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From being relegated to the background, to being the stars of their own stories, single mothers in Hindi films, (including unwed moms) have traversed a long journey.
Be it by choice or by circumstance, women often have to raise their children on their own. Being a single mother brings with it a host of unique challenges. We have seen single mothers in Hindi films in a variety of avatars – some stereotypical, and others full, rounded personalities.
Perhaps the mother of all single mothers, is Mother India (1957), starring Nargis. Itself a remake of Mehboob Khan’s 1940 film, Aurat, the movie’s title was “chosen to counter American author Katherine Mayo’s controversial 1927 book titled Mother India, which vilified Indian culture.” Filled with allusions to Hindu mythology, it starred Nargis as Radha, who symbolized the ‘ideal Indian woman’, who goes so far as to sacrifice even her own son to protect another woman, and thereby becomes a maternal figure in her village. While the debates still rage about whether the portrayal was feminist or riddled with stereotypes, it undoubtedly placed the single mother front and center.
Coming as it did, just a decade after India gained its independence, the film is said to have a nationalist core.
The single mother in Hindi films who was the ‘fallen woman’, was usually an unwed mother.
In Aradhana (1969), Sharmila Tagore plays an unwed mother who lets her son be raised by someone else, without revealing her relationship to him, to protect him from social stigma. A few years later, Julie (1975), not only dealt with the stigma around unwed mothers, but also the taboo against inter-religious relationships.
In Kya Kehna (2000) Preity Zinta stars as a college student who is impregnated by a boyfriend who jilts her. Unlike earlier movies, where unwed mothers received no support from family and had to hide themselves away while pregnant, this movie showed Preity’s character receiving support from family and friends and continuing her education. She even makes an impassioned public speech, asking for empathy towards mothers like her. However, the movie, while progressive on the surface, “reaffirms traditional stereotypes of women in which their behavior is carefully controlled within a patriarchal framework,” as argued by Hope Marie Childers, in her thesis, “You Go Girl!” Nationalism and Women’s Empowerment in the Bollywood film Kya Kehna, (2002).
In some cases, the ‘fallen women’ were those who were married, but who were forced by circumstance into a life that lacked conventional respectability.
Suchitra Sen starrer, Mamta (1966) told the story of a single mother who becomes a tawaif and who gives away her child, to ensure the child’s well-being. It was a much praised portrayal that earned Suchitra Sen a Best Actress Filmfare nomination. It did however, lean heavily on the ‘virtuous prostitute’, stereotype.
Similarly, in Bhavna (1984), Shabana Azmi gives a power packed performance as a woman who is forced to become an escort, to support her son, after being abandoned by her husband.
Sadly, in too many Bollywood movies, the single mothers are treated as props, either relegated to the background or used to further the hero’s story. Usually presented as overly suffering, self-effacing and oppressed, they existed, simply as the “motivation” for their macho son/s.
Think Nirupa Roy in Deewar (1975), Waheeda Rehman in Trishul (1978), Nutan in Meri Jung (1985), and Rakhee in Ram Lakhan (1989) or Karan Arjun (1995).
As the ‘unlikeable woman’ in Bollywood has evolved, so has her portrayal as a single mother. While earlier movies vilified them, later movies have shown a bit more understanding.
In Kaagaz Ki Nao (1975), Helen played a single mother who is portrayed as a “lustful” woman. Her daughter’s suicide is shown to be a reaction to her “loose morals.”
While Aruna Irani in Beta (1992), is technically not a single mother, she effectively is the only parent that Anil Kapoor’s character has. She is portrayed as the quintessential “evil step-mother,” who learns her lesson in the end.
Akele Hum Akele Tum (1995) is one of those rare movies in which the single mother is not widowed or unwed, but separated from her spouse. In a performance that earned her a Best Actress nomination, Manisha Koirala plays a woman who chooses to leave behind her husband and child to pursue a career. Her character is not shown as purely “bad” but is shown to have shades of grey. While the film even shows an ugly custody battle, it has a clichéd ending in which the couple reconciles.
Dimple Kapadia in Dil Chahta Hai (2001), plays Tara, a divorcee with an alcohol problem, whose ex-husband is keeping her daughter from her. Her angst at not being able to be with her daughter is explored with great sensitivity.
Divya Seth in Jab We Met (2007), and Neetu Singh, in Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012), both have limited, but important and unconventional roles as mothers who leave their husbands and children to be with their lovers. While they are initially misunderstood by their estranged children, they do eventually reconcile.
