue his political aspirations. Vidya in the film is a gynaecologist trained and educated in London and is financially equipped to take care of her child herself. She withholds the fact about the son to the son’s father Amol (Abhishek Bachchan) now a leading political leader in India. Getting pregnant in the UK gives Vidya the social insularity India might have denied her. But even so, she is proud of her decision and almost till the end, refuses to surrender to Amol’s desperate appeals to marry him. It is her son who succeeds in making her agree to his dying wish.
Will the new Supreme Court ruling see a change in the approach of mainstream Bollywood filmmakers towards unwed motherhood and its repercussions on the audience? After Paa, not a single Bollywood hit has dealt with unwed motherhood. One will have to wait and watch what the future holds for us. But the fact is that she is no longer a victim. Or, is she? For that, we need to look at the larger picture called India.