Mother’s Day special: Tracing the evolution of mothers in South cinema

A look at some of the on-screen moms in Tamil films whose compelling portrayals have become folklore.

BySujatha Narayanan

Published May 12, 2024 | 9:30 AMUpdatedMay 12, 2024 | 9:30 AM

Mothers in South cinema

Mothers and movie marquee moments are inseparable.

MG Ramachandran, popularly known as MGR, almost had his opening shot with him entering the scene and saying, “Vetri, Vetri” (victory, victory) to the actor playing his mother (who was usually much younger than him); the onscreen mother blessing him in a way which would set the tone for the rest of the film.

A mother song has always enjoyed a great deal of popularity, musically as well; KJ Yesudas’ “Amma Endrazhaikaadha“, Unni Krishnan’s “Kaalaiyil Dhinamum“, and SP Balasubrahmanyam’s solo “Naanaaga Naan Illai” are still favourites on All India Radio.

Pasupuleti Kannamba

Late Pasupuleti Kannamba played mother’s roles in several films. (X)

Mother sentiment scenes hark back to the fierce Pasupuleti Kannamba, who bellowed, “Manohara, Poruthadhu Podhum Pongiezhu” (Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s lines) to her on-screen son Sivaji Ganesan, who immediately finds the superhuman strength to unchain himself from the iron cuffs keeping him prisoner to giant pillars, is legendary.

Fast forwarding from the black-and-white era to the millennium, we find a funnier and happier mom in Saranya Ponvannan in many a South Indian film where she either encourages her son to pursue his love interest or protects him from a strict father.

South cinema, like literature, always celebrated women better as mothers — be it in their serious mommy avatars or when they changed with the times and were also seen as friendly and young as Nadhiya was in M Kumaran Son of Mahalakshmi (2004).

But the mother I’ve remained most impressed with, closest to a real mom in a middle-class then-Madras household was in the Tamil serial Penn (Woman).

Created and directed by Suhasini Mani Ratnam, the anthology mini-series was aired first on Doordarshan in 1991.

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Suhasini’s Penn, a trendsetter

A till from Penn serial

A still from the ‘Penn’ serial directed by Suhasini in 1991. (Screengrab)

Penn began with the episode “Hemavukku Kalyanam” (Hema getting married), essentially the story of a mother and daughter played by Srividya and Revathy.

The mother and daughter in this episode were the most volatile, totally un-sentimental or melodramatic pair I’d seen on screen till then. The story was a profoundly deep take on a parent-child relationship.

Cinema usually showcases dads and daughters and moms and sons.

Rarely do we also see the same gender equation play off one another and in Penn, the mother and daughter are separated and do not come across as wholly understanding of one another from the first frame.

The daughter is a rebel, and the mother is a conservative. She’s unhappy that her second child is always breaking her rules.

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The mom-daughter conflict

As Hema grows up, the two women don’t even communicate properly; they’re upset with each other and they often let their egos talk, mind you.

In most cases, this speaking consists only of monosyllables or mumblings, and it is usually the older daughter or father who acts as a messenger between the two equally stubborn and strong-headed women.

Srividya and Revathy in 'Penn' serial

Srividya and Revathy in the ‘Penn’ serial. (Screengrab)

Hema is forever in the zone of seeking her mother’s approval but the latter is constantly in the zone of withholding her validation.

After Hema’s teenage years pass, adulthood arrives, bringing her marriage and leaving her parents’ home as the climax.

Hema looks for her mom to say “bye” but the mother doesn’t even come to see her off at the door.

Hema has had enough of this tug-of-war with the one woman who is more important to her than anyone else in the world. So, she runs back home only to find her mom in the kitchen, with her back turned to Hema.

The confrontation is a complete breakdown of the two women who never conveyed their mutual love till now.

The mother reveals how she has seen Hema as an extension of herself; the elder one was like the father, but Hema was her!

How will she function now that Hema won’t be around in the house? How did she miss showering affection on the one soul she loved more than herself?

Hema is beyond moved and there is an open acceptance of her mother and they exchange good words (right through the serial the mom and daughter would only exchange acerbic phrases).

Srividya and Revathy elevate this evergreen “mother sentiment scene” with their expert performances.

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Radikaa & Shobana

Radikaa Sarathkumar left a mark in Love Today

Radikaa Sarathkumar played a supporting mom in ‘Love Today’. (X)

Coming to mother characters we see now, for example, in a film like Pradeep Ranganathan’s Love Today (2022), the climax is not on the young pair but is a sit-down dialogue between the mother and son.

Radikaa Sarathkumar gave a triumph of performance in both the comic timing and sentimental value required of this role.

It’s the best scene of the film for me when a woman (and an adult boy’s mother no less) speaks of her college days and her tryst with love in a dignified manner that makes her son realise how he should treat his girlfriend with whom he was being possessive and chauvinistic.

Shobana played a similar modern-day mom in the Malayalam film Varane Avashyamund (2020).

It has her daughter (Kalyani Priyadarshan) come to terms with her mother’s diva reputation. She understands her mom’s current interest in their neighbour (Suresh Gopi) via her blossoming relationship with a boy (Dulquer Salmaan).

These mothers stand out from the regular mommies we see on-screen.

Mommy dearest in South Cinema — then & now

Tamil masala cinema, and of course, Telugu cinema follow a mother template. The hero will have one mother sentiment scene, one sister sentiment scene, one or two love interests, and a villain to finish off in the climax.

As society evolves in its approach to modern families and women become more financially independent, the on-screen mothers in South cinema became women who worked and didn’t have to be like the docile mothers we saw in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Senior actors like Lakshmi played stellar roles in many South films that didn’t have them cower to their heroic sons or husbands.

Trisha Simran and Nayanthara

Trisha, Simran, and Nayanthara won the hearts of audiences by portraying modern moms. (X)

As storytelling became mainstream in South cinema, mothers on-screen became increasingly key to moving the story forward.

For instance, Urvashi has her share of both sentimental and fun moms.

An outstanding historical mom is Sivagami, played perfectly by Ramya Krishnan in the Baahubali franchise (2015 & 2017).

A new-age mom played so elegantly has to be Simran, who played a mother in Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittal (2002) and Gautham Menon’s Vaaranam Aayiram (2008).

Both these films have a heroine play a mom. But the mother character is the “heroine” in both movies.

Trisha and Nayanthara have played modern, working mother roles to much success.

An actor can play mommy roles even in her younger years provided the mother is the film’s central character. It’s up to our writers and directors to give them such roles.

Well, on that note, Happy Mother’s Day!

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