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. 

Dear Indian Parents, why so entitled?

Now this is something I feel I need to talk about, especially in the context of our society. I haven’t written in a while and my writing skill has become quite rusty, but I have been feeling extremely confused, hurt and misguided lately and I needed to vent. So, coming to the question I am trying to pose – Dear Indian parents, why are you so entitled? Why do you think that you are entitled to your kid’s love, respect, obedience, compliance and support? Why do you think that your kid, in some way, is obligated to make you happy?

Because you went through pain to have them? Because you invested time, money, emotions and energy into raising them? Because you made sacrifices and compromises? Because you fought with others to keep them happy and safe? Because you put their well-being above your own? So now that they’re a little grown up and have a mind of their own, you expect something in return for everything you did? Wait. Was this arrangement supposed to work in this investment-ROI like fashion? Why wasn’t I told?

Before addressing the core issue here (which is extremely unhealthy and screwed up) I would like to pose another question – Why do people decide to have kids? Is it because you are already in a happy place in life, and feel emotionally, mentally and financially secure and strong enough to be able to share love with another human being without expecting anything in return or is it because you’re extremely unhappy with your life and feel that a kid will make it better? or because you’re lonely? or because you’re too bored in life and want a ‘project’ to work on? or because you can’t stand your spouse and want a reason to stay in the marriage? or because you are concerned about your old-age? or because you want someone else to fulfill your incomplete dreams? or because you want to fill a void in your life?

What is it?

I truly feel that people don’t decide to become ‘parents’ for the right reasons, especially in our country. Even if we exclude the people who are pressurized into having a child, the remaining percentage don’t have very healthy reasons either. That is where the dysfunction begins and keeps spiraling out of control. If you decide to have kids for any reason other than unconditionally sharing love and raising a healthy human being who will be (and should be) independent enough to make his/her own choices, then you my friend, have a problem. You are invariably going to download all your problems, issues and sorrows onto your kid and expect him/her to somehow a) either give you a solution or b) be the solution.

There are so many parents who tell themselves – we will not end up being like our parents. Well, bullshit. You are your parents plus more issues. It is so difficult to dissociate ourselves from our parents’ identity and personality in our culture – it takes a lot of awareness and almost an entire lifetime’s work to achieve that. Why? Because most of us are brought up within enmeshed relationships. Boundaries? What are those? Our parents have a right to know and interfere in everything. Free will? What’s that? I can only go out with friends that my parents like and marry the love of my life as long as my parents approve. Questioning parents’ decisions, opinions and beliefs? Prepare for a crash landing, kids. That’s never going to fly.

We’re never taught to be individuals with our own separate set of beliefs, opinions and principles. We’re always an extension of our parents. Any form of disagreement is seen as disrespect. (Because ‘respect’ is gulping down your opinion and putting your parents’ happiness above your own) Respect is a concept that only works one way, because parents will never respect our choices and decisions. And if those choices fall way beyond their radar of “what’s ok” – then you’re officially a rotten kid and have given them so much pain you should die in a pool of guilt. In short, the term ‘Indian parents’ should officially be synonymous with ‘insecure’. They’re so insecure about themselves that they cannot stand their kid being too different, or else – a question is raised on everything they did based on their belief system so far in their life, and they cannot be in that uncomfortable position of accepting that they might have been wrong at some point. (The horror)

You see, part of being a secure and mature human being is the ability to empathize and accept your mistakes when you make them (everyone does). In my understanding, Indian parents are neither. But the blame isn’t just theirs, it’s a dysfunction that has been passed down generations.

Coming to the core issue – if you think your kids owe you anything in return for your love and care, then you have issues that need to be dealt with before assuming that you deserve to be parents. Love, respect and care are mutual emotions that should be given unconditionally without expecting anything in return. If you are going to guilt trip your kids about your sacrifices and financial investments – Don’t be a parent. If you’re going to use the victim card to get what you want – Don’t be a parent. If you’re going to expect your kid to support you emotionally – Don’t be a parent. If you’re going to shove your beliefs and opinions down his/her throat – Don’t be a parent. If you have a problem accepting your kid as a separate individual who will have different opinions – Don’t be a parent. If you cannot accept the fact that your kid will not always agree with you – Don’t be a parent. When you bring a child into this world, he/she needs you and depends on you for physical, mental and emotional well being and continues to need you until he/she becomes an adult. You do not, and should not, need or depend upon your kid for any of those.

You don’t have the emotional bandwidth or maturity to be a parent. Please deal with your issues first. Also, if you do your parenting right – your kid will shower you with unconditional love and support, without you having to ask for it. A child’s first impression of the world is his/her parents. If you have truly loved your child without emotionally fucking him/her up – he/she will always stand with you and before you. Try it.

A kid’s love is a precious gift. It’s not your right. You chose to have a child and bring another human being into this world. If you’re putting your best foot forward to take care of him/her, it’s not a favor or a debt the kid has to repay later. If you have problems, they’re your responsibility, not your kids’. In US, if you put undue pressure on your kids or raise them in unhealthy households, the social security services will come and take your kid away. They have an accountability system in place. Raise your kid in a healthy environment or lose your right to be parents. Unfortunately in India, just having given birth to a child is enough criteria to qualify to be a parent. You can do whatever the fuck you want with that child. Because maa ke charnon mein swarg hota hai.

