In this essay, Anandi Mishra considers the role Hindi films have played in the development of her relationship with her mother.
August, the season of ripeness. The shadows lighten, gardens ache with flowers, and there is an abundance of foliage. This particular August marked seventeen months of being locked indoors, and it ushered in my mother, who came from 400 kilometers away to spend a few days with me. We were meeting after more than two years apart.
By the time she arrived, it had been years since the two of us had seen a movie together. In March 2020, cities apart, we had both watched the sappy, woman-centric drama film Thappad and discussed it eagerly over a phone call afterward. In the movie, a young woman leads a contented life with her husband. However, their happiness is shattered when he slaps her at a party, causing her to file for divorce. My mother had been moved to tears, whereas I had felt weirded out by the film’s tacky handling of the subject. Before that, I don’t remember the last movie we saw together in person—with the passage of time, our priorities and relationship had changed. The movie outings we often took when I was younger, to enjoy ourselves or kill time, dwindled as my relationship with my father soured and my mother and I had to savor all our time with one another. We took a vacation in 2019, but then, too, our minds were fractured, our souls battered, fresh off the problems at home. Watching movies together took a backseat.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from her visit, but I was afraid that after the estrangement from my father, the bond between my mother and me would loosen, or that she might expect me to patch things up with him. But during her stay, she never even brought the idea up, and we spent the simmering, sumptuous days of her visit in the activity both of us love most—watching Hindi movies, old and new, sometimes of her choice, sometimes mine. We enjoyed blockbusters from the ‘80s and rewatched films that we had first introduced to one another when I was still in school, watching some twenty-three films altogether. As COVID-19 continued to rage outside, I found her company soothing, and in the hours we spent in front of the screen, I rediscovered an old joy—the simple pleasure of just being with someone who birthed, nurtured, and protected me from my first day on earth.
My mother, Neelam Tiwari, was born in 1958, nearly thirty-three years before I was. She grew up in a north Indian village, Amaur, outside Kanpur, in the 1960s. At the age of ten, she ran away from her parents’ house in the village to live with her aunt in the city. Within a year, she lost both her parents. It was a difficult period in her life, and regular visits to the cinema with her aunt offered a much-needed escape. They were swept away by Shashi Kapoor in romantic comedies like Sharmeelee and Kalyug, by Madhubala in musicals like Half Ticket and Sharabi, and by Vyjayanthimala in potboilers like Madhumati and Sangam.
Moviegoing then was a way for my mother to relax and lose herself in a fantasy world, far away from her daily troubles. Though the films of the era showed a social, economic, and moral repression of women, relying on clichéd stereotypes of subservient females in domestic, homemaking spaces, my mother did not imagine a life like that for herself. She saw the movies not as a model to be emulated but only as a distraction from her volatile and emotionally erratic home life, and even today the mention of those single-screen theaters lights up her memory with intense longing.
Things changed when she became a wife and mother. While she and my father sometimes watched adult dramas together, as a family we only went to watch movies my father liked—Independence Day, Jurassic Park, other Hollywood thrillers. That was if my mother even had time—because of her professional obligations, she was often unable to join us. I didn’t understand this at the time; what I knew was that while my friends’ mothers tended to them each day after school, helping them with homework, serving them lunch, sending them off for playtime in the evening, these small pleasures were unavailable to me. Although my mother was always around when I needed her, she had little time for excessive displays of affection. With her nine-to-five job, taking care of the house, and other filial duties toward my father’s extended family, she was barely able to shake out extra hours for my brother and me. She worked full-time for thirty-eight years of her life, not out of any necessity, but because of the sheer pleasure she derived from her work. Being a working parent was a part of her identity she took immense pride in. Her talent, drive, and high educational qualifications put her several notches above everyone in her office, including my father. But she never wore it as a badge of honor.
“After a while, movies themselves began to take on a maternal air.”
In the early aughts, my father got a traveling job, giving my mother some measure of freedom. She would join my brother and me in front of whatever movie was playing on cable TV, instantly cutting across the formal boundaries, becoming our friend. Laughter, snacks, unplanned movie nights that stretched into the wee hours—these were things I started unwittingly living for. I was seven years old then, and in those happy hours with my mother, I discovered a person who was open-minded and not particularly strict about what her children should watch: sappy Hindi drama films like Humko Deewana Kar Gaye (2006), the action drama Gangajal (2003), the family saga Kabhie Khushi Kabhi Gham (2001), and the cult classic Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), all were on the table.
In that sense, my most formative memories are simple ones. A movie on TV. Mugs of chai. A cheela at times, biscuits on others. And shared hours with each other in the stillness of the night, when it felt like we were the only ones left. During the day she had scores of chores to do, but our nights were our own. It was on one of those nights in 2001 when nine-year-old me watched what would become an entire generation’s favorite Hindi movie—Dil Chahta Hai (The Heart Desires)—snuggled up in bed with my mother.
