No, this isn’t what you think it is. It’s not about Nirupa Roy, Farida Jalal, Himani Shivpuri, Reema Lagoo or even Jaya Bachchan. The eighties and nineties Bollywood did have its fair share of favorite “Maa” actresses. They were all fine performers and did a lot to immortalize everyone’s favorite teary face in the family. But this is about contemporary Hindi-film mothers – actresses who haven’t appeared in as many films as the aforementioned ones, but represent the post-2000 Indian mother in their own succinct ways. Some are habitual incurable mothers, some aunties and family members, but they’re familiar enough to be retained in these specialist positions.
One of the ‘posher’ Indian on-screen mothers/aunties over the last decade, this veteran theatre actress often plays the more modern and relatable urban relative in desi films. One often thinks of upper-class neighborhoods like Napean Sea Road, Juhu, Bandra or South Delhi when she appears in her many roles. Her cultured diction and mannerisms has made her perhaps the most unique Indian ‘parivaar’ figure – from Naseeruddin Shah’s flapping wife puffing away her stress in the toilet in Monsoon Wedding, to being the ‘happening’ aunt in films like Chalte Chalte and Kal Ho Naa Ho. One of her most underrated roles was in Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, as Nimrat Kaur’s stricken mother who turns into a widow, and even as Dev Patel’s hard-nosed mom (who romances with Richard Gere no less) in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Her sister, Lushin, appeared as a frustrated Delhi wife in the recent indie, Mantra.
The younger of the extremely talented Pathak sisters and Pankaj Kapur’s wife, she has come into her own over the last decade with her ‘ageing’ versatility – which was visible right from her young glory days in the eighties. For an actress, it’s always a little more challenging in India to go from ‘heroine’ to mother with nothing in between. As Ranbir Kapoor’s doting, language-challenged mother in Wake Up Sid to Ammi in Bobby Jasoos and the tender Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife of a bitter patriarch (Rishi Kapoor) in All Is Well, to her more intimidating roles as ‘Dhankor Baa’ in Ram Leela and Pushpa Nagre in the Sarkar franchise, Pathak has become an unforgettable face – a mother, good and bad, for all seasons.
The NSD graduate and older sister of Supriya, wife of Naseeruddin Shah and renowned stage performer, hasn’t done as many films as others, but has left her mark in almost each of her roles over the last decade. It began in 2008 with the very inventive Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, where she played Imran Khan’s sarcastic, amusing mother and widow to a ‘royal portrait’ (her real-life husband Naseeruddin Shah). No white saris, mourning and sad-sack expressions, she taunted and probed her dead husband, and patronized her lovable kids – breaking all sorts of ‘maa’ sterotypes. She played his mother again in the underappreciated Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, and peaked as Fawad Khan’s ‘royal’ mother and Disney Queen Nirmala Devi – invoking the lost air of a withering Indian highness – in Khoobsurat. But arguably her finest role came in Shakun Batra’s second film, Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921) – the mother to two sons and a philandering husband; her face is a volcano of emotions every time she feels let down and resents a face in the mercurial family – the heart of a fast-beating film.
One of the finest actresses of this generation, the elegant Shah has captivated imaginations in almost every role – from Bhiku Matre’s wife in Satya to the troubled Ria Verma in Monsoon Wedding, to her National-Award winning role as a hyperactive caretaker to a disillusioned Shakespearean actor (Amitabh Bachchan) in The Last Lear, to the disgruntled housewife awed by a gangster in Kuch Luv Jaisaa, to finally playing perhaps the most complex mother-role in recent years – as Neelam Mehra in Dil Dhadakne Do. That one role alone as a mother to two adults (Ranveer Singh, Priyanka Chopra) broke the glass ceiling, and has raised expectations for whatever she chooses next. Fortunately, she takes her time, and no more is she known as ‘producer Vipul Shah’s wife’.
Perhaps the most mainstream and proudest of them all, Kirron Kher is the quintessential, overbearing and loud Punjabi mother in almost every second Hindi film based up North. She can range from irritating to downright hysterical, and has a knack for comedy, with an expressive face that seems to scream out motherhood in the most obvious way possible. She has been fun to watch as the ‘parody maa’ though – in films ranging from Om Shanti Om to Kurbaan, Fanaa to Rang de Basanti, and Veer-Zara to Devdas. Nobody overcooks it as deliciously as she does.