How 2 States glorified an abusive, toxic mother by relying on stereotypes

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. 

Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki: Everyday domestic apartheid in middle-class Indian homes

As I walked towards the kitchen after waking up at 12pm in the afternoon to ask for a cup of tea to begin my day, I saw our househelp sitting on a small stool on the floor, drinking her own tea in a steel glass. Completely unperturbed by this, I said casually, “Aunty, apni chai peene ke baad mere liye bhi bana dena”. At this, she immediately stood up, kept her glass on the kitchen counter and began making my tea. I tried to tell her to finish hers first, but she brushed it off with a “arey koi nahi” and continued to make it for me.

This was an ordinary occurrence. My attempt at being nice to her was my benevolence, an added dose of kindness that wasn’t really a requirement of our social contract. But her willingness to put her needs aside certainly was. It wasn’t anything ‘extra’ – it was expected from her to put our needs before hers every single time. Perhaps she had become desensitised to it too. This small interaction always made me feel good; it made me feel like a good person.

This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the blatant human rights abuse that takes place inside middle-class homes in the supposedly modern and developed cities of India. Right from demanding househelp to leave their slippers out of the house to having a separation in every possible space – each middle-class household screams apartheid. Unfortunately, even a scream as loud as this is drowned by it’s normalcy. How do you know it’s a scream when everyone does it? In a lot of ‘societies’, there are separate entrances, lifts and alleys for residents and domestic workers. People keep separate utensils, chairs, seating areas and bathrooms for them. Sometimes, they aren’t even allowed to eat the same food and drink the same beverages. In summers, while residents drink cold water, domestic workers have to drink regular water because cold water is a ‘privilege’ they don’t deserve. When they are employed as live-in workers, more often than not they are made to sleep in areas such as kitchens, extra rooms, living areas and sometimes even balconies. They are given the bare minimum – a mat to sleep on and a run-down blanket. 

The above are instances that I’ve seen firsthand. There are severe cases of physical mental and sexual abuse that go unreported and unheard. Househelp in most homes work over-time, are overworked and under-paid, and suffer abuse on the regular. Even the most forward-thinking, liberal people turn a blind eye to this sustained abuse. 

In a video by ScoopWhoop unscripted, the host Samdish Bhatia walks around a park in Delhi, candidly speaking to middle-class men and women who have househelp in their homes. A middle-aged woman very sincerely asserts, “We don’t let them use the same utensils and crockery as us”. She sounds completely convinced that her classist, casteist attitude should be the norm. When asked about the current scenario, she further asserts that “good people are being pushed down while people from lower castes are coming up”. This type of rhetoric doesn’t come from a place of self-awareness; it’s a form of entitlement that has been passed down generations. Most people don’t even realize that they’re being discriminatory. For them, segregation on the basis of caste and class is the right way for society to function. This is based on continued dehumanization of the ‘other’ – anyone who isn’t of the same caste, class and even color. 

I grew up listening to the women around me, relatives and aunties, brazenly bitching about their househelp day in and day out. 

“Uff, she wants a raise again. How is Rs.1500 not enough for utensils, laundry and cleaning of the house?” 

“She asked for more tea yesterday. These maids are just going from bad to worse”

“Do you know how much money we spend just on her food? We pay her salary and pay for her meals too”

“Our maid is the worst. She can’t do anything right. Ask her for tea and she’ll take years to get it”

Talking about househelp related woes was everyone’s favorite hobby. For them, people who worked in their homes weren’t entirely human. They were partly robots who needed to be pitch-perfect at everything, and partly nuisances that the ‘high’ society’ had to tolerate in order to keep their houses running. Interestingly enough, the same people who perpetually bitch about domestic workers, are also the people who unequivocally rely on them. The world that they have constructed for themselves, rests squarely on the shoulders of the men and women who take care of their homes. A single holiday demanded by a worker threatens to derail everything. In the words of a man in the ScoopWhoop video – “Humein toh saaton din sewa chahiye, isliye to rakha hai maid ko”.

What is truly fascinating is the complete ignorance that engulfs the lives of so many middle-class people. Despite their reliance on househelp, they truly feel they’re the ones on the moral high ground because they have offered full time employment to someone in need. Not just that, they have also offered to feed the poor workers while they are on duty. How much more do the poor need? Food, some money and a shelter, that should be enough for them. 

Rights? What are those?

Respect? Poor people don’t deserve respect.

Dignity of labour? That’s a joke. Anyone who works as househelp is a piece of trash.

Fair contracts? Why do we need a contract in the first place?

Men tended to stay out of these ‘homely’ discussions unless something affected them directly. However, lately I’ve seen men increasingly participate in this form of bashing, becoming allies with women on the basis of shared hatred towards the ‘other’. People who work as bathroom and drain cleaners receive an even harsher treatment, with house owners lumping them in the same category as unwanted pests. Even though untouchability is illegal, I’ve seen it being shamelessly practiced by many. People avoid coming too close to them and remain in different rooms when they’re cleaning their bathrooms. While housemaids are allowed snacks and beverages in separate utensils, people who clean bathrooms and drains aren’t even allowed to enter the kitchen. When put in perspective, it’s all very shameful. It sheds light on the shockingly low value we, as a society, have assigned to the weak and vulnerable.

Paid leaves, medical insurance, off-weekends and travel allowances should be a part of any employer-employee relationship. But the poor workers in India only get scrapes of charity, that too in the form of documented favors. In fact, anything done by the employers (in this case, homeowners) is an act of benevolence that ought to be remembered by the worker forever and repaid in kind. This is a very clearly defined, strictly enforced one-way street of demand that does not have any destination.