Director: Ashima Chibber
Writers: Sameer Satija, Ashima Chibber, Rahul Handa
Cast: Rani Mukerji, Anirban Bhattacharya, Jim Sarbh
You know how some inspired-by-real-events movies are so sharp and compelling that, as a viewer, you stop caring about the authenticity – the creative licences – of the narrative? You tend to understand that the calibration of storytelling is sometimes necessary to express the essence of life. Some elements are dialled up, while others are edited without compromising on the overall truth. There are plenty of modern-day examples: Spotlight (2015), Talvar (2015), Neerja (2016) and most recently, Trial by Fire (2023). Mrs. Chatterjee Vs Norway, directed by Ashima Chibber, is certainly not that film. In fact, it’s the exact opposite – the film is so loud and overstated that, as a viewer, you stop caring about the creative concessions of the narrative. The research (or lack of it) doesn’t really matter anymore. Every human is reduced to a character, and every character to a conflict. The curiosity about the people involved only extends to the (melo)drama of their circumstances: Nothing more, nothing less.
Mrs. Chatterjee Vs Norway is based on a book called ‘The Journey of a Mother’ by Sagarika Chakraborty, an Indian immigrant whose children were taken by the Norwegian Child Welfare Services (Barnevernet) in 2011 on grounds of improper treatment. The woman’s agonising two-year journey – which included a widely-publicised intervention from India’s Ministry of External Affairs, as well as a court battle with both the Norwegian government and her husband’s family – is the subject of this film. Her name is Debika Chatterjee (Rani Mukerji) here, her husband is Aniruddha (Anirban Bhattacharya), and Barnevernet has been rechristened Velfred. It’s a story ripe with sociocultural strife. There is inherent scope to investigate not just the discriminatory loopholes of ‘First World’ systems, but also the dysfunctionality of South Asian parenting. Both sides are complicit in some ways, yet neither is held accountable by a film that refuses to dwell on subtext. There are indications of a child welfare scam, but no deeper awareness of it. At some points, you feel like siding with the authorities for rescuing the kids from volatile parents and a toxic marriage. But the distinctly desi trait of painting an underdog protagonist – by any means possible – robs the story of nuance and difficult contradictions.
It’s Debika Vs The Rest of the World, and by virtue of being a foreign national looking for a better life, the film refuses to grant her the dignity of being complex and flawed. There are times when her two kids – the real victims in this whole fiasco – become mere footnotes. They are mercilessly shunted from foster care to adoption facilities to new parents and countries, but remain a device to supply Debika’s language of longing. By the end, it’s hard to root for the adults when nobody seems to be acknowledging the mental toll on the children. It inadvertently mirrors the irony of an age in which countries and institutions go to war to safeguard the futures of their innocent children.
A mainstream tone in such films is not just an aesthetic, it’s also a statement of aggression. The friction between Western ways of nurturing and the Indian chaos of caring is a fascinating one. Debika is held up for being a typical Indian mother – co-sleeping, eating with her hands, failing to address the onset of autism, and being overbearing. But this film is intent on suggesting that a mother’s love must reflect the love for the motherland – no matter how noisy and stubborn, both cannot be questioned. (The national anthem makes a cameo towards the end, if you’re wondering.) It’s a blindly passionate stance rather than a dispassionate one, which sort of explains India’s notorious relationship with generational trauma. It’s no surprise then that Mrs. Chatterjee Vs Norway, much like its nationalistic counterparts, subscribes to the defensive practice of creating and pulling down villains to elevate the hero. For instance, the Velfred agents – particularly two blonde women – are presented as Bond baddies stuck in the wrong film; their evil grins and giggles and eye rolls would put the antagonists of a teenage high-school drama to shame. Debika’s husband starts off as an interesting man – a problematic partner and a sincere striver at once; a monster hiding in plain sight – but soon disintegrates into a moustached villain who repeats the word “citizenship” too many times.
The Norwegian judges sound German and Russian because they’re being mean. Debika’s in-laws behave like spiritual descendants of Bindu-in-1990s’-Bollywood characters. In the process, Debika’s setting is consumed by the film’s desperation to canonise her. The few good scenes – one where she barely notices the Northern Lights while being driven back from a police station; another where Debika’s first instinct on being slapped by her husband is to slap him back – are buried by a barrage of lazy tropes. An Indian judge (played by Barun Chanda) is made to sound like Master Shifu delivering a voiceover about maternal power, and a female lawyer is undone by her flamboyant arguments. Even the rare Hindi film moments of a mother lactating and breast-feeding are reduced to the repetitive beats of a sad song.
At the centre of this high-pitched mess is Mukerji’s role. The problem with presenting Debika as a victim at any cost is that the film views her the same way it thinks the Norwegian government and Aniruddha views her – as a simpleton in a sari. She spends much of the film breaking down, being duped, or arriving with a hopeful smile seconds before being duped. In other words, the film condescends on Debika – dehumanising her and stopping short of turning her into a differently-abled stereotype – because it believes that a housewife’s struggle is rooted in their inability to survive in the real world. The red flag is visible in the way the film opens: Debika runs after a Velfred car, yelling and crying, invoking the sight of Paro sprinting towards the gates of her mansion in the dying moments of Devdas (2002). It doesn’t help that Mukerji’s performance feels like a part of the deafening background score. Her use of language – where she speaks Bengali like an outsider trying to speak Bengali; where she speaks Hindi like someone who’s imitating Mamata Banerjee; where she speaks broken English like an urban artist trying to sound rural – is particularly jarring. You get the sense that Mukerji interprets Debika’s linguistic identity as a sign of diminished intellectual identity – and the film is all too happy to play along. A lack of verbal control is too often seen as a lack of emotional control. Keeping with this level of subtlety, Debika is also introduced as someone who hums the Rabindrasangeet most famously heard in Satyajit Ray’s secluded-housewife classic, Charulata (1964), while cooking luchi-aloor dum.
Granted, this is a movie of broad strokes and crowd-pleasing pokes. It’s a violent film about a soldier whose war is fought not with the body, but with the heart. Even by these skewed standards, Mrs. Chatterjee Vs Norway paints itself into a corner and becomes a prime candidate for cinematic deportation. It’s hard to go wrong with a mother’s fight for justice, yet the movie does such a hamfisted job that I cringe-watched most of it. It begins in Norway and ends in Kolkata, but transcends borders in its casual reading of cross-cultural wrinkles. At one point, a video shown as evidence in court seems perfectly edited, displaying shots on both sides of a glass door. Nobody blinks an eye. There’s a metaphor for glass houses somewhere in there. I’m afraid that if I spell it out, the film might write me into its narrative as a grouchy Indo-Norwegian reporter who gets imprisoned for criticising the facts rather than the fictionalisation of facts.