In most marital tales that subscribe to an enduring negative cultural stereotype, mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law are pitted against each other — almost like two gladiators.
Since most women in India move into their husbands' homes after marriage, the relationship forged with their mother-in-law is crucial. The Indian mother-in-law is often depicted as a commanding figure in Bollywood films. She struggles to keep firm control over her son and refuses to accept her daughter-in-law as an equal in the household.
This image is further cemented by dramas like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Balaji Telefilms, 2000-2008) and the more recent, Anupamaa (Star Plus, 2020- ongoing), gaining immense popularity in Indian households. Both shows focus their plotlines around a mother and a daughter-in-law in a household, where only one woman can rule.
In fact, it should come as no surprise that in a recent episode of Dance Deewane Juniors, Neetu Kapoor was asked by host Karan Kundrra: Who will run the show at home, now that daughter-in-law Alia Bhatt is here?
What is our obsession with this relationship? And with celebrities asked questions like these on a popular show, how does this impact households?
Across social classes
Meet Sangeeta*. She’s 29 years old, works a 12-hour job as a domestic help, and pays for her child’s education. She also supported a five-person household when her husband lost his job and got into debt at the start of the pandemic.
Sangeeta is often chided by her mother-in-law and sister-in-law for not being a good wife, who stays home — why does she have to work and make her husband stay home, having to ’entertain’ their child all day? To give context, Sangeeta’s husband (33), who still has no job and no prospects, had decided to help educate and raise their child.
I know Sangeeta and her story well since I hear of it every day. She works as household help with my family, reaching bright and early at 8am every day. Depending on how the day goes, she leaves our house about 9 hours later, only to go back home and do very similar work — house chores, cooking, laundry. She also checks on her 8-year-old son’s homework. By the time her head hits the pillow, it’s after midnight.
Instead of supporting the only earning member of her family at home, Sangeeta’s mother-in-law’s response to her struggles is that she should find a job with better work hours even if it pays less: “So that you can take care of my son,” she adds. Sangeeta’s husband disagrees. He’d told her that their debt would have only increased without her support. “I will always be there to drop you and pick you up when you need to come home,” he tells her.
The story is similar in the household of Aurangabad based-couple, Ananya* a 32-year-old communications professional and Prathmesh* a web engineer (36).
As the pandemic restrictions eased out, her husband’s workplace decided to move to a hybrid work model. So they moved to a bigger, five-bedroom apartment closer to Ananya’s office and offered him a dedicated office room at home.
While this sounds convenient to most working couples, Ananya’s mother-in-law disagreed, “it doesn’t suit our family; Prathmesh should not stay at home overseeing daily household work and planning meals for the evening.”
“According to my mother-in-law, I am living a life with no (domestic) responsibilities,” notes Ananya. A bigger and better house, and not being stuck for hours in traffic don't seem to be big enough advantages.
The role of pop culture
While this conversation between the two may sound like a scene from Sarabhai vs Sarabhai (Star One, Season 1, 2004-2006) – the show revolved around arguments, albeit humorous, between mother-in-law Maya Sarabhai and daughter-in-law, Monisha Sarabhai – Ananya’s husband isn't the sort of mediator that Sahil Sarabhai (Monisha’s husband) was.
“Prathmesh often replies to her taunts with jokes of his own being a ‘happy house husband’, and that infuriates her,” explains Ananya. “If only once he would explain that these dynamics have changed, I know it will help her stop seeing me as the villain.”
“The husband also plays a key role in signalling to his wife the best ways to communicate with his family,” comments Geoffrey Greif, co-author of In-Law Relationships: Mothers, Daughters, Fathers and Sons, in a New York Times interview, “he may also speak to his mother about how to approach his wife. He is the third part of the triangle and needs to be thought about.”
A point that is further developed in Dharmi’s* (65) advice to her son when on one stay, she noticed that her daughter-in-law, Meena*, would fall asleep on the sofa after dinner because of the amount of both office work and housework. “I told my son that he has to do most of the work on the weekend, whether they invite friends or simply relax at home. Meena is a working woman. So if the office gives her holidays, we are her family and should respect her need to recharge.”
Coming from an orthodox family, married at a young age and having her life change overnight to take on the role of a bahu, Dharmi, while holding her husband’s family in the highest of regards, urges her own daughter and now daughter-in-law to be independent. She has even excused Meena from attending several family functions where she was excepted because they were held on weekdays. “Even Meena’s mummy finds this very surprising,” she says with a laugh.
A conversation about this with Suvrita, a Bengaluru-based mental health professional and comprehensive sexuality educator, brings to focus the importance of representation in popular culture: “It can set the tone for where we would like to reach when it comes to in-law relationships. In my work, many explorations show me how films and tv shows have been setting the bar for how things should and shouldn’t be.”
The character tropes in such dramas quickly find a way into many Indian homes, and it doesn’t take long for parallels to be drawn between reel life and real life.
“People internalise these messages from popular culture, and it impacts their lives in so many different ways — a lot of the work we do in therapy is to try and undo this,” explains Suvrita.
A slow but evolving dynamic
So how does one navigate a delicate relationship such as this one? How should lines be drawn to respect one’s distance and nurture the family bond?
“There are things at stake that are very important to the mother-in-law,” says Greif. “She is often unsure of which role she should play. She wants to maintain contact with her child. She also wants to have access to the grandchildren, and again, in the majority of the families, that access runs through the daughter-in-law. Often she might be left wondering where and how she fits in.”
This need for control could stem from insecurity and inadvertently translate into dictating the daughter-in-law’s lifestyle.
Even with films like Ki & Ka (2016) and Tumhari Sulu (2017) attempting to normalise the dialogue of working wives, many daughters-in-law still find it difficult to juggle their roles and are often encouraged to leave their jobs and instead work for the household.
With women now actively focusing a majority of their lives on their work and uplifting their careers, it should come as no surprise that many Indian couples are now looking at live-in relationships over marriage, where a woman can have both her independence and enjoy living with her partner- sans a mother-in-law. According to LegalRaasta.com, as of February 2021, 80% of Indians support live-in relationships.
“All relationships need to be based on something; there are several reasons why I love my partner, but none of these will automatically extend to his mother,” states Laxmi*(29), who has been living with her boyfriend since the pandemic began. “I work almost 15 hours a day, I would like to spend the rest with my partner, or relax with friends; what I don’t need in my life is to manage or be managed by a mother-in-law who struggles to come to terms with the fact that I will have and live my own life.”
While attempting to redefine the relationship between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law will be an arduous and slow process, the wheels are in motion. And as Dharmi says “it’s time we women started supporting each other. All good deeds begin at home.”
* Names changed to protect identities.
Richa Sheth is a freelancer writer based in Pune. She explores complexities within human interactions and relationships