When Salim-Javed wrote “Mere paas Maa hai,” in 1975, little did the duo know that the cult dialogue would mark the beginning of an era that would never end. The phrase sums up the respect and love felt for moms the world over. Well, the Bollywood-watching world, for sure. For it was a fitting reply from an honest younger brother to the elder one who had earned his wealth via unfair means and was showing off his bank balance, bangla and gaadi, insinuating that the former had nothing. The character of the mother played a pivotal role in Deewar (1975) and laid down the foundation for the film, much like many others that preceded and succeed it. While the dialogue can add only so much, the all-encompassing emotion and charm have been added to these movies by some of the best-known women actors of the industry who have now come to represent quintessential Bollywood mothers – the ones who know how to evoke tears with their mamta and the ones who knew how to set things straight with one no-nonsense look. We pay tribute to the women who have essayed these characters with emotion, ease and wit
Who can forget her feisty act as the 85-year-old mother to Amitabh Bachchan’s 64-year-old chef Buddhadev Gupta in Cheeni Kum (2007)? She was 95 at the time but, on set, according to Bachchan, her energy and joie de verve were unmatchable! “Zohraji was a rocket on take-off, each day of the shoot,” he said in an interview.
This very enthusiasm is also seen in Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se (1998), in which she dances to the tune of Jiya Jale Jaan Jale alongside Preity Zinta. She is the one who catches the love birds romancing around her blind self in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) and laughs it off, reciting a rustic couplet.
Sehgal’s irrepressible zest for life always trickled into the mother and grandmother characters she portrayed on screen. Off the screen, this recipient of the Padma Shri, Kalidas Samman and Padma Vibushan was photographed almost ready to stab the cake for her hundredth birthday with the charming albeit naughty smile that she is known for.
Ask any Bollywood enthusiast to name the one person who can represent all mothers in the Hindi film industry, and the reply, one hundred per cent, will be Nirupa Roy. It was for her that the famous afore-mentioned dialogue of Deewar was penned. With movies such as Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Suhaag (1979) and Daana Pani (1989), among others, this legendary screen mother was almost typecast in the role that came to define her career. It was a time when the ‘abla naari’ phase was at its peak in the industry, especially for the hero’s suffering mother, who loses everything and struggles to bring up her son(s) with unshakeable values and great determination to empower them to avenge the family’s misfortunes. The mother’s role was pivotal through the film as well as at the climax. This is the image that Roy is remembered for even today, 18 years after her demise.
Roy’s on-screen conviction had the audiences crying with her and wiping away their tears when she stood by her sons as their rock. In a career spanning over five decades, she starred in about 275 films, the majority of which had her playing the mother. She was a specialist of sorts in playing mother to Big B. A writer jokingly notes that Amitabh Bachchan’s leading ladies could change, but his mother could not! Roy’s acting won her three Filmfare awards and the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.
Before she became the mother-in-law that everyone loved to hate (to date, an evil mother-in-law is termed a ‘Lalita Pawar’!), she played several maternal roles. Foremost among them is that of the strict but kind Mrs D’Sa in Raj Kapoor’s Anari (1959), for which she delivered a understated but impactful performance that had her receive the Filmfare Best Supporting Actress Award. The softer, more human side of the tough matriarch she played in Professor (1962) was seen as she slowly fell in love as the film progressed.
It was an on-set accident that caused the vein in Pawar’s left eye to burst, as a consequence of which she was left with a permanent squint. While this put paid to opportunities for her to return as a leading lady, the slit-eye look made way for a new, more evil character that she would become famous for. Films that followed often cast her as an unbelievable mother (and mother-in-law) who would falter (on the insistence of other villainous elements) and go to any lengths to get her way only to return to her senses in the climax. Notable among them are Hum Dono (1961), Love In Tokyo (1966) and Sau Din Saas Ke (1980). Pawar was honoured by the Indian government as the First Lady of Indian Cinema in 1961.
As the 1980s and early 1990s saw family dramas at their peak, many leading female actors such as Nutan showcased their talent in author-backed mother roles. In the ’80s, the mother was a strong woman who had to suffer (sometimes silently until the time was right) but was also fearless and noble.
Nutan’s natural performances won the audiences over and she often had them weeping with her in empathy. With films such as Saajan Ki Saheli (1981), Meri Jung (1985), Yudh (1985), Naam (1986) and Karma (1986), the superlative actor created a niche for the kind of mother roles she essayed. Her portrayal in Meri Jung of the vulnerable mother who loses her memory to the shock of her husband being framed in a murder case and subsequently being hanged, won her her sixth Filmfare award, this time in the Best Supporting Actress category.
