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Single parents and single kids are still an anomaly in India. The discussion has once again turned towards single parenting after the recent Renuka Shahane directed Netflix film Tribhanga.
It is a welcome change to see Indian films explore the complexities of the difficult choices Indian mothers make, and the tangled layers of mother-daughter relationship. The Netflix description of the film is reflective of this complex dynamic and states, “When her estranged mother falls into a coma, a self-made single mom grapples with regret and resentment while reflecting on their strained relationship.”
The film is progressive in many ways but still caters to the 1952 slogan ‘Hum do Hamare do’ ideal as it questions the choices of all the mothers in the story. In India, for society at large, an ‘ideal’ or ‘normal’ family is still the man-woman-two kids family. (Ideally one of them at least, a son.) The film explores well how the situation is far from ideal in all scenarios for an independent woman.
The title taken from the dance movement from Odissi establishes the cliches rather well, the mad genius/Abhanga equated to the professionally successful ‘bad mother’, the traditional head-covering, son-bearing ‘bahu’ posed as Sambhang or balanced (read normal) and the unwed successful single mother who is Tribhang, weird and troubled in both roles as her daughter’s mother and her mother’s daughter.
The film, just like our society, does hark back to the cliches many times unknowingly. Like the single mother’s relationships with other men are depicted as frivolous, irresponsible and not commitment worthy even if pleasant. The notion of a single working mother who sometimes prioritizes her work is seen as oppressive by her children, subconsciously reinforcing that a mother must attend to home and children first, and even if they are being looked after by another family member it amounts to neglect which is unforgivable.
In the 2010 film I Am, the step-father/second-husband of the mother sexually abuses her male child, and ever since there have been other such characters in films too including Tribhanga. Indeed, the greater perceived risk to children by stepfathers is called the ‘Cinderella effect’. However recent studies have clearly indicated that stepfathers were little or no more likely to be causing harm to children than biological fathers.
Child abuse is common in India, and most often it is by someone known to the survivor but these are also often blood-relatives including biological and step-fathers alike, the demonization of all step-fathers as potential rapists or abusers is rather clichéd. Self-harm and suicide are briefly hinted at but again trivialized as the only outcome of abuse or trauma in family.
‘Dysfunctional’ here is painted large, but only on women-only families, and single women as heads of the family. The film like our society contrasts it with the granddaughter’s family ruled by a patriarch, who refuses to take a dowry and ‘allows’ the marriage with a girl whose father is foreigner and absent from her life since she was born, but has a family that keeps a check on every move she makes and enforces a gender determination test on her because they want a son from her.
The message is that a family conservative to the extent of becoming toxic is far better than the consequences of ‘radical’ choices like divorce, having a kid out of a wedlock, or having relationships with men without the married label.
The biological fathers are absolved of any responsibility whatsoever towards the children or their partners. One is portrayed as a spineless father in youth and as a senile ‘victim’ later who was abandoned by his wife. The other as a live-in partner who is physically abusive.
What is appalling is that no matter what the situation, it is always a mother whose choices are being questioned and at whom the buck stops in every scenario- whether she has relationships with other men and tries to get her children a father-substitute, or she decides to ‘guard’ her child from all men in her life, to the point that she doesn’t marry and calls it ‘useless’.
Of course, transgenerational trauma is a psychologically proven fact. One of the most common cases being mothers and daughters.
Mothers are often believed to treat their daughters the way they were treated, which may transfer the trauma, or in an intentional act of not behaving in the same manner with their child, which may also lead to transmission of trauma in another form. But are women solely responsible for it and must they bear the burden constantly because they are the ones who biologically carry a child?
Women have always been at the receiving end of cultural conditioning. The ‘great perfect Indian family’ and the ‘great Indian motherhood’ both demand women to give up their individual aspirations, their personality and their own identity. ‘Mummy’ and all its synonyms are shown to be the all-encompassing identity that she must have and be known as, so even her first name and its use by her children to address her, are used as a tool to insult, ridicule, or show contempt.
The film does initiate some pertinent discussions but the plot clearly overlooks its internalized misogyny, whether in the sexist abuses being mouthed by a woman protagonist or in what it deems as ‘normal’ and/or balanced.
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Pooja Priyamvada is a columnist, professional translator and an online content and Social Media consultant.
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