In fiction, the mother-in-law stands beside the stepmother as the monster in the family. The image may be stereotypical and often unfair, but it is inspired by stories from real life, in which a man’s mother and wife are traditionally antagonistic; because they are forced into a situation wherein it’s impossible to remain neutral.
The mother who prays for her son to get a good wife, then resents the woman she sees as an intruder in her orderly home. Of course, the daughter-in-law can’t cook as well, serve as well, be as good a mother or organize the family’s lives as well as she does. If the daughter-in-law works outside the home, she neglects the house; if she is a homemaker, she is a lousy one. If the bahu gets fed-up and wants to set up her household separately, she is a homebreaker. Seen from the daughter-in-law’s point of view, the saas is an interfering busybody, who can’t or won’t let go of her son. There is just no win-win situation!
This is particularly an Indian (or South Asian) problem, because after marriage, a woman is expected to move in with her in-laws. Which is why there are dozens of books, magazine articles and films, in which either the saas or the bahu is the vamp, the husbands are fence-sitters and the prize at the end of the battle is control of the household—literally symbolize by the keys of the cupboard. In most of parts of India, women have very little power in a patriarchal family structure till they give birth to a son, and the son’s hapless wife is put through the same grind as her mother-in-law was when she was a bahu, because now she has some modicum of power. Something like a student who was ragged in college will rag the next lot of freshers. Think of the terror just three actresses—Lalita Pawar, Shashikala and Bindu– wreaked on their suffering bahus in so many family dramas, only to be balanced by the misery inflicted on Leela Chitnis, Achla Sachdev and Durga Khote by their horrid screen daughters-in-law.
Which is why when satellite TV became the big home entertainment phenomenon, the saas-bahu serials became so popular, and made Ektaa Kapoor a television moghul. She understood that a large section of the soap opera audience was in small towns, and they went through pretty much what the female characters in her serials went through—only the kitchen politics plots were greatly exaggerated and the characters were horrendously overdressed and overdressed. (When those glittery clothes and blingy jewellery became the trend all over the country, Ekta and other soap operas producers could smugly say “we told you so” to those who criticized the serials for being loud and regressive.)
Shows like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (1833 episodes) and Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki (1661 episodes) the earliest, most successful and the longest running soaps—sent the entire entertainment industry back to the drawing board, and the stranglehold of the domestic banshees was probably loosened with web shows changed the viewing habits of at some percentage of the audience bedazzled by saas-bahu dramas; though remnants of those can still be found on prime time TV.
What brought on memories of these, were two recent projects—a web show and a film—that had a refreshingly different view on the saas-bahu relationship, in which the women are comrades, not combatants.
Saas Bahu Achaar Pvt. Ltd. (directed by Apoorv Singh Karki) is set in a middle class home located in Old Delhi. There is no background provided for the Suman (Amruta Subhash)- Daadi (Yamini Das, the character not given a name) relationship over the period of her marriage to Dilip (Anup Soni); one can assume it was arranged and not too happy. However, Suman must have been a good homemaker and caring daughter-in-law for Daadi to remain in touch with her after Dilip’s divorce and remarriage. There must have been some tussle over the divorce, but that is not shown and Daadi is shown to be content—or at least not dissatisfied with—the new daughter-in-law, who is also good-natured. But when she sees Suman struggling to set up a pickle business and flailing helplessly because she lacks confidence and experience, Daadi steps in with her practical wisdom.
First, she shills for Suman in the state transport bus where she is trying to sell pickles, by pretending to be a stranger and loudly praising the wares. It’s not as if Daadi worked outside the home either, but she has lived longer, and perhaps observed more than her reticent bahu. You have to shout till phlegm rises in your throat, she advises the stuttering Suman. Later, Daadi accompanies Suman on her marketing rounds, chips in with the negotiations and, when an infusion of funds is needed to grow the business, steals from the other daughter-in-law.
Daadi may not have been able to stand up to her son, but she supports both bahus, one to live fully outside the home, the other to fit in better in the home amidst the hostility of Suman’s children. She is such a far cry from the greedy bride-torturing and burning mothers-in-laws that one reads about in the papers, that she seems to have arrived from another planet.
In the film Jug Jugg Jeeyo (directed by Raj Mehta), set in upper class Patiala, Naina (Kiara Advani) does not live with her in-laws, but when she comes visiting from Canada, there is a certain warmth between her and her mother-in-law, Geeta (Neetu Kapoor). Naina’s marriage is on the verge of breaking, but appearances have to be maintained; unknown to her, Geeta’s marriage is about to face a storm too. The women of two generations have opposing views on marriage—the younger is willing to let go more easily, the older wants to hold on till the fracture is too difficult to heal. The affection between the two women comes across in the scene in which they talk to each other, and Geeta explains her point of view about how to cope with the difficulties of marriage. Perhaps Geeta gives Naina the words to articulate to her husband what is wrong with their relationship, and gives the young couple the will to mend the rift.
In both the series and the film, women are strong, driven and supportive of each other. After the storm in their lives has abated, they prove that empathy is the glue that keeps families together, and for better or for worse, that device that control its flow is in the hands of women.
(This piece first appeared in The Free Press Journal dated July 15, 2022)