If you grew up on a healthy dose of Bollywood masala and comedy movies, you are sure to remember Dina Pathak trying to squeeze through a small kitchen window to enter the house and save her ‘adopted’ son (Amol Palekar) from an embarrassing situation with his boss in Gol Maal (1979). Yes, this screen mother’s most memorable role is the one in which she starts out pretending to be the mother of the protagonist to help him save his job.
Pathak’s vast experience in theatre made her an exponent of realistic acting, the kind that did not have space for melodrama. She had played the mother in different films before Gol Maal. In Chitchor (1976), she played the quintessential cheerful mother who is constantly trying to look for a match for her daughter, no matter the kinds of situations it lands the family in. It was dubbed one of her finest performances, one that reminded audiences of Mrs Bennet of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
A mother who refused to shed tears as the victim, Pathak shaped the kind of poignant and comic roles that came her way. In Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Khubsoorat (1980), we see a different side of Pathak as a mother – as a stricter one who holds the family together with her rules, leaving no room for frivolity or fun. How her reign transforms into a more sober one is a story with a lot of fun, thanks to her acting.
Playing the smiling mother standing by her son and his lady love in Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989) laid the foundation for Reema Lagoo to become the perfect giving mother. She and the role were like a whiff of fresh air; the versatile actor’s most significant contribution to the industry was breaking the stereotype of the weeping, sacrificing mother and having her transition to a friend and confidante of the children. The 1990s saw Lagoo play the modern mom to many A-listers such as Salman Khan, Madhuri Dixit, Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar, Sanjay Dutt and Kajol. Indeed, from Maine Pyaar Kiya to Saajan (1991) and Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999), she was one of the favourites to play Salman Khan’s mother. Prior to entering the film industry, she had years of theatre work to her credit.
While Lagoo did play these mother roles with ease, she surprised fans and critics alike with her portrayal of Sanjay Dutt’s mother in Vaastav (1999), in which she takes the life of her gangster son. She followed that tough act up with a variety of roles. A special mention is warranted for her act as Saasu Ma (Devaki Verma) in the TV series Tu Tu Main Main (1994-2000), a light-hearted take on the squabbles that mothers-in-law often have with their daughters-in-law. According to her director Sachin Pilgaonkar, she enjoyed comedy and took to it to get away from being typecast in the mother roles she was so good at.
“Mere Karan Arjun aayenge…” earned Rakhee a well-deserved spot in the Bollywood mothers list. Spoken by Durga Devi Singh to Durjan Singh (Amrish Puri) in Karan Arjun (1995), this phrase has truly stood the test of time and still represents the conviction of a mother who awaits the miraculous reappearance of her sons, post their death, to seek revenge.
Interestingly, Rakhee has played mother to her contemporaries as well as those who came in later, including Amitabh Bachchan, Jackie Shroff, Anil Kapoor, Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan. Many of these roles earned her the Filmfare nomination for Best Actress. When she was offered the role in Shakti (1982), rather than dwelling on the fact she would be playing mother to Bachchan, she saw it as a chance to work with Dilip Kumar (as his wife). In fact, in the same year, she played Bachchan’s leading lady in Bemisaal. Of course, she was warned of the risk of being written off and told that her career would be ruined. Reportedly, she was not bothered at all; she did not want to miss out on the opportunity to work with both the greats. Ram Lakhan (1989) cemented her position to play the strong but emotional mother raising her sons with honesty and conviction after losing everything to the villains.
One of the most respected character actors of all time, Farida Jalal has to her credit over 200 Bollywood films. She was not seen much as a leading lady, but left her indelible mark on any role she took up. One of the most memorable and recognised of these was as Kajol’s mother in the iconic Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge (1995). Torn between her loyalty to her old-fashioned husband who believed in a certain set of patriarchal values and her love for her first-born who ‘dared’ to choose her own life partner, this character won Jalal the Filmfare Award for the Best Supporting Actress.
Jalal followed this with the funny and caring mother in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) who finds a way of reuniting her son (Shah Rukh Khan) with his college best friend and the love of his life (Kajol). A film that saw her in an affectionate and near-motherly character was Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) in which she played nanny to Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan and followed the former when he was asked to leave home, to be a maternal figure to him and his wife (Kajol). Jalal has also played several such roles on TV.
Daughter of veteran actor Dina Pathak, Supriya Pathak has been acting since she was 20. After a short stint in theatre, she entered the world of films, winning the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress for her very first film, Kalyug (1981). She went on to work on several complex characters thereafter, but gracefully stepped into the shoes of the mother’s role when the time came. “That’s the age bracket I am in, so I am going to get a mother’s role,” she said in an interview.
