I first watched 2-states a few years after it was released; primarily because I wasn’t a fan of Alia Bhatt and secondly because I was going through a phase of rejection towards Bollywood. It was good time-pass, a colloquial reference used by North Indians for anything moderately entertaining. It is, undoubtedly, an entertaining film, with a dash of token women empowerment added in the form of an anti-dowry scene. However, this particular article isn’t necessarily a feminist reading of the film.
I recently watched the film again, as I have started re-watching Hindi films for research, but more so because I’m back to being a Bollywood buff. The one character that stood out was Kavita Malhotra, Krish’s (Arjun Kapoor) mother. While she fits what one would call a ‘typical punjabi mother’ template, complete with loud bragging and incessant whining, she is also what the Indian society refuses to accept – a toxic and abusive mother. Her toxicity is constantly justified by her sufferings as a victim of domestic abuse, and her almost successful attempt at sabotaging her son’s life is finally excused by her ‘progressive’ decision to not take dowry at her son’s wedding. She uses her misery as a tool to control her son and get what she wants. As Lionel Shriver said in a debate, she “deploys weakness as a weapon”, and is driven to “maintain that weakness” because it is, in a perverse way, empowering her.
The trope of the great Indian mother aids the character as she bulldozes her way through her son’s life, her traumatic marriage acting as a shield at every corner. In one of the first scenes with her, she throws a tantrum when her son rightfully tells her to not talk about ‘sending some cartons of sunsilk’ in front of Ananya and her family. She goes on a guilt trip with dialogues like, “agar apne doston se mujhe milakar, tera impression bigadta hai, toh main aayi hi kyun hoon?”. The funky punjabi background music gaslights the audience into reading the scene as a funny one, at the same time providing identification and validation to young viewers by normalizing emotional manipulation by parents. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Hindi cinema has always promoted an equivalence between the mother and god. In the eyes of Bollywood, a mother can do no wrong. Even when she commits a crime, there is a noble and justifiable reason behind it. While the direct impact of films on society is debatable, it wouldn’t be remiss to say that they do share a symbiotic relationship, feeding off of each other for guidance. Thus, for a lot of young adolescents including myself, watching perfect mother figures on screen while living with imperfect parents in real life caused a lot of cognitive dissonance. There was no easy resolution to this conflict, especially in the absence of the alien phenomenon in middle-class homes called ‘communication’.
In 2 States, Kavita’s character is not perfect, but the mother-praising repertoire built by cinema over decades provides enough cushion to her character to get away scot-free. We are well conditioned now. The first few thoughts that enter our minds are, “that’s just how mothers are…difficult but lovable”. This instant dismissal of her transgressions enables her to be entitled beyond measure, assuming decisions on her son’s behalf because she “sacrificed so much for him”. In the scene following the convocation, she commands Krish to choose Delhi as his preferred job location and says, “Koi zaroorat nahi hai kahin aur jaane ki”. According to her, that should settle it.
All her bigotry towards ‘Madrasis’, internalized misogyny and misplaced sense of pride in being Punjabi because of the difference in skin color pales in comparison to her role as a mother that trumps everything that is wrong according to modern standards. Even though Krish’s submissive attitude towards his mother is not the focus of this article, it does act as an enabler. He hates his father for being physically and emotionally abusive towards him and his mother as he should, but never holds his mother accountable for her abusive and damaging behavior towards everyone around her who isn’t her sister and son.
It is impertinent to note that I don’t critique the depiction of flawed characters in films. In fact, flawed characters make films better. However, the problem is in the glorification of flawed characters by virtue of their status in society, and them never being held accountable for their flawed decision making. I had a similar problem with the film Shakuntala Devi, where her catastrophic failures as a mother were drowned by her status as a genius mathematician and the ‘a mother is a mother after all’ tag. It is high time we started giving the topic of abuse by parents the treatment that it deserves. If not a realistic lens, then at least a nuanced one.
Even during the climax of the film, it’s Krish’s father who apologizes for his mistakes (not that an apology can wipe off years of physical and emotional abuse), going from being astray to attempting to redeem himself, completing his character arc. In doing so, he is singled out as the only problematic character in the film who needed to recognize his wrongdoings. If only he hadn’t been abusive, his wife wouldn’t have been abusive either. I don’t know if this is how Chetan Bhagat wrote the characters because I haven’t read the book, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did. Relying on stereotypes is useful in storytelling, it allows people to connect with characters easily. Having said that, stereotypes shouldn’t be an excuse to justify abuse.
All said and done, I don’t think the great Indian mother is going away anytime soon. The best we can hope for is some nuanced storytelling, where a mother is given space to be more human than a goddess.