The makers and lead actors of 'Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway' must have known they had a cracker of a real-life story when they embarked on making this emotionally-charged film based on actual events. But sometimes even the best of intentions can get lost in translation and that happened with this real-to-reel misfire.
The gut-wrenching 2011 episode of a Bengali mother in Norway who fights the world, moves mountains/countries to reclaim her two young children after the Scandinavian state authorities declare her an incompetent mother and places them in foster homes for adoption is disturbing on several levels.
It’s outrageously shocking that the child welfare officials in a state would wield so much power that natural parents in a foreign country are forced to give up their kids for adoption. There’s trauma, maternal pride, cultural misunderstandings, and a migrant family failing to fit into a Western habitat -- ingredients for a compelling watch. Throw in a pair of wide-eyed kids who are thrust into a possibly current system of child care and an apathetic government system, and you are likely to have a banger of a Bollywood film.
Plus, it’s a parent’s worst nightmare when your skills as a nurturer is questioned and your self-worth is decimated based on arbitrary evidence on what constitutes good, bad, and terrible parenting. Cultural norms like feeding your own child with your hands instead of using cutlery, co-sleeping with young kids, and placing a black dot on their face to ward off the evil eye may be innocent cultural norms, but these practices are deemed draconian and beastly by the Norwegian authorities who believe children are inherently unsafe in an Indian home shepherded by a toxic husband (Anirban Bhattacharya) and an unapologetically Bengali tigress of a mom.
After all, a ghastly crime that stokes second-hand outrage was played out with a ferocious and agonised mother aiming to reclaim her children – now wards of the Norwegian state – and her dignity. As far as the story goes, it had everything going for it, so what could possibly go wrong? A lot if you look at how director Ashima Chibber approached to hammer out this harrowingly traumatic and uplifting tale. There’s no subtlety here as Mukerji as the agonised mother, Debika Chatterjee, turns shrill and screechy at every given turn. Like a sledgehammer gone rogue, Debika – played forcefully by Mukerji - is loud. There’s no room for us to feel strongly because we are stuffed with overbearing characters and broad-strokes storytelling. Meanwhile, Norwegians — who are shown as emotionally bankrupt and chillingly vicious bunch — feels like a reductive way to tell a complex story.
Don’t get me wrong here, every fiber of my being wants to be sympathetic to her painful plight – she’s stuck in a borderline-abusive marriage with a husband and her youngest baby is still being breast-fed, but Mukerji’s act makes it tough for us to truly feel for her. In every frame, you get the distinct impression that they are trying too hard. The tired tropes of inserting a song to underline Debika’s character arc as a tired mother, doting guardian, and a high-pitched wife doesn’t help their case either. But in some subtle scenes – like the one where Debika ravenously eats rice, milk, and banana without a care in the world when she gets a breakthrough in the custody case, Mukerji shines bright. Another stand-out scene was a part where she kept storing breast milk in freezers to give her daughter who has been plucked away against her will. But such scenes are limited as the film focuses on doling out melodrama in giant heaps. Debika is a force of nature, but we’re almost choked by her rabid intensity and vehement reactions. In comparison, Jim Sarbh as the anglophile, suave lawyer; and Anirban Bhattarcharya, as Debika’s husband, are carefully restrained. Perhaps, it was all planned. But somehow Debika’s character could have benefitted from being underplayed. While the film keeps you engaged because of the sheer audacity and unfairness of the tragedy, there was a lot of wasted potential. It’s all on the nose here.
Bhattarcharya’s character is quietly despicable as someone who can gaslight for a living. The scenes between Debika and her supercilious husband are well-captured. She may not show much agency when it comes to taking on her sexist and chauvinist husband, but is a raging tornado when her maternal instincts are attack. It gets a bit too much and a lot is packed in the second half. A flawed system of child care and custody in Norway to adopted parents being given a cold shoulder, there’s a lot of chest-thumping among natural mothers.
No doubt, it’s a significant tale of a mother’s battle to regain her children but I wish it was told in a less cranky manner. It felt like a gross miscarriage of creativity and opportunity.
Film: Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway
Director: Ashima Chibber
Cast: Rani Mukerji, Anirban Bhattacharya, Jim Sarbh, Tiina Tauraite, and Kristjan Üksküla
Stars: 2.5 out of 5
Don't Miss It!
'Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway' is out on March 17 in UAE cinemas