Mother's Day 2022 | Mom is superhero, hero, avenger, villain and comrade in recent films

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In ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’, Michelle Yeoh plays a Chinese immigrant American mother who also ‘verse-jumps’ across alternate universes.

I’m one of those deprived women who became a mother to a daughter without having a personal blueprint of what and how mothers do right or wrong to daughters. Sometimes I think I lucked out. I learnt tricks—the art, really—on the job, taking cues from my mother-in-law, aunts, friends and inadvertently enough, through fictional mom characters from movies—an art form I have been immersed in for the past 25 years; they are my therapy as well as bane.

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As a mom, I tend to invent solutions, sometimes trusting just my emotions and how a particular day is going. Sometimes I feel woefully short of the wisdom to raise a child, as all mothers do. I was raised by a plucky and fiercely protective grandmother after my mother died when I was one. My grandmother, around 60 when I was one, did not have the luxury of projecting traumas she had inherited from her mother on to me. She did that with the children she birthed. This time around, she took it on as the challenge and responsibility of her life—to make me ready for the world. It was a textbook mother-child bond—she was a protector, provider and dogged doctrinaire of values that would see me through adversity without sentimentality and with focus and perseverance. Yes, of course some of that indoctrination has all but backfired, but I know that her way isn’t the way I want to raise my daughter. I think of myself as an on-the-job mother who can’t say that everything bad that has ever happened to me or all that I will do wrong as a mom is all my mother’s fault. Misfortune or luxury, whichever way you look at it. I myself don’t know yet.   

But perhaps because that profound loss at age one has shaped a lot of who I am, motherhood fascinates me. I love observing mothers, reading about mothers and watching films about mothers. I watched Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother (2009) thrice. The tears had lost much of their force by the third time as I watched the lead character, a steely and withdrawn woman mythically titled Mother, finding a way to free her intellectually-challenged, 27-year-old son of a crime that she is convinced he did not commit.

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Years later, moments in the Indian Netflix series, Atul Mongia’s Mai (2022), about a mother on a perilous and sometimes ludicrous path to find her daughter’s killer, felt piercingly devastating. I found her emotional impulse to embark on that journey mesmerising.

I was 26 when Lars Von Trier’s emotional bulldozer of a movie Dancer in the Dark (2000) released. About a visually-impaired, impoverished Czech immigrant whose last wish before her execution is to feel her baby in her arms, it threw me into a black hole of sobbing-induced headaches for a whole day. 

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The last two years have been a feast of mother heroes and mother anti-heroes. Screen mothers have come in so many different hues—a far cry from the conservative mom or the negligent mom, or as our Bollywood heroes have often solidified, the goddess mom, a treasure unmatched, the “mere paas maa hai” canon of mother-son bond.

Recently, Amazon Prime Video’s Jalsa presented a wonderfully complex case for intersecting motherhood—two women played by Shefalee Shah and Vidya Balan, separated by economic class, connected by a typically Indian co-dependence, and bonded in a transcendental way by what they do to each other’s child.

2020’s Japanese drama True Mothers directed by Naomi Kawase gripped me because through two mothers to the same child—one adoptive, the other, claiming to be the child’s biological mother—it shows heartbreakingly how fragile a family structure can be.

This year’s Parallel Mothers, one of Spanish master Pedro Almodovar’s two best films ever (my other favourite in the Almodovarian universe is All About My Mother, 1999), is set in a world where men are a mere shadow. Two women who are worlds apart in age and circumstance, become comrades in unlocking the passion, anxiety and logistics of motherhood.

Jessie Buckley’s young Leda in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter (2021), a young intellectual on the verge of academic aplomb who leaves her pre-teen daughter behind with a husband she has lost connection with because domesticity stifles her, made me confront private moments that I don’t want to articulate. Leda returns, because, as the older Leda played by Olivia Colman tells another young mother years later, “I came back, because I am a mother.”

The most recent film that makes an enthralling case for mom-daughter frisson, defined by intergenerational trauma, is Everything Everywhere All At Once. Michelle Yeoh plays a Chinese immigrant American mother, Evelyn, who is embroiled in tax troubles related to her small business. Her daughter is the queer Joy (Stephanie Hsu). A meditation on cultural anxiety stemming from ideas of privilege, mothers unintentionally passing on personal and historical burdens on to daughters, the mother-daughter bond is the shimmering emotional centre of what can only be described as a cinematic behemoth.

What starts as a quiet domestic drama turns into a a sci-fi epic in which Evelyn mind-travels—or “verse-jumps” through alternate universes. Directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert juggle with modern nihilism with philosophical and artistic force, all the while making the complex, difficult relationship between Evelyn and Joy render the world somewhat meaningful.

How sour can a mother-daughter relationship turn, I thought, while riding through its many surprises, twists and bizarre meta worlds, because of intergenerational differences? What if Evelyn and Joy bridged the divide between them in the multiverse as alternative versions of themselves, in which Evelyn is a superhero and Joy turns into Evelyn’s superhero nemesis? Well, they do. Watch it to know what happens.

An India release date is yet to be final. I wait to watch this film with my daughter years later when she is an adult, just for the “rock verse” scene. Evelyn and Joy are just two rocks, overlooking a valley of rocks from atop a rocky cliff. The film suddenly goes silent after a polychromatic burst of noise and colour, the dialogue printed in text across the sky. The two women—and the film—shed their skin. A mother and her daughter existing together; when nothing else matters.

Daughters are fixated on mothers for good reason. They are our oracles and personal historians. When you are in need to step back from your own, or, like me when you have no one mother to turn to for rebellion and blame, watch these women on screen. Our desperation for our mothers to understand us, and eventually to apologise to us one day, may just leave its dreary grip on us momentarily. And that’s worth the screen time.

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