In it, debut director Farhan Akhtar communicates a sense of freedom that stretched beyond the constraints of what independence meant to a certain class of Indians in 2001. The film posited itself as a departure from the cliched Hindi movies we were used to, and there was a vibey zing to its characters, the way they talked about their loves, lives, and friendships. I was immediately struck by the nerdy, introverted artist Sid (Akshaye Khanna), whose art is beautifully reserved. My mother, I think, must've recognized a bit of herself in Preity Zinta's Shalini, who continually succumbs to circumstances rather than standing up to them. Although the characters focused mainly on their love lives, it was their lifestyles, the way they spoke, and their friendships that assumed an aspirational value for me. I imagined myself as a writer, an artist like Sid, with a professional career. At the same time, the possessiveness of Shalini's boyfriend, Rohit, became a mainstay of the conversations between my mother and me. In the days following that night, we chatted about the kinds of people Rohit and Shalini were, and my mother made the case for why Shalini should leave him. Reflecting on it now, I realize that in those conversations my mother had probably been talking about her own marriage.
The Italian film director Federico Fellini said, “Going to the cinema is like returning to the womb; you sit there still and meditative in the darkness, waiting for life to appear on the screen. One should go to the cinema with the innocence of a fetus.” This observation rings especially true to me when I think about the trips my mother and I took to the tiny multiplex that opened in our neighborhood in 2010, giving us a reason to go to the movies alone. Being with her, sometimes holding her hand, or my head in her lap as she caressed my hair, or playfully elbowing her, taking in her smell, I was reaching toward an old, safe place. I could tell the theater was special to her, too. When at the movies, she talked about various topics ranging from work to extended family to my school and our social circle.
During one such visit to the movies in 2011, we watched Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (Live Life Just Once). I was a law student then, tired of the motions of moot courts, classes, and dorm life, while my mother was in her thirty-first year of work. We needed a break, a sojourn, but didn’t know what kind. Zindagi, a road movie about three affluent boys reuniting on a serene vacation in Spain, found us at a time when we both longed to break free from the yoke of our daily routines. Over the course of four weeks, the protagonists’ trip turns into an opportunity for them to mend broken relationships, face their fears, and fall in love with life. The drinking, loving, and riotous laughter prompted my mother to open up about her own college experience: she told me for the first time about long-lost friends, men who had proposed to her before her marriage, and how she had broken their hearts. She also mentioned two big government jobs she had cleared the exams for but hadn’t pursued. Before this, I had had no idea about these aspects of her life, and during the movie interval we sat silently, imagining how her life would’ve panned out had she taken either of those two jobs.
“Films were our retreat: an oasis and a recharge.”
The 2013 movie English Vinglish, too, unfolded a new kind of conversation between us. A housewife and part-time caterer, Shashi (played by the sublime Sridevi) runs a small but booming business making ladoos. When her husband is at work and the kids at school, she, with the aid of a courier, personally delivers boxfuls of ladoos to a delighted throng of customers. Shashi cannot speak English, a fact she is constantly reminded of by her husband and daughter, also her harshest critics. Ironically, this is the tongue through which the culinary-minded Shashi is misunderstood by the people she loves most. In that sense, English Vinglish is a film about language, about the biases that privilege English speakers over others, and the ways in which food also takes on the currency of language. Ultimately, though, Shashi’s attempt to learn English while in the US for her niece’s wedding helps her rediscover herself and reassert her value as a woman and an entrepreneur. The movie helped me to see my mother in a new light: I came to appreciate and respect her daily struggles, and to understand her life as a working woman a little better. Dimming any surrounding artifice, the film allowed me to recognize my mother as the central character of my life.
Over the course of my childhood and early adulthood, I came to recognize my mother as the best companion to watch a movie with. Even when I was seeing a film alone or with someone else, I found myself musing about what she would make of a particular character, inadvertently trying to see a plot point from her eyes. After a while, movies themselves began to take on a maternal air; I saw them as a wondrous, warm, and imaginative space in which I could pry open my emotional grasp of the world, as a retreat untouched by the daily cruelties of life. I now see this process as the gradual creation of the writer in me, covert in all my actions, looking to bare myself only to the big screen. It was a kind of feminist placemaking as well: two women getting out of the house to find refuge in a theater for three hours, movies interspersed only with conversation here and there. Films were our retreat: an oasis and a recharge.
But in the days before my mother came to visit in August, I worried about whether things would be the same between us. Before the pandemic, we could buy a ticket and slip away from reality, into a precinct of intimacy, privacy, and anonymity; here, on the other hand, it would be just the two of us on my couch, watching the smart TV. In preparation, I made a list of about ten movies we’d watch—mostly rom-coms and light movies that wouldn’t delve into dark spaces. I didn’t want either of us to be uncomfortable in any way. But as the days passed, we found ourselves growing back into our former comfort. Arth sparked a conversation about extramarital affairs that went on for hours. The artsy but funny movie Avishkaar made us both reflect on the kinds of relationships we’d had with men. Alone together in my house, as the shadows outside grew long, sometimes it felt like we two were the only ones in the world, in the kind of filmic paradise we had always sought to create.
We grew closer in that handful of days. An interiority I was afraid we had lost took root between us again. We were able to move beyond the boundaries and create a new relationship to undergird the existing mother-daughter connection. But no matter how close we become, there will always be things about my mother I will never know. Because we live cities apart, her political selfhood might never be fully comprehensible to me; her life story might never reveal itself in its entirety. As curious as I am, trying to ask her about the past during dinner or on an evening walk, just asking her about her life, has always felt anathema to me. That’s where the movies step in. In effect, they help me initiate these conversations, providing my mother and me a kind of private language spoken only in front of a screen. All of which is to say that my adolescent fears of falling out of touch with this side of my mother were proven wrong this August. Nothing had changed between us; the only difference was that while earlier we went to the movies, this time around they came to us.