Director: Ayush Dahiya
Cast: Arjun Nag, Anisha Ogale
A second-generation NRI man drives into an American university campus. He parks under his estranged sister’s apartment. He looks like he hasn’t slept for days – edgy, tense and somewhat of a mess. You can sense he has thought about this meeting for ages. He calls his sister on the phone before going upstairs to see her. Both of them are nervous. They don’t embrace. She opens the door, still in a short black dress from the previous night. She is surprised – not entirely in a good way – to see him. This is evident from the way she cautiously asks him where he got her address from; it’s clear that she didn’t “leave” the family on noble terms. He can barely look her in the eye; maybe he’s just suppressing his protective instincts. She sounds exceptionally submissive in front of her ‘bhai’ – an autoimmune reaction that floods her mind with unpleasant memories.
We can sense an entire series of history during this uncomfortable interaction. His voice, ripe with passive aggression, suggests that he does not approve of her lifestyle, and her nerve to live on her own terms. The slightly cynical – or Bollywood-conditioned of us viewers – will imagine that her “call center job” that he snidely refers to stands for something a little less legal. Was she thrown out for bringing dishonour to the family? “How can you afford this flat, anyway?” he taunts, before softening up and indirectly hinting at a reconciliation.
She is guarded at first, but this whiff of old-world familiarity starts to melt her insides. A packet of homemade barfi nudges her towards a stalemate. An emotional phone call to ‘Maa’ seals the deal. Outwardly, this feels like a nice little reunion. Inwardly, this is another story altogether.
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Director Ayush Dahiya’s short is brutally simple. There is no soundtrack, because there might already be so many voices in the siblings’ heads. The actors are authentic to their surroundings, with a bit of an organic accent – they insist on communicating in semi-torn Hindi, the broken language of their land rather than the full language of the one they’ve adopted. When he changes tone, it doesn’t appear totally natural, almost as if he is acting. He has a strangely aggressive face tick, too – the kind you associate with movie villains. If anything, Maa works as a peek into the “other side” of immigrant life – the kind where territorial traditionalists insist on retaining the most patriarchal aspects of their culture in order to uphold their fading roots. They feel perversely closer to their ‘desh’ when they invoke the horrors of it.
The scene doesn’t feel the need to manufacture drama, because it’s already ingrained into the situation. A daughter has already been expelled from her ultra-orthodox household – either for daring to love outside caste or work beyond convention. The “movie” has passed, and this aftermath is eerily reminiscent of the buildup to the final moments of Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat. Because, in the end, a ‘Western setting’ doesn’t make much of a difference. As the old saying goes: you can’t take the country out of its citizens. Only, Maa ensures we think of this proverb as a pensive newspaper headline rather than a playful phrase of patriotism.