How Shabana Azmi’s Masoom Mimes the Conflict between Motherhood & Womanhood


How Shabana Azmi’s Masoom Mimes the Conflict between Motherhood & Womanhood

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

It is that Sunday again when our social media timelines become a playground for that competitive sport called “Kiski ma kitni mahan hai? To be honest, the idea of praising mothers doesn’t bother me. God knows they deserve all the praise in the world even if it ends up coming their way only once a year – that also on a social networking site they probably don’t use. What bothers me instead, is how every single way we want to celebrate mothers seems to focus on marvelling at their beyond human capabilities. The biggest culprit, of course, is Bollywood with its white-washed “Ma toh devi hai” trope, an inane, problematic idea that not only glosses over the very human struggles of our mothers, but also reduces them to characters with no complexity.

In a cinematic universe full of Nirupa Roys (and Lalita Pawar, should the storyline choose to go the evil stepmother way), Shekhar Kapur’s Masoom was, and continues to be a breath of fresh air. I suppose it stemmed from the kind of euphoric novelty where a mother (and a step-mother no less) also happened to be a woman with her own story, struggles, and dilemmas that went beyond her “divine motherhood”, while inadvertently crossing paths with it. 

The first time I watched Masoom, I was barely 10 – too young to entirely comprehend its adult themes, but just at the right age to deeply empathise with Jugal Hansraj’s Rahul. I related to his longing for his mother, his search for his father, his desire to be liked and loved by his adopted family, and his subtle but profound sense of abandonment in ways few adults could.  

But my mind was able to conjure up a full picture only years later, when I watched Masoom again with the awareness of an adult. At that time, I was momentarily thrown off by how much more the story encompassed beyond just the anguish of a child and the struggle of a mother. Written by Gulzar, the classic was pathbreaking in its approach toward socio-personal issues like infidelity, our understanding of the “other woman”, and the aftermath of a mistake that seems unforgivable.

Adapted from Erich Segal’s Man Woman and Child, Gulzar’s screenplay is remarkably tender; it is in no hurry to dispense black and white solutions. No character in the film is perfect or without a flaw. At the centre of the story is DK (a restrained Naseeruddin Shah), a fundamentally good man, a doting father, and a loving husband who is haunted by a stray, professedly loveless affair. Supriya Pathak’s Bhavana, the other woman is hardly a house-ruining vamp, unwilling to let even the man bear the burden of their combined mistakes. And Shabana Azmi’s Indu is a strong, modern woman whose life choices are infinitely complicated, not because she is a wife (the movie goes out of its way to establish that leaving your husband and living a life as an “azaad aurat” is not only okay, it’s also great), but because she is also a mother.

Masoom insists that before we write sonnets praising our mothers, we see her as the distressed, flawed, torn human being she is.

In treating a stray affair as just that, the movie shakes up the middle-class morality that tends to bracket sex and love together, and asks important but difficult questions about how we define mistakes in a relationship, and if forgiveness is really an option. But its beautifully nuanced treatment of marriage (a signature of Gulzar who also wrote the film’s dialogues, and lyrics) is not what sets this movie apart. It is the fact that this story makes an unlikely choice to look at its tangled, grown-up world through the eyes of a child who is too young to understand the nuances, but processes them with a gravitas that can put adults to shame.

Although, the story’s primary plot revolves around a man’s actions, Masoom is essentially a story of a woman in conflict with her nature. A woman who doesn’t want to condone a past mistake of an otherwise perfect husband. But is simultaneously trapped in a world where that mistake has taken the shape of an innocent child who has done nothing wrong, and who is constantly seeking her affection, oblivious to her distress. You see, what makes Masoom stand out, is that the real conflict is never between a man and his wife, or a woman and her wifely concerns. Instead, the conflict between a woman and her motherly instincts – a depiction that is unusual for mainstream Hindi cinema.

Shabana Azmi delivers an astounding performance that embodies every bit of the dilemma of a woman torn between the anguish and anger of a wronged wife and the compassion of a mother. Indu’s reluctant affection towards a child who also reminds her of her husband’s betrayal is the kind of poetic torment great stories are made of. It is also a resounding rejection of every stereotype ever associated with a woman in her situation – whether as a wife or as a (step)mother. Ultimately Masoom is an ode to motherhood that does not rely on lazy tropes and bland generalisation. It is a story that elevates the idea of motherhood beyond biological compulsions. But it also recognises the cost of this greatness, humanity, the struggle, and the pain, inherent in it.

Masoom insists that before we write sonnets praising our mothers, we see her as the distressed, flawed, torn human being she is. It insists we feel her pain and live with her struggles as a woman forced to undertake emotional labours that are as unfair as they are cruel. It wants us to see the woman behind a mother, and not push her behind an impenetrable halo that shields us from facing the truth. Masoom reminds us that the greatest gift we can give our mothers is to allow them their humanity. Something we should keep in mind every day.