Amma, Paati, and TV

Amma, Paati, and TV

Amma, Paati, and TV 1280 853 Anjali Bhavan

There is no other chronicler of inherent irrationality and characteristic weirdness than Paati (my grandmother) in her home and Amma (my mother, my madness) in her home, sitting mesmerized in front of a screen. And I have begun sitting and watching too, more or less.

We watch (secretly enjoy) and discuss all the Tamil soaps we can watch whenever we get free; Paati phones every day to debate over the climax, how Maha’s husband finally realized his cruelty and she falls at his feet, how Kaavya is getting married when she wanted to study medicine, how the first night scene after one wedding was so drawn-out. We digest misogyny and problementic elements before throwing them away like meal leftovers. The story is taken as is and dissected. My perspective means I watch as a woman who happily accepted her husband’s second wife, believes every rich man morphs into a monster and the white girls always wins over the evil, brown girl.

I am my mother’s daughter, after all. All that she loves and hates, I end up absorbing as my own beliefs and standards. I may be a woman of the world today, navigating human love on my phone. – but I am first and foremost the sum of all her melted puddles, hand wringing and muffled tears. The tiniest of changes in life are passed from mother to daughter. Bollywood and television become living personalities in these two apartments.


Paati raised her three daughters on a steady diet of Bollywood movies at the nearest theatre and Doordarshan (the only Indian TV channel back then). School was only a break between discussing Karamchand or Buniyaad with friends while waiting for the next Dharmendra film to color the screen of the only theatre in the sleepy Delhi neighborhood Amma grew up in. Even Thatha (my grandfather), who was a self-proclaimed detester of all things movies and entertainment, sat Sunday with Paati and the girls watching Star Trek (with repressed enthusiasm, I imagine). The theatre was more of a weekly ritual because Thatha used to earn well and tickets were cheap.

It was fascinating that of her three daughters, only Amma inherited her love of music and TV. Perhaps because their lives and marriages mirror each other more than anything. They jumped into the same puddles, made the same mistakes, cried the same way (piteously in front of me, silently and furiously in front of Thatha and my father), and huddled fiercely on the phone whenever their husbands overstepped, which was often.

Only two groups of people seemed to understand their trifles, their inexplicable emotional outbursts over a sullen sister or unwelcoming relatives in Chennai – those that walked in and out of palatial mansions or thatched huts on TV, and those that picked up their hero-sized 2.5 kilogram hands to pummel the villains in a movie. Bollywood star Chelamma goes through the same rhythms my Paati falls into. Chinnathambi is the hero my mother chases in her dreams. When Shah Rukh Khan stretches out his arms and tells Amma she is beautiful from a studio in Bombay, it becomes her responsibility to forego domestic squabbles and do what is morally expected of her: blush.

The solution to their problematic husbands and their children too far away to ever come back: a lifetime of knowledge about Rajesh Khanna’s love affairs, iconic Bollywood superstars like Dilip Kumar and Sharmila Tagore, all imprinted in memory, all on the tips of their tongues and fingers. These memories and characters shatter to wisps when gentler strains fall in real life, and stand ramrod-straight, cold iron-strong when the bigger storms hit – we become the films we watch.


My mother leans on her mother as a conversational crutch while bringing her into the modern world; I do the same. Thanks to watching these modern Bollywood movies with modern characters and storylines, talking about homosexuality is no longer a taboo in our house. Even my brother is being educated on LGBTQ+ rights and the recent revoking of Section 377 in our country.

Over the years, a sense of stubbornness continues to develop. After over fifty years of a life filled to the brim with a hostile husband, off-putting daughters and self-absorbed grandchildren, Paati has grown a backbone of wrought-iron; my mother is on her way to the same. I can see it in her eyes, when they glaze over mild annoyances. When she roars, it is sheet metal crashing over the roofs at midnight, awkward dinner table silences all rolled up and thrown away. Her silence is her anger, her defenses her awakening.

And me? I have cotton growing over my spine, a tiny knot at the base egging me to be stronger – but I am still too young, and have seen too little of life owing to a privileged existence under the protection of these women. I still crumble on not receiving a text from the one person I was waiting for. I anxiously and tenderly set about repairing broken relationships or instead wait for the other person to come and hold my hand when they’re ready. There are years to go before my weirdness will completely manifest. Right now, I’m content with being the personification of my grandmother’s constant anxiety and my mother’s silent tears.


The women in my life may drop to the floor and cry over the tiniest life changes. They have a maddening desire to love even unlovable movies and unlovable men. They are hopeless romantics that refuse to leave borderline-abusive spouses, disavow unruly or neglectful children and instead settle into the ultimate price of the middle class: boredom, a refusal to see and talk sense because it does not fit – this is my heirloom, my grand inheritance from my mother and grandmother. Perhaps I will branch off from them, chart a different course of personality over the decades As time passes, that becomes as unlikely as a Bollywood soap without a cliffhanger or wedding. It may be my ode to these strong women in my life. Live on in their shoes and in my shoes. Take on their lives and memories as my own. I imagine the day when I sit with my own daughter, her grandmother on the phone. I introduce her to the wonders of afternoon Bollywood matinees and when to frown at Rajinikanth.

Header photo © Ricky Garni.

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