Mother’s Day :
The original Marathi play, Aai Retire Hotey by Ashok Patole, was written over thirty years ago, and has had several productions since then, in multiple languages. Many aspects of the story seem dated today, but the main point it make remains valid—no matter what label a male-dominated society gives women, it is always their kartavya (duty) to serve the family. After putting in a certain number of years at work, men retire, but a woman’s work is never done.
The Gujarati version, Baa Retire Thay Chhe, directed by Sanjay Goradia (filmed by Vinay A. Laad), starring Padmarani, became the consummate actresses’ best remembered role, and engendered other ‘Baa’ plays. It worked even better in a Gujarati milieu (adapted by Arvind Joshi), where most men do not think it necessary to share household chores, if they are fulfilling the role of the breadwinner.
So, it is quite normal for a man to enter his home and start making demands—like Mr Turakhia (Arvind Rathod), who walks in after a night out drinking and gambling with his friends, and shouts for his bath water to be readied and coffee to be served.
For all the years of their marriage, Sudha or Baa (Padmarani) has been serving her husband and sons hand and foot. On her husband’s orders, she gave up her career as a writer and social worker, devoting herself completely to her home. Now her sons Mahesh (Aliraza Namdar) and Neeraj (Amar Babariya) are grown up and married.
Their wives Veena (Mansi Patel) and Neha (Arya Rawal) do very little by way of domestic chores, but also resent their mother-in-law’s control over the household. The men, of course, are so dependent on Baa, that they are incapable of finding their own socks or remembering where they kept their wallet. When the play opens, Neeraj and Neha’s infant son, Pappu is crying, and everyone keeps shouting for someone else to see to him.
Neha is teaching and studying for her PhD, so she make her busy schedule an excuse to get way from housework, and Veena keeps bringing up her social commitments. Unknown to Baa, both have persuaded their husbands to buy homes and want to break away from the joint family. Mahesh has agreed to something even more despicable—razing down a home for the aged that his mother had once set up, to build a bungalow. The daughter of the family, Lata (Neha Rawal) had eloped with a Marathi boy and now wants to come home for her delivery, according to custom. Baa turns down an offer from a social worker, Pathak (Jimit Trivedi), to work with his organization, explaining that her family comes first.
It comes as a shock to her that her family does not actually need her. The daughters-in-law are in favour of hiring domestic help, while Baa believes in doing all the housework herself (this is a strange stubbornness, since most upper class homes do have help). Sudha asks the squabbling family, that if a man can retire at the age of 58, why can’t a woman retire too? She gives the family a month’s notice, during which time she will guide them but do no domestic tasks, and after the month is over, she will leave home.
The household collapses—the daughters-in-law can’t cook, resent doing the washing and cleaning, the men will not do anything at all, because that’s how they have been brought up. To top it all, Lata arrives, expecting the comfort of her mother’s house during the last months of her pregnancy.
It is clear for the sake of drama—and some comic relief– that the Baa’s domineering personality and the men’s dependence on her, has been highly exaggerated. Surely, all men are capable of doing basic things around the house, like fixing a cup of tea or washing their own clothes, but it is only when Mahesh slaps Veena for protesting about the burden of housework, that the daughters-in-law understand and sympathise with Baa’s wish to retire.
She calmly explains to the frazzled sons that she is not doing this because she is angry; she simply wants to live for herself. She has no immediate plans and wants to see where life takes her. Men do it all the time, why not women, is her—and the play’s– reasoning. In Indian culture, there is a stage of ‘vaanaprastham’ in which a couple that has fulfilled their role as ‘grahasth’ (householders), detach from the family, which is what Sudha does. Padmarani played Baa with a quiet dignity that was in contrast to the melodramatic tenor of the other scenes, and made her character very relatable.
The play was a huge success, because it appealed to women who know just what it is like to never be able to put down the burden of looking after the home. Things have changed since then, but not much. The concept of the metrosexual man has not trickled down to small town and rural India. The saas-bahu soap operas on Indian television still assert that the woman’s place is in the kitchen.
(This piece first appeared in mumbaitheatreguide.com)