Good Ma, Bad Ma

Can Bollywood’s mothers exist between virtue or vice?

Imaan Sheikh

May 7, 2021

Good Ma, Bad Ma
Jaya Bachchan as Nandini Raichand in 'Kabhi Khushi, Kabhie Gham'

“What I never understood in k3g was why he didn’t just call his mom,” read a tweet referring to director Karan Johar’s 2001 blockbuster Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, where Rahul Raichand (Shah Rukh Khan), disowned by his father for marrying someone his father doesn’t approve of, leaves India for London and ends up cutting ties with his entire family, including his mother, brother, and grandmothers.

Rahul’s mother, Nandini (Jaya Bachchan), who lives with her obstinate, borderline tyrannical husband (Amitabh Bachchan), softly cries as Rahul exits the Raichand home with a promise to never return. She has given him nothing but love her whole life, and yet Rahul never really looks back. Despite being the all-serving, sari-wearing, pooja-thali-holding “good” Bollywood mom who is fine with her son picking his wife, Nandini is forgotten for 12 years. And no one, not even critics, really ever brings up this storytelling oversight.

Since the inception of Bollywood, mothers have been central characters in film. Perhaps the standard-bearer for this role is 1957’s Mother India, which came out over six decades ago. A parable for the newly independent country, the film established mothers as the backbone of families, and of Indian society. But the eponymous mother played by Nargis had to, quite literally, sustain an entire village to earn that honor. And decades later, misery continues to complete the portrait of a “good” mother, just in different ways. The more you endure, the more worthy you are of the title.