Director: Ashima Chibber
Writers: Sameer Satija, Ashima Chibber, Rahul Handa Cast: Rani Mukerji, Anirban Bhattacharya, Jim Sarbh, and others
The movie begins as Debika Chatterjee (Rani Mukerji), who is settled in Norway with her husband (Anirban Bhattacharya), has her two children snatched away from her by the Norwegian childcare service, which deems the couple unfit to take care of their kindergartener Shubh and five-month-old Suchi. The reason? Cultural differences. According to the Norwegian authorities, sleeping with the children or feeding them by hand are tantamount to putting the children at risk. What ensues is Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway — her long legal battle to get her children back where she eventually even loses the support of her husband.
Directed by Ashima Chibber, it is based on an incident that shook the nation a decade back. Sagarika Chakraborty and Anurup Bhattacharya, an immigrant couple in Norway, had their two children, Abhgiyan and Aishwarya, taken away from them by Barnevernet, the Norwegian Child Welfare Services (CWS), on grounds of improper parenting as the authorities failed to take cognizance of the cultural differences between the two countries. What followed was a mother’s stubborn and sustained legal fight with the Norway government to get custody of her children where the Indian Foreign Ministry eventually had to step in.
It is a heart-wrenching tale of a mother’s pain but also a heroic one — of her resilience. It is a story of an ordinary woman becoming extraordinary through her actions. It is a story of a mother’s fight for justice. And it is a story perfect for a Bollywood movie. For Bollywood loves its mothers. And in Bollywood, ma is synonymous with melodrama. Keeping up with the tradition, it turns this poignant tale into a loud, massy saga that often finds itself trembling on the brink of cringe. The pitch of acting is loud, the characters are stereotypes who behave like inhabitants of saas-bahu serials, there are no backstories that explain any of the goings-on, and even Debika’s character is written with broad strokes—it is ironic that thanks to the writing, she actually comes across as a mentally unstable person, something she is falsely accused of by the authorities and is seen fighting against.
Rani Mukerji is the centerpiece of the drama. She frets and fumes and bawls and runs after a speeding car with the pallu of her saree flying and often turns Mrs Chatterjee into a rather irritating character whose lack of basic common sense and logic fails to get justified by the pain of a mother. In fact, Debika’s lack of accountability for her actions at times alienates the audience from her. One is not allowed to feel her pain and empathize with her as she keeps getting on the nerves with her constant screeching. It is when she is given some silent moments that the actor truly manages to showcase her brilliance. She shines in the pauses and silences. It doesn’t help that the movie fails to trace how she gets to her children kept with the Norway authorities and manages to cross the border—that must have taken some degree of intelligence! But, here, Debika is projected as a mother entirely driven by her emotions, although there are multiple mentions of her science degree to establish her intelligence, one doesn’t get to see even an ounce of it in her actions. At times, she is turned into almost an uncouth wildling fighting with the police and getting dragged by them—it is typical 90s aesthetics that just doesn’t work.
Actor and director, Anirban Bhattacharya makes his Bollywood debut as Anirudh Chatterjee, Debika’s abusive husband who works at an oil rig in Norway, and like many immigrants, is obsessed with getting citizenship. It is after Debika files a domestic violence complaint against him that the family comes under the radar of the Norway government. This story itself had so many prospects — the challenges of the NRI life, how the pursuit of a permanent resident visa impacts the mind of the immigrants, how the spouse without a work permit becomes the homemaker while the partner has to work extra hard to provide for the entire family, how this changes the family dynamics, the social isolation of a person not conversant with the language of the land, how domestic abuse gets normalized, bringing up the children in a foreign land and inculcating your own culture and traditions, etc. But the story is unbothered by any of these. It creates almost a one-dimensional opportunistic villain out of the husband, who conveniently goes MIA in the second half, in an attempt to make a hero out of the wife. There are zero attempts at delving into the psyche of an ambitious immigrant trying to make it on a foreign land and is the sole earning member of a family of four, or that of a husband who is dealing with an emotionally volatile wife whose outbursts repeatedly lands him in legal trouble even getting it on the brink of a possible deportation that could end his career. Bhattacharya, known for his acting prowess in the Bengali film industry, hardly gets a script to work with but still tries his best.
The two women from the childcare department who report Mrs Chatterjee are built on the lines of Cruella de Vil meets Komolika and are unintentionally funny with their malice and melodrama.
Debika’s parents, who in the real story were the support system for Chakraborty, are also relegated to props. In fact, the mother, played by Bengali actor and erstwhile television anchor, Saswati Guhathakurta, has zero dialogues. In a movie about a mother, it is appalling how she has given no voice at all. The mother-in-law, played by Bengali actor, Mithu Chakraborty, has a better fate as she gets a few dialogues but is the quintessential conniving Ekta Kapooresque saas.
Jim Sarbh plays an Indian-origin lawyer Daniel Singh Ciupek who first fights in favor of Mrs Chatterjee against the Norway government and then is appointed by the same government to fight the case against her in an Indian court. It is a bizarre choice, but we have stopped looking for logic at this point. Sarbh looks handsome and also looks the part and is his usual self. Balaji Gauri plays his Indian opposition. As the lawyer fighting Mrs Chatterjee’s case in an Indian court, she is sharp and gives a robust performance. It is in this court scene, where Rani is given some quiet moments while Gauri does the talking, that the film finally finds the depth and poignancy the story deserved. Rani is absolutely brilliant and acts as a perfect foil to Gauri. We also have veteran Bengali Barun Chanda playing the judge and he makes good use of his baritone.
The movie is scripted by Ashima Chibber, Rahul Handa, and Sameer Satija from Sagarika Chakraborty’s book on her real-life ordeal in The Journey Of A Mother. What works for the movie is the original story. What doesn’t is dipping the heart-wrenching story into copious amounts of Bollywood melodrama and serving a loud and screechy movie.
Created as a ‘Rani Mukerji Movie’, it not only fails all the other characters making them one-dimensional and cardboards, but it also fails its protagonist due to the lack of nuance and subtlety in the writing. While Mukerji is powerful as Mrs Chatterjee, the pitch of her performance is too high in most parts, and hence instead of feeling the pain of the mother, you end up getting irritated by her constant screaming and acting out. Although she absolutely nails the quieter moments, those are rare and only come during the last 20 minutes and it is too little too late. The story deserved a better movie and Rani Mukerji deserved a better director.