Unlike some older movies, where the single mother who is not the central character is relegated to being a “prop” for the lead actors, recent movies have taken the effort to flesh out the single mother character. They are not the main protagonists, but they are also not weepy and dependent women. They have identities and backstories of their own.
Rekha in Dil Hai Tumhaara (2002), for instance is an efficient and popular town mayor who has single handedly raised not only her own daughter (Mahima Chaudhary) but also the character played by Preity Zinta, who is the daughter of the woman her late husband was having an affair with. Her complicated feelings towards this latter child, are an important plot point.
Kirron Kher, in Om Shanti Om (2007), actually parodied the typical “mom as prop” depictions of single moms, via her character, Bela. Unlike the moms she parodied, her role in the film was quite meaty, and she received appreciation for what she brought to the role.
An all-time fan favourite mom, is Ratna Pathak Shah as Savitri in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na (2008). She is a fierce feminist and activist, and her camaraderie with her son, was a delight to audiences.
Other on-screen single moms, like Suhasini Mulay in Dil Chahta Hai (2001), Jaya Bachchan in Kal Ho Na Ho (2003),Waheeda Rehman and Kirron Kher in Rang De Basanti (2006), Arundhati Nag in Paa (2009), Dolly Ahluwalia in Vicky Donor (2012), Swarup Sampat in Ki and Ka (2016), Sheeba Chaddha in Badhaai Ho (2018), and Dia Mirza in Thappad(2020) also won hearts with their performances.
Even better than the portrayals of single mothers as the supportive ‘side’ characters, are the films where they are the main protagonist. While their relationship with their children is important to them, and often a big part of the movie, the movies also look beyond their identity as ‘mother’, and explore their ambitions, desires and motivations.
Khoon Bhari Maang (1988) stars Rekha as a wronged woman, who avenges herself and fights to rescue her children from her second husband. In Samay (2003), Sushmita Sen plays a cop trying to solve a series of murders, whose relationship with her daughter becomes a crucial plot point.
In Aaja Nachle (2007), Madhuri Dixit plays a divorced single mother, who returns to her hometown to save a dying theatre from being turned into a mall. Fanaa (2006), had Kajol playing a disabled single mother –her character Zooni, is blind. While the movie itself didn’t do too well at the box office, Kajol’s performance was praised.
Paa (2009), as the title suggests is ostensibly about a boy’s relationship with his father. However, it is Vidya Balan who steals the show in her performance as an unwed single mother.
Deepti Naval’s performance in Listen… Amaya (2013), as Leela, an older single mother, whose grown-up daughter doesn’t approve of her falling in love at her age, is greatly acclaimed.
In Haider (2014), an adaptation of Hamlet, Tabu played Ghazala, the counterpart of Gertrude. While she isn’t the lead character, her role is crucial, and the movie just would not be the same without her. In fact, as one reviewer wrote, “the meat of Haider goes to Tabu, overpowering as gorgeous Ghazala, desirous of desire, blown away by guilt.”
Jazbaa (2015), is a crime thriller that stars Aishwarya Rai as a single mother, who is forced to defend a rapist in court when her daughter is kidnapped.
A classic and much loved performance, is that of Swara Bhasker in Nil Battey Sannata (2015), a housemaid who joins her teen daughter’s school as a classmate to motivate her to study. With great sensitivity and grace, Swara brings to life a mother who wants better things for her daughter.
Kajol, in Helicopter Eela (2018), plays a single mother who smothers her son with her constant “hovering.” While the movie didn’t do spectacularly well, and was criticized for a surface level exploration of a single mother’s life, Kajol’s performance and the message that there is more to a woman’s life than “mothering” did garner some praise.
While the way single mothers are portrayed on screen is certainly improving, there is still a long way to go. Few films are accurately able to capture the realities of bringing up a child with minimal support, while battling social stigma against being unwed/widowed/divorced.
No film, to my knowledge, has explored the lives of single women who adopt children. Nor have films sufficiently explored the struggles of single mothers who are disabled, who suffer from mental health challenges, who belong to the LGBTQIA community etc.
Single mothers are not a monolith. The danger of a single story is always prevalent. Which is why we need more films that explore their diverse and rich lives, by making them the protagonists. We hope that as more such characters come to screen, we see and hear more diverse stories.
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