The synopsis of the Marathi film Bodga (Tunnel) promises a fun road trip taken by a mother and daughter. It was such a novel idea for an Indian film, that one was tempted to see it…and had hopes dashed.
It just raised a question about why the character of the Merry Widow or Happy Divorcee is seen so rarely in our films. Besides, motherhood is always seen as a tough chore that invariably demands anguish and sacrifice; that after a woman becomes a mother, she ceases to be a person. (There is mother-child statue at a traffic junction in suburban Mumbai, that states ponderously: A child gives birth to a mother; one can’t pass by without wishing it would topple over.)
So, in this film Bogda (directed by Nisheeta Keni), the mother (Suhas Joshi), only called Mai — no name — seems like a fearless, sharp-tongued woman. When men in her neighbourhood protest against her for corrupting their wives with afternoon card games, she challenges them to beat her at cards…and they lose. Then she gets ill, and becomes a whiny old woman who drags her helpless daughter Teju (Mrinmayee Deshpande) on a road trip, not to enjoy her last days on earth, but to go to a village where she can be helped with a painless death. The girl, who has already put her own life and goals on hold, is made to go on this morbid journey, ostensibly to cement a bond which had been missing between the two women.
Thoughts then went to the joyful and exuberant musical Mamma Mia! (the sequel not as good as the original) — directed by Phyllida Lloyd, in which the relationship between mother Donna (the divine Meryl Streep) and daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is one of friendship and openness.
They live on the beautiful Greek island of Kalokairi, and Sophie, who is about to be married, discovers from her mother’s diary that one of the three men Donna had relationships with is her father. She invites all three to her wedding to try and figure out which of them is her dad, so that he can give her away at her wedding. There is no criticism — spoken or implied — of Donna, for sleeping with three men and not knowing who is the father of her child (imagine this happening in a Hindi film, when at one time the world “kulta” was thrown at women who were not chaste).
There is humour and much singing and dancing (to ABBA numbers) as Donna, her friends Tanya and Rosie, the three men Sam, Bill and Harry, Sophie and Sky, her groom to be, work around the tangle — which is not taken too seriously at all. In the end, Donna and Sophie resolve their differences and the bride decides that her mother will give her away. The men do not insist on getting paternity confirmed and decide to be one-third dad to Sophie. Donna does end up marrying Sam when he proposes.
Even in relatively enlightened India of today, such a story would be unimaginable. In a recent film, Once Again, Tara, a widow (played by Shefali Shah), who embarks on a friendship with a man (strictly platonic to begin with), who happens to be an actor (Neeraj Kabi), and is spotted by a paparazzo, suddenly faces sneering neighbours and a sulking son. The son’s mother-in-law makes her disapproval clear, saying that in their family, the children’s welfare is put above the mother’s. Tara’s character comes under scrutiny, when all those years spent being a single mother — a virtuous mother — are washed away, because she wants her life (okay, her sexuality, too) back! Mercifully, she does not give in to pressure from family or media and decides how she wants to live.
Historically, in our movies, and in our society, the more a woman suffers, the more respect she tends to get, as if putting up with misery is a sign of strength.
This may not connect directly to a report from Russia (by Neil MacFarquhar in nytimes.com), but here it is — two women were actually acquitted of murdering their husbands. Says the report, “When Yana Gurcheva and Galina Katorova were arrested for stabbing their husbands to death with kitchen knives after suffering years of domestic abuse, the murder cases stirred hardly a ripple in Russia’s national news media. But they exploded into a national conversation this year when appeals courts on opposite ends of the country did the previously unthinkable and acquitted the two women.
“For a country that decriminalised some forms of domestic violence in 2017, the separate court findings that the women had acted in legitimate self-defence when in fear for their lives were considered shocking, if not unprecedented. ‘Here, the woman is always the accused; for some reason the sympathy always lies with the aggressor,’ said Yelena Solovyova, the defence lawyer for Ms Katorova in Nakhodka, near Vladivostok in the country’s far east. ‘This was such an ideological victory for me, because for the first time the court heard that you cannot blame the victim, you cannot transfer all the blame to the woman’.”
It is a positive step in a still male chauvinistic world, where singer Ariana Grande was actually blamed for the death of her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller (who reportedly died of an overdose of drugs), because she had left him when he was down. As if it was her duty to stick out a bad relationship. Ariana spoke for millions of women when she tweeted to a troll, “How absurd that you minimise female self-respect and self-worth by saying someone should stay in a toxic relationship because he wrote an album about them, which btw isn’t the case… I have cared for him and tried to support his sobriety…but shaming/blaming women for a man’s inability to keep his shit together is a very major problem. Let’s please stop doing that.”
Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.