In a memorable scene from last year’s hit film, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, the leading lady’s mother uses the analogy of Alibaba and the cave of treasures to give her daughter a sex education lesson. The scene could have easily been crass, but the veteran Seema Pahwa plays it to perfection — conveying hesitation and embarrassment as well as a mother’s desire to help a soon-to-be-married daughter.
After a string of successes — Ankhon Dekhi, Bareilly ki Barfi, and Dum Laga ke Haisha — the 55-year-old actor is a veteran Bollywood mom. Pahwa’s mothers are middle-class, relatable and endearing, and considerably more complex and nuanced than the wailing, sacrificing Bollywood mom of yore.
“You need to show all the experiences that a 50-year-old mother has gone through in life,” she says. “When a woman is at that age, she’s undergoing hormonal changes, her kids have grown up, and her husband isn’t as interested in her, so she’s irritable. If I can add these insecurities to the character, it adds depth, and their problems become real.” Sometimes Pahwa draws upon her own experiences as a mother of two.
Funnily enough, in the 1990s, Pahwa, who played Badki in the TV serial Hum Log, was often offered grandmother roles on the small screen as they only “cast young women as mothers”. In mainstream cinema, the mother still remains one-dimensional, she says. “In all the films, the mother has a common worry — how to get her daughter married.” Plus, there aren’t too many roles for older women,“beyond that of the mother, chachi, tai, bua, padosan”.
Yet, she notes that there are signs of change in small-budget films helmed by young directors. “Earlier glamour was considered necessary. Now, people want to see mothers in a realistic light.”