Her acting prowess is well explored in the different roles she has taken on, from an unwed mother in Masoom (1983), to the ferocious matriarch chieftain in Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (2013). She has played it all – a well-off mother with means whose son moves out due to differences with the father (Wake Up Sid, 2009), a village mother almost representative of her rustic background whose daughter is stuck with raising a child she was only being a surrogate for (Mimi, 2021) and one who has no choice but to be strong for her daughter who is subjected to gender testing due to being diagnosed with hyperandrogenism (Rashmi Rocket, 2001). It is her ability to bring in the variations that she does that makes it exciting for Supriya as well. The common thread tying these roles together is the conviction with which she shows her unwavering support to her children, irrespective of the decisions they make.
Ratna Pathak Shah
One of the most adored onscreen mothers ever, Ratna Pathak Shah might have to her credit lots of great film roles, but the one with which she created a true following was as Maya Sarabhai in television’s much-loved Sarabhai vs Sarabhai (2004-’07). The posh Maya’s witty remarks about her daughter-in-law’s middle-class upbringing formed the crux of the show, offering the audience lots of laughs.
Pathak Shah, just like her mother – the iconic Dina Pathak – trained in theatre and continues to perform on stage. She has to her credit the roles of all kinds of mothers – from the new-generation (Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na, 2008) and the strict (Khoobsurat, 2014) to the flawed (Kapoor & Sons, 2016) and the abandoned and later adopted (Hum Do Hamare Do, 2021).
Unwilling to be culturally stereotyped into the role of the ever-sacrificing, nurturing mother, Pathak Shah chose roles that demanded layers from her characters. She mentioned in an interview that the image of a mother has now changed on the big screen. “I try to put real-life experiences into my mother characters in films. I keep looking for new things for myself. One purpose of (a) film is to entertain and the other purpose is to make you think (sic).”
In her latest, Jayeshbhai Jordaar (2022), she adds yet another histrionic feather to her cap, playing the typical mother of the son who wants a grandson to take the family lineage ahead.
Kirron Kher has wowed audiences for about 40 years. And she has done it playing every kind of mother – from the strict (Main Hoon Na, 2004) to the sensitive (Hum Tum, 2004) and from the egoistic (Devdas, 2022) to the one with a sense of humour (Khoobsurat, 2014). She had the audience eating out of her hands when she not only understood her gay son’s relationship (which turned out to be a pretence), but also offered the khaandaani kangans to his partner in Dostana (2008)!
As Zaara’s mother (from Pakistan) in Yash Chopra’s Veer-Zaara (2004), her sensitive portrayal of the internal conflict a mother goes through when caught between a harsh husband and her love-struck daughter is almost symbolic of the one faced by the two neighbouring nations of India and Pakistan shown in the film. Her standout moment is when she goes to meet Zaara’s love Veer who is from India, leading to one of the most poignant moments in cinema.
In Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006), her character expresses the desire to live with her understanding daughter-in-law rather than her cantankerous son after they split up owing to the latter’s behaviour and infidelity.
After a hiatus of 17 long years from Bollywood, Jaya Bachchan returned to the industry with Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa (1998), a title that came to define her work in the new phase. Her role in Karan Johar’s ensemble drama Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham... (2001) is remembered even today; she played a loving mother whose heart just knows when her favourite son is going to arrive.
Always looking for a challenging role to take on, Bachchan starred in Johar’s romantic comedy drama, Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), playing Preity Zinta’s mother, a role in which she perfectly balances the taunts of her mother-in-law and her daughter’s disdain. She won the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress for both these films.
In Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (2007), she plays Rani Mukerji’s mother – one who was okay living off the much-needed earnings of her daughter, but not okay having the same daughter home for her sister’s wedding, since she worked as a high-end escort.
She’s worked with the who’s who of Bollywood, and then gone on to play mother to the who’s who of Bollywood too. A film buff is no stranger to Dimple Kapadia’s timeless versatility, which the National Award-winning actor has displayed from time to time. She might have once refused to play mother-in-law to Juhi Chawla who is but 10 years her junior, but then went on to work with real-life son-in-law Akshay Kumar as his mother, the most memorable of their films together being Patiala House (2011).
Among other notable roles, Pyaar Mein Twist (2005) might not have had her as the quintessential mother, but rather a middle-aged one who finds love a second time in life and yet has to deal with her childnren’s deep-rooted social fears before she can be finally united with her new love interest.
In complete contrast to this portrayal is her character of Neena Walia in Zoya Akhtar’s Luck by Chance (2009) – she’s an erstwhile superstar who is willing to go to any lengths to launch her young and naïve daughter in films. She plays this fickle mother with an edginess that is difficult to fathom but mesmerising to watch; she is bright and all sunshine when she wants something, and cold and steely after she’s achieved it.
Also read: Sakshi Tanwar On The 'Drama' Of Being A Mother On TV Versus In Real Life