They may have been few and far between, but all of Ratna Pathak Shah’s onscreen avatars have been memorable. Whether it was the cool yet fiercely protective mother in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na (2008), or the stern matriarch of Khoobsurat (2014), Ratna has always turned the doting-and-self-effacing Bollywood maa template on its head, bestowing human frailties on the mother figure and making her more real and relatable.
“I am apparently called the go-to modern mother,” says Ratna, 59, her rich laughter punctuating the declaration. At present, she is receiving praise for yet another realistic depiction of a woman struggling with the challenges of motherhood, marriage and life.
“Sunita was a fantastic part to play,” says Ratna of her character from Shakun Batra’s critically acclaimed film Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921). “It was a very lucky break for me, but I am not holding my breath for something similar to come my way soon.”
Sunita Kapoor loves one son more than the other, is barely holding together a bitter marriage and trying to make sense of the vacuum in her life since her kids have left. But call her a bad mother, and Ratna is quick to defend her.
“I refuse to believe anyone who says they do not differentiate between children. Everyone does. You love everyone in different ways. All of us deal with various kinds of unhappiness and issues. We all have to find our way,” says Ratna. “So in that sense Sunita was an extremely easy person to identify with.”
Cinema of realism
The film, the story of a ‘dysfunctional’ family, is full of confrontations, dark secrets, squabbles, humour, and has been lauded for its naturalism.
“Shakun is largely responsible for the quality of realness and truth you find in the film,” says Ratna. “The cinematographer, Jeffery F Bierman, was part of all our rehearsals. He would follow us around and we stopped thinking of the camera as an entity to which we have to direct all our attention. So that quality of fluidity was achieved very consciously. Not to mention the fact that the film was so well written.”
Ratna also credits its timing for the success of the movie. The audience, she believes, is becoming more demanding now. “Whether you talk of Kangana Ranaut in Queen (2014), or of Vicky Kaushal in Masaan (2015), I see a great sense of hope that we are finally beginning to move out of this ridiculous, star-centric filmmaking into something more interesting. Even films with big stars do not do well unless there is a script in place. A Bajrangi Bhaijaan does extremely well, but a Dilwale does not.”
The paucity of fresh ideas, whether on the big screen or the idiot box, says Ratna, is due to the fact that the industries have not invested in their writers. “Hollywood didn’t spring out of nothing. They invested wisely and significantly in their writers. We haven’t done it and we are now paying the price for it,” she points out.
Maya Sarabhai, the snooty mother-in-law Ratna played in the sitcom Sarabhai vs Sarabhai (2004-6) is probably her most famous character. The secret of the show’s huge success, believes Ratna, was the good comic writing. “Isn’t it a pity that 10 years down the line nothing better than Sarabhai… has come along? I don’t think it was the last word in TV of that genre.”
This explains why Ratna has such a small, though remarkable onscreen oeuvre. “I choose projects which challenge me, which is why I unfortunately have had very few [film] projects. Financially, I was being supported by a very generous husband. So I didn’t need to work simply to make a living. I have been lucky to be given roles which have pushed me,” says Ratna.
Smashing the stereotype
Each of the mothers she played has been differently etched. “Maya Sarabhai is so differently written from Rukmini of Filmi Chakkar,” says Ratna. “I could therefore find somewhat different things to do. Otherwise you become a stereotypical mother, poor Nirupa Roy and her ilk who have spent years either crying or saying ‘Beta, baitho main chai leke aati hoon’. I am relieved to have been spared that fate so far.”
In real life, Ratna is the mother of three (and all of them are actors)—Heeba (her stepdaughter), Imaad and Vivaan. She says as a mother, she is probably a mix of Maya Sarabhai and Savitri Rathore from Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na.
“A person with whom her kids can have a conversation and a fight, and share a hug,” she says. “I had a great mother [actor Dina Pathak] and she was all of that to me. So I’d like to pass it on to my kids. And yes, I am strict. I do have strong principles and I recommend that people around me enforce them. But now that my kids are older, they have learnt to ignore me completely when they want to.”
Ratna will next be seen in Nil Battey Sannata, which releases on April 22. The title is “slang for a loser” and stars Swara Bhaskar as an unlettered maid who wants to educate her daughter. “We took it to a film festival in China, and so many Chinese people came up to us after the screening and said ‘This is the story of my mother,’ ‘This is the story of my life,’” says Ratna, who plays Swara’s employer in the film.
Later this year, Ratna will be seen in Lipstick Wale Sapney. “My films have such interesting titles,” she says, delighted. Directed by Alankrita Shrivastava and produced by Prakash Jha, the film focuses on four women in Bhopal. “It is about their lives and how they intersect. About the dreams and aspirations that a lot of women keep hidden under burqas or at least metaphorical burqas,” says Ratna.
From HT Brunch, April 17, 2016
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