When Khalid Mohamed, editor of Filmfare and journalist, wrote a piece on his great aunt in the Times of India he had no idea that Benegal would eventually convince Mohamed to write a screenplay based on the idea. This was made altogether unusual since Mohamed was not the greatest fan of Benegal’s cinema. Mammo (1994) would be the first of three films, all written by Khalid Mohamed, in which Benegal explored the fractured lives of three women from Muslim families. The story of Mammo revolves around the character of Mehmooda Begum (Farida Jalal) – a displaced Muslim woman who doesn’t quite know where she belongs anymore, a victim of partition and someone searching for an identity in an uncertain Bombay in which secularism has started to fade. Thrown out by her relatives in Pakistan, Mammo comes to Bombay, staying with her widowed sister Fayyazi (Surekha Sikri) and her 13yr old nephew Riyaz (Amit Phalke) from whose point of the view the story is narrated.
There was no plan for a trilogy but along with Sardari Begum and Zubeidaa, Benegal’s ‘Muslim Trilogy’ is unique to Indian cinema but perhaps less so in the context of Parallel Cinema which had since its birth in the late 1960s at least attempted to make more films on the subject of partition while also re-presenting the lives of Indian Muslims in an altogether convincing and sympathetic way – Garam Hawa the most notable example. The first film in the trilogy, Mammo, was made in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and Bombay Riots of 1992. The post-Ayodhya context of Mammo gives the film a particularly significant ideological resonance. Benegal and Mohamed’s depiction of the oppressed Muslim minority is one that contravenes the often stereotyped representations found in popular Hindi cinema; the overly marked presence of the token Muslim character. Instead, Mammo and other Muslim characters are psychologically complex, have an inner life that we get to see and are often shown in the process of negotiating, contesting their Muslim identity.
Benegal’s output is staggering, comparable to Satyajit Ray in many respects, although I would argue Benegal took on many more controversial and difficult topics and stories over his career, and constantly adapted his style and themes to account for social and political changes in society. Moreover, I can’t think of any other Indian filmmaker over the past 40 years who has constantly engaged with the stories of Indian women, offering a voice to subaltern lives which are continually blotted out in the mainstream. Mammo comes very late in the history of Parallel Cinema and in some respects is a film representative of both Middle Cinema Benegal was often associated with and the Hindi melodrama, returning to classic films such as Bimal Roy’s Bandini. Indeed, Mammo is one of Benegal’s least seen works, a poignantly crafted tale about belonging, borders and identity.