The Union Cabinet passed the highly controversial Surrogacy Bill on August 25 and renewed the conversation about paternalistic assumptions around surrogacy. (The bill still needs to be debated by Parliament). Hindi films about surrogacy and infertility have argued on both sides of this debate, though not always eloquently.
In Doosri Dulhan (1983), Renu miscarries and finds out that she will not be able to conceive again. Because her husband, Anil, is reluctant to adopt, Renu advises him to hire a prostitute as a surrogate mother, assuming that a woman “who sells her body” will easily “sell her womb”. Anil hires Chanda and they develop a close relationship, much to Renu’s concern. Although Renu doesn’t stop Chanda when she takes the baby with her, Chanda eventually feels that her child would be destined to lead a deprived life with her, and returns him to Renu.
Chori Chori Chupke Chupke (2001) follows a storyline that is so similar to Doosri Dulhan that it has been called its unofficial remake. When Priya and Raj discover that they cannot have children, they also first consider adoption and eventually decide to try surrogacy. For reasons that defy explanation, Raj hires Madhu, a prostitute, to be the surrogate mother.
Despite its pat dialogue and melodrama, Doosri Dulhan is more real because of the complicated moralities of its characters. Chori Chori Chupke Chupke’s Priya is unrelentingly nice. Unlike the painfully desperate Renu, she doesn’t advocate the hiring of a prostitute. She is never jealous of Raj’s growing closeness with Madhu and it is only when Madhu runs away, refusing to give Priya her baby that she displays a flash of human emotion.
In Filhaal…(2002), when Sia discovers that her best friend Rewa cannot have a baby, she offers to be a gestational surrogate. As Sia’s pregnancy progresses, several cracks surface in her relationship with Rewa that culminate in Rewa declaring that she doesn’t want the baby. However, when Sia delivers the baby, they make up and Rewa accepts the child as hers.
It is interesting to note that even characters in highly moralistic films made decades ago would have been in violation of the legislations proposed by the Surrogacy Bill, which bans commercial surrogacy and prevents unmarried women from becoming surrogates.
Chutney Popcorn (1999) features Reena offering to act as a surrogate for her sister, Sarita. Over the course of her pregnancy, Reena’s relationships with Sarita and her girlfriend Lisa become strained as she grows close to her brother-in-law. Sarita decides she is not ready for a baby, and Lisa and Reena raise the child together.
In all these films, personalities of surrogate mothers alter during the course of their pregnancy, becoming more conventional and socially acceptable. In Doosri Dulhan, Chanda’s body language, appearance and accent undergo a transformation over the course of her association with the couple. Raj, on the other hand, subjects Madhu to a painful makeover in Chori Chori Chupke Chupke, giving her etiquette classes. In Filhaal..., Sia, who initially avoids marriage to further her career, eventually agrees to marry her long-time friend, Sahil.
Women in Hindi films and the men in their lives cope with their infertility in different ways. Renu and Priya are consoled by their husbands, but Rewa collapses in Sia’s arms. Sarita, on the other hand, instantly apologises to her husband when she finds out she is infertile.
In Fire (1996), when Radha finds out that she cannot conceive, her husband not only abstains from sexual activity, but also tests his control every night by lying next to her. Radha’s quiet resignation over her infertility is wrenching. On the other hand, in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006), Maya’s infertility leaves unable to drum up any affection for her husband. Her otherwise sensitive husband leaves her distraught when he reminds her of her infertility in an argument.
In Vicky Donor (2012), Vicky attempts to console Ashima when they find out she is infertile, and his angst over his wife’s distress is amply evident. When Ashima’s father finds out that she cannot have a baby, his first concern is her welfare. But he eventually tells Ashima that she ought to be thankful that Vicky loves her despite her infertility.
While women tearfully accept their inability to conceive, men in Hindi films rant against the mere suggestion that they could be infertile. When Dr Chaddha tells Vicky that the least sperm donation will do is assure Vicky of his ability to father children, Vicky is livid because he is absolutely and irrationally convinced about his fertility. In Hari Bhari (2000), although Ghazala is not infertile, she has never been able to have a child after conceiving her daughter. Her husband is furious when Ghazala asks him to see a doctor to confirm that the problem doesn’t lie with him. Although Ghazala is powerless, her sister-in-law Najma asserts her control over her body by getting a birth control operation, a decision that her husband supports.
In Ankur (1974), women rebel against their infertile husbands by seeking sexual intimacy elsewhere. Embittered by a painful divorce, Afia from Onir’s I Am (2010) decides to have the baby she has always wanted though artificial insemination.
Not all Hindi films depict women’s decisions about motherhood with such nuance and sensitivity. In Souten (1983), Rukmini, who decides she doesn’t want a child, is unapologetically painted as selfish. Monishka’s nastiness is established in Yaadein (2001) when she says that she wouldn’t want children immediately after marriage. In Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! (1994), Mamaji tells his wife Bhagwanti that her selfish and money-grubbing nature is to blame for their childlessness.
Hindi films are generally more comfortable depicting side characters as infertile. Consider the couple that steals Geeta in Seeta aur Geeta and Ganga’s adoptive parents in Jis Desh Mein Ganga Rehta Hai. When most couples in Hindi films adopt children, they either do it for altruistic reasons or because they are seeking a way to conceal the illegitimacy of their child. There are a lot more Hindi films about untimely pregnancies and illegitimate children than there are about couples who cannot get pregnant.
Although documentaries like Made in India and Google Baby attempt to represent commercial surrogacy in India, Hindi cinema has stayed curiously silent on the issue. But as the lives of more people are touched by surrogacy in multiple and sometimes painful ways – especially after the introduction of the bill – their stories deserve to be told honestly and sensitively through our films.