A new generation of filmmakers is putting homemakers in the spotlight, giving them more agency and visibility
An intelligent but lonely homemaker who develops a deep connection with her husband’s cousin; the shy and dutiful one with a mellifluous voice who pays the price for her unwanted fame after being egged on by her husband; the vulnerable homemaker and sweetmeat caterer constantly mocked by her family for not being worldly wise and English-proficient; the neglected wife who finds love over a wrongly-delivered lunch-box.
Exploring the nuanced universe of a homemaker is seldom thought of as worthwhile or captivating. At home and in our films, these women remain in the shadows. And, of late, it is par for the course to see women on the big screen look beyond the four walls of the home, be career-oriented, reflecting the aspirations of a young generation.
Home and unbound
But this year, a number of films put the focus on everyday homemakers who stood out in various ways, allowing their characters more agency and visibility, at times using this central character to confront urgent questions about modern society.
In the recent Tumhari Sulu, the protagonist Sulu, ably portrayed by Vidya Balan, doesn’t abide by the stereotype of a housewife — she isn’t caught in a stifling space, she doesn’t lack self-esteem, and she isn’t struggling to break out of her homely existence. If anything, it’s her infectious confidence that carries her through.
Yet, there are challenges. “The spoon and lemon race (in the opening scene) is a metaphor. The whole film is encapsulated in that scene. The world is constantly judging housewives and their balancing act,” says the director, Suresh Triveni. He examines what happens when a happy housewife in a happy marriage becomes a late night “sari-wali aunty” radio jockey by chance. His inspiration, he says, was quite simply the homemakers he saw growing up, including his mother, who were inherently happy people and took pride in running their homes.
In Hindi Medium, released earlier this year, Saba Qamar’s stay-at-home mother, Mita, is the driving force. “A girl from a humble background with ambitions bigger than her family allowed” — is how director Saket Chaudhary describes her.
She is unapologetically determined when it comes to bettering her family’s prospects. She designs a move to Delhi’s upscale Vasant Vihar from their childhood mohalla in Old Delhi so her daughter can make it to a fancy English-medium school, despite her husband Raj’s (Irrfan Khan) protests. This is the only way their daughter can have a bright future, she firmly believes.
As a well-groomed, doggedly aspirational helicopter mom, she knows more than her businessman-husband about the goings-on in the world. Mita’s character shaped up when, during their research, co-writers Chaudhary and Zeenat Lakhani found that homemakers operated like “CEOs of the household”.
“They are not like the previous generation, where the mother’s role was restricted to preparing hot meals for her family. Today’s mothers are the kind who will decide what classes their children should attend. They also have opinions on their husband’s careers. Even though it wasn’t shown (in the film), we always intended Mita to be the creative force behind Raj’s business,” Chaudhary says. “The education of the child invariably becomes a yardstick by which mothers, especially homemakers, are judged.”
In the excellent new film Ribbon, starring Kalki Koechlin and Sumeet Vyas as a young urban couple, we spy another kind of homemaker. Kalki as Sahana, the star employee, is duly rattled by an unplanned pregnancy, but she makes it work as a career woman who doesn’t shy away from a homemaker’s responsibilities (putting breakfast on the table, dealing with the nanny, pumping breast milk at work, pulling up the laundry man). Till her workplace decides to turn hostile, judging her unfairly as a mother and not as a professional. Turning a stay-at-home mother for a short while, Sahana takes it on the chin.
But society continues to conspire against her, making it nearly impossible for her to maintain the delicate balance she seeks; even her seemingly progressive husband’s hidden biases come undone. “Sahana is today’s woman, she is us. We want to be independent, both financially and emotionally, but we aren’t providing mothers an adequate support system,” says director Rakhee Sandilya.
In a different realm, last year’s short film Chutney, directed by Jyoti Kapur Das, gave its reticent housewife “from Ghaziabad” (played masterfully by Tisca Chopra) a refreshing spin as she warded off her husband’s younger lover even while seducing her with a bizarre tale and mouthwatering pakoras and chutney. By the end of the film, you see her in a completely different light.
Next week, in fact, we will see Tisca back in another short about a homemaker making a ‘creative comeback’, by the same creators, Large Short Films, chillingly titled Chhuri. The poster shows a smiling Tisca flanked by co-actors Anurag Kashyap and Surveen Chawla — in bed — teasing ‘the sweet taste of revenge’.
A homemaker is a sum of endless roles. Often, these roles are overlooked and the individual taken for granted. Enter her world and you will find patriarchy embedded in the woodwork. For filmmaker Neeraj Ghaywan, the image of women in his family buried under the weight of male entitlement is an abiding childhood memory he confronted in his powerful new short film Juice, starring Shefali Shah.
“I have grown up seeing in my family circles the men being sexist and misogynistic while the women would be squeezed into the kitchen. The living room has been an area of male entitlement. Women automatically take the route of the kitchen. And children see this, internalising it. I also found that popular culture looks down on housewives. Why is she inferior if she is at home wilfully,” asks Ghaywan, while acknowledging that there are, of course, troubling shades to what is really “wilful” and a matter of “choice”.
Earlier this year, Konkana Sen Sharma’s character in Lipstick Under My Burkha battled another kind of oppressive space. Trying to break out of her housewife-without-a-voice role, she bags a job as a saleswoman, excelling in it, but not without consequences. Though varying in degree, the pressures homemakers face are universal, says Shefali, which is why playing Manju came easily to her.
“I work and I may be in the limelight but that doesn’t take away from the fact that I am a homemaker too. I love to cook and handle my kitchen. I am extremely house-proud. My home functions like clockwork. Nobody asks Vipul (Shah, her producer husband) where he is going, or where he was when he was away a few nights, but I am asked those questions.”
“In Juice, every time someone says something, it adds to Manju’s frustration, till she is on the verge of exploding, scraping chicken off the pan in a moment of displaced anger. But she could be a CEO and still have to face the same things. Manju’s story is the story of our grandmothers, mothers and women, everywhere,” she says.
Homemakers are critiqued for not going out and getting a job, while career women are judged for the choices they make; there is no winning, says Ghaywan. In such a scenario, Sulu embodies hope, even if some might find fault in her having to bear the burden of keeping her family from falling apart.
Says Triveni: “There is a severe amount of pressure on women today, which is why I use the superhero metaphor (with Sulu’s sari pallu turning into a cape). Homemakers are the best negotiators. They have the rare ability to solve everything.”