Bollywood actress Rani Mukerji, who plays a feisty mother in her new performative drama ‘Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway’, called out the double standards that exists in modern-day parenting.
The prejudice deepens if you happen to be a working mother.
“Mothers are always judged,” said Mukerji in a video interview with Gulf News.
“Like you know, when a child grows up and does well, it’s always the father’s upbringing. But if the child – for whatever reason is spoiled – it’s the mothers who are blamed for spoiling that child … The mother is always at fault,” she added.
Mukerji, who’s married to Yash Raj Films honcho Aditya Chopra and has a seven-year-old daughter Aadira with him, doesn’t say these words with malice but with a sagacity that can only come with age and experience.
Her calm and collected demeanour is in sharp contrast to her latest role as the distraught and disillusioned Debika Chatterjee in her new film, out in the UAE cinemas on March 17.
Directed by Ashima Chibber and co-produced by Zee Studios, Mukerji brings to life the 2011 true-life harrowing episode of an Indian mother, Sagarika Bhattacharya, based in Norway and whose young children are taken away by the Norwegian Child Welfare authorities after they declare her an incompetent, mentally unstable mum.
Director Chibber culls out major portions from Bhattacharya’s life and her long, arduous battle for child custody in Norway and then in Indian courts. Cultural norms like feeding your child with hands instead of knife and fork, co-sleeping with your young children, and placing a Kohl dot — a common custom among Indians to ward off evil — are weaponised and used against Debika by her opposition lawyers. Heavy hints that her character is also trapped in a borderline toxic marriage with a seemingly emotionally stable but gas-lighting husband, played by Anirban Bhattacharya, eroded her parenting scores further.
The film focuses singularly on Debika’s long-winded struggle to regain her children’s custody and right to live with dignity. The shocking incident, that saw the Norwegian child protection authorities come under fire for their controversial decision to separate children from natural parents over cultural confusions and bias, also became a point of diplomatic flashpoint where the two countries’ governments entered into a discussion on how to solve the crisis. A personal trauma soon began to have geo-political ramifications.
“Honestly, I can’t even put myself in her place, because it’s too traumatic a thought to even let it go through your mind. I was completely shattered when I heard about this story. An Indian family living abroad could have faced so much injustice! It was beyond my thinking,” said Mukerji.
The actress, who is one of Bollywood’s most commanding talents with an arresting screen presence, also points out that ‘Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway’ is a stark departure from the usual Bollywood films that romanticise and glorify the immigrant Indian experience in developed nations.
“For me, when I think of Indians living abroad the picture that’s always given to us is that they have a great life. Everything is great about their lifestyle, etc. But what we forget are often the challenges that they face on a day-to-day basis. Being Indian in another country and trying to embrace somebody’s cultural beliefs and staying true to their roots is a challenge,” said Mukerji.
Bollywood films are notorious for churning out glossy entertainers and romances set in traditionally rich nations. Indian families based outside their home country are often living in palatial homes and driving swanky cars – a nod to the American/European dream and the joys of capitalism.
“But those struggles of being Indian in another country is always side-lined. Everybody talks about their better lifestyle, but this is a story about an Indian who suffered abroad because of her cultural beliefs. And it didn’t even happen long time ago, but very recently in 2011,” said Mukerji.
Mukerji, who is known for her stellar turns in films like ‘Talaash’ in which she played a mother seeking closure after her son drowns and her wicked comedy ‘Bunty Aur Babli’, also admits that she wasn’t aware of this case, even though it was extensively covered in news media outlets at that time.
“Despite the media covering the news, I still didn’t know about the case till I got offered this film in 2021. This story needs to be told and needs to be heard. It’s a story that needs to make noise. And as an artist, I just thought it befitting to do a film on a mother who showed grit, love, and determination. She never gave up. She fought her husband and countries to get her children back,” said Mukerji.
Apparently, her own mother was a crucial reference point for Mukerji who believes that she isn’t a true-blue, puritanical Bengali. This actress grew up in Mumbai, but her mother’s staunch stand towards retaining her own roots helped her play Debika better.
“I have seen my mum’s struggle in her life. She’s the closest Bengali mother as can be and I watched her closely while growing. I felt Debika’s character was very close to her. I couldn’t relate to her as Rani, since I was born and brought up in Bombay. I am not a typical Bengali mom, but Debika is very much like my mum. My mum was raised in West Bengal and had a different twang.
“She got married 50 years ago and moved to Bombay, but she didn’t leave her roots. She sounds like a Bengali even now. Her Hindi is broken and her English is broken. I wanted Debika to come across as an authentic person … Indian films always shave a take on how South Indians sound in a Hindi film or a Punjabi or a Haryanvi, but seldom is a Bengali from West Bengal shown … They have a different twang,” said Mukerji.
In her quest for being authentic, Mukerji plays a mother on a rampage. Debika’s fierce, loud, and furiously anguished. She isn’t always likeable and seems excessive in some of the emotionally-charged scenes where she wails and screeches her anguish. So, didn’t Mukerji worry that she would come across as shrill and over-the-top? The movie is told from a troubled mother’s trauma response.
“Every mother is different and every mother will react very differently. Debika solely focused on the pain she felt when her children were taken away from her. Imagine a mother who’s breastfeeding and her child is taken away from her. You can’t tell a mother on how to internalize the pain? For an actor it’s very easy to not to do anything. But the beauty of Debika was she was unabashed. She just wanted her children at every cost,” said Mukerji. She wasn’t mad, but just mad for her children and how to get them back.
“And remember everyone reacts differently at crucial points in their lives … Debika’s husband was more rational than here … There was this interesting dichotomy,” she added.
While this seasoned actress, who has thrived in Bollywood for nearly two decades, is a formidable force of nature in this film, the parts on how she deals with her husband’s toxic behavior felt ambiguous. Was that deliberate?
“There were certain things we could tap legally … there was a tape around us. What was not legally approved couldn’t be in the story … So something may look like we are on the fence … But it’s cleverly written, but we couldn’t delve deep into it because we were not allowed to … But it’s still a powerful story,” said Mukherjee.
And we hear her, loud and clear.
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'Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway' is out in UAE cinemas on March 17, Friday