If a kid is being abused emotionally and physically in a house, there is absolutely nowhere he/she can go to seek safety and protection. We just have to wing it. And the number of kids being raised in abusive and unhealthy homes in our country is shocking. What is even more shocking is that most of them don’t even know they’re being abused.

I may not be a human child’s parent, but I am a pet parent to a wonderful and amazing dog called Brownie, who I adopted out of my own free will. It is my responsibility to make sure that she receives care, love and a safe environment. I didn’t do it because I wanted a watch dog or because I was lonely. I did it because her being there truly made me happy. Sometimes I have to put up with messy situations, she poops and pees anywhere, she tears everything apart, she whines for no reason and doesn’t listen to a single command, she demands too much attention, interrupts work and hardly shows any affection in return – I get annoyed sometimes. But I have to remind myself that I signed up for this. If I wanted a picture perfect dog who would sit when I asked her to sit, stand when I asked her to stand, mingled only with the dogs I liked and showed affection to me all the time – I would just sit and watch Scooby Doo on TV.

Even after 4 or 5 years, if I give her too much stress or take away her sense of safety, she will either show me aggression (biting) or simply run away, and I wouldn’t be able to do a single thing. She felt threatened and left to preserve herself. Is she obligated to stick with me despite the stress and abuse, just because I took care of her for so long?

NO.

I am just glad that I have a dog who will bite me if I cross her boundaries, as compared to a human child who will continue to suffer in silence thinking it’s okay just because I’m a parent. Nothing scares me more.

 

The role of a mother in her son’s life

We’re all aware of how deeply our parents affect us. All of us are shaped by our childhood, and carry some part of it with us until we die. It is my personal belief that most of our behavioural patterns, traits and flaws can be traced to something or the other in our childhoods. An authoritative environment will yield traits like low self-esteem and shyness for years to come, while an overly casual environment will yield over-confidence, narcissism and recklessness.

This is the reason why parenting is a tougher task than waging war on an entire country with the help of nukes. Every little thing matters, and adds up to what will eventually turn out to be the child’s personality. Trying to be too perfect as parents will make the child wary of ever making a mistake, while being completely irresponsible will mess up the child’s life in numerous ways. Both the father and the mother have to be equal participants in the process of parenting. This article, however, focuses on the unique relationship between that of a mother and her son. It has always been pointed that a man looks at other women the way he looks at his mother. Consequently, he expects the women in his life to live up to the same standard. This is very much true, even when he may not be aware of it consciously. A mother’s influence over her son is so subconsciously ingrained, that it affects the smallest of decisions without either of them even knowing. For example, a son may not like bright colors because he never saw his mother wearing them during his childhood, He may be inclined to follow a particular religious ritual (without knowing why) because he saw his mother doing the same, He may not understand why smoking is proclaimed to be a ‘bad habit’ by everyone else, because his mother smoked too.

A mother also has a deep impact on whether her son grows up to be inherently strong or weak. If a son is brought up by a weak mother, he will tend to be weak, even if he becomes successful career wise. He will always view his mother and consequently himself as a victim. His consistent lack of being decisive, confrontational and courageous will make him identify even more with his mother, and instead of fostering a healthy relationship, it will breed a co-dependent, toxic relationship. On the other hand, if a son if brought up by a strong mother, who knows how and when to set limits to her affection and spoon-feeding, he will grow up to be an independent individual himself.

In the Indian society, men are known to be more inclined to follow their father’s footsteps, mirror his opinions, beliefs and thoughts about world, religion, politics and life. A son born into a businessman’s house will continue the business, a son born to an engineer father will become an engineer, a son born to a father who supports BJP will support the same party. So on and so forth. This may be true, but these are choices that a son is conditioned to make by the family and society in general. A father always wants his son to be 10 times the man he was when his son grows up. It’s natural progression and evolution. However, these are not subconscious decisions. Like mentioned above, a mother’s influence affects the smallest of things in a son’s life.

Specifically in India, where mothers treat their sons like kings and hold them dearer than their own lives, and fathers are not as deeply involved in the day-to-day upbringing, sons tend to mirror their mother’s likes, dislikes and choices much more. This is the reason why an adult son may get caught up between his wife and mother. I have observed that Indian mothers find it hard to let go and accept the fact that their now adult sons are capable of leading separate lives. They cling onto them, because their sons were their only mission and accomplishment. To let go would be to let go of all meaning behind their lives. The consequent effect of this coddling is that the adult son finds it hard to view any relationship in his life objectively. Every relationship in his life gets coloured by his mother’s opinion in some way or the other, just like his relationship with his wife. He might be deeply in love with her and respect her choices, but if his mother’s opinion of her isn’t as good, then he will doubt his own feelings. He needs validation from his mother for everything.

And as heinous as it may sound, most of India’s mistreatment of women (rape, molestation, violence, domestic abuse, eave teasing etc) can be attributed to the women themselves. A mother can be a role model for her son on how he will grow up to treat other women. If she herself lets herself be treated badly in her marriage, then the son may think it’s ‘norm’ for women to be treated second class, and that they encourage it. If the mother doesn’t use negative reinforcement when the son commits a mistake or crosses a boundary, then she ‘enables’ him to think that it’s okay to behave in that way. All these factors and behavioural missteps combine to encourage a man to commit violence against women, and even more alarming, to think that it’s alright.

In conclusion, our mothers are a vital part in our lives. It doesn’t matter whether you share a healthy relationship with her or an unhealthy one, whether you are in touch with her or not, she will continue to affect and impact you in a multitude of ways for a very long time.