Cinema is a reflection of certain moments of normal life, they say. Indian cinema, more importantly Telugu Cinema, however, has certain tropes with which it strikes a chord with cine goers.
One such trope has been the mother sentiment. The very name ‘mother’ spurts a well of emotions in the human heart and cinema is no exception. From the days of Santha Kumari of early ’50s and ’60s, to Jayasudha of post ’90s era, the evolution of the Telugu mother was in sync with the changing socio political milieu of cinema itself.
The birth of a Telugu Mother
One can only surmise the time when our Telugu ‘mother’ trope was invented, but the history of Telugu cinema says, the first ‘revered’ popular mother was Santha Kumari, who was paired opposite thespians like N.T. Rama Rao and Akkineni Nageswara Rao in the 1950s and 1960s.
Apart from that, you had a more imposing mother who commanded unquestioned allegiance to her, the redoubtable Kannamba, who could both shed gallons of tears as well as make one melt into tears with her histrionic talent. Her movies like Abhimanam (1962) portrayed a selfless and an ever forgiving mother, an oft repeated trope of the 1950s and 1960s.
The mother roles which directors of yore like P. Pullaiah, C S. Rao and K.S. Prakash Rao designed were mostly coy women who fed their children and looked after the household as was the norm in newly Independent India.
It should be said that these people who played righteous mothers like Hemalatha of the 1960s in movies like Varasatvam (1964) and Paruvu Pratishtha (1963) were also assertive of themselves in the household and shared a lot of screen space with the hero. Santa Kumari who plays a pampering mother to a prodigal son in Ardhangi (1955) does not hesitate to shoot him when he misappropriated her money.
The change in the mother role
The mother role and its portrayal started to change from the 1970s in Telugu Cinema, with a variety that was not seen in the 1960s, where the mother’s arena was mostly a private domain and not public.
We have actresses like Anjali Devi who redefined the mother role in Telugu Cinema. Though she symbolized the pious, coy paragon of womanhood as Goddess Sita in the epic Lava Kusha (1963,) she also started responding to the modernity seeping through the Telugu society during the last decade of the 1960s. In Lakshmi Nivasam (1968,) she did what no ‘Telugu Mother’ did till then.
She became a businesswoman, a president of a women’s liberation wing. Her snobbish role as Saradha, who feigns sophistication in Lakshmi Nivasam is really a role changer for the mother role in Telugu Cinema. No more was the ‘mother’ a home bird, but she was a self sufficient lady who powers over the man of the house.
Strangely, we notice a role reversal of sorts of the mother roles from 1960s to 1970s, where ‘stereotyped’ mothers like Santha Kumari started challenging the ‘deified’ versions of mother in their movies. In the hugely successful Prem Nagar (1971) Santha Kumari plays a zamindar’s wife, who immerses herself in activities considered for men till then, playing cards, going to races and driving cars and totally forgetting to bring up kids, leaving them to the housekeeping folks. However, when her son does not address her as ‘mother,’ she fires up the housekeeper.
The motherly instinct, however flawed in the ’70s cinema, had retained the tinge of ‘nurturing motherly instincts,’ notwithstanding the circumstances in which she finds herself. There were also actresses like Savitri hunting molesters in movies like Amma Maata (1972) and Anjali Devi lecturing how to extract vengeance from the villain, who either imprisoned the ‘father’ or ‘killed’ him without any humanity.
One had to observe the sinking familial ties in the plots of 1970s Telugu Cinema in films like Badi Panthulu (1972,) where the children of a school master conveniently ‘abandon’ the responsibility of their parents, who brought them up. With the increasing nuclear family culture due to urbanization in the 1970s, the role of ‘mother’ in Telugu Cinema was slowly being relegated to a minor character, where she was not the sole reason for maintaining the family, as the ‘son’ maintained the family with him being the breadwinner.
The hero rhetoric loomed large from the end of 1970s to 1980s, where the portrayal of mothers underwent yet another role reversal. This was for the worse as she was relegated to a mere ‘prop’ in the mise en scene of the movie.
The final call: 1980s and Telugu Cinema mother roles
The change in the graphic was rapid. One does not find even one powerful mother role who commands the house with her intellect and authority in the 1980s. Even celebrated filmmakers like K. Balachander and K. Vishwanath had to tread a path of the hero wagon, though their movies had sizeable roles written for mothers. It was heartening that this ‘power’ and ‘command’ shifted to the characters played by actresses in their movies, but largely, the mother remained a minor entity in Telugu Cinema.
The final nail in the coffin
With the advent of the 1990s, one can clearly observe the takeover by the hero and the role of mother being relegated to the back front in the movies. One can hardly remember the roles done by women, be it the mother or the heroine.
The post globalization era posed a serious challenge to the role of mother in Telugu Cinema, as everything, from a body soap to a movie, became commodified. So did Cinema too, which became commodified and started being ‘packaged’ to the ‘consumption’ of the audience.
Here, the hero became everything and the ‘reverence’ towards the mother and her role in the family were erased and replaced by addressing her in singular.
However, actresses who had crossed their prime and became mothers to heroes, had to reinvent themselves as ‘beautiful,’ ‘modern’ and ‘tech savvy’ mothers who became ‘buddies’ to their children and not an object of reverence, but a friend who helps the hero achieve his dream through mere ‘words.’ Veteran actress Jayasudha is a revelation in this aspect. She had meaty roles in movies like Amma Nanna O Tamilammayi (2003) and Sathamanam Bhavathi (2017). In her recent outing as the mother of Mahesh Babu in Maharshi too, she shined with her screen space, though it was not intended to be a full length role.
The 2000s saw the total glorification of the hero, with the parent role being used to eulogize the hero or his traits. However, there were some exceptions in movies which have given the mother her due respect. Let us have a look at some of them.
The family drama of Krishna Vamsi had an unusual mother-son relationship between a woman who could not become a mother and her nephew, the hero, played by Mahesh Babu. Lakshmi essayed the role of an innocent sister-in-law who raises her nephew as her son. The cute relationship is well written and remains forever etched in the minds of the audience.
Amma Nanna O Tamila Ammayi (2003)
This movie had to be the one which had an assertive role written for a mother character. Jayasudha excelled in this role of a college lecturer who brings up her son as a single mother and who develops his character into a man with an ambition. This remains to be the favourite role played by any contemporary actress in Telugu Cinema post 2000s.
This rare fantasy thriller had a rather interesting mother-son relationship version by S. J. Suryah. Devayani and Mahesh Babu played the roles of mother and son and Devayani’s helplessness in bringing up a boy who is a boy in the day and acts as a man at night was touching and delightful.
Sathamanam Bhavathi (2017)
This family drama had a couple whose children forget them after they get settled abroad. Jayasudha plays a subtle role as Janakamma, who lives with her husband as an optimistic mother would, hoping their children understand the efficacy of familial ties and parental upbringing. Jayasudha brings up a newness to her role as a house maker who gives importance to relationships than money.
With the Hero cult augmenting the commercial value of the movie and the saleability issues, the role of a family in general and ‘mother’ in particular has no takers now. With changing times, some ingredients of the story ought to be changed permanently. Unfortunately, the chief casualty now, as become the mother trope.
Once, movies catered to the family audience, but now they cater to the youth.
So changes are inevitable.
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