film companion seema pahwa everything is fine

Director: Mansi Nirmal Jain

Cast: Seema Bhargava Pahwa, Palomi Ghosh, Siddharth Bhardwaj

Streaming on: Youtube

A small-town mother visits her independent city-slicking daughter. This was supposed to be their little vacation together: Boat-rides, shopping, talking, eating. But the father has tagged along. He means no harm, but he’s a man. This means that she can’t afford to be a woman, because she is still a wife.

Seema Bhargava Pahwa symptomizes this conflict – between the two haplessly domestic forms of Indian femalehood – with heartbreaking pathos in Everything Is Fine, a title reminiscent of the Robert De Niro-starring fatherhood drama, Everybody’s Fine. The veteran actress delivers a performance that is part Sridevi in English Vinglish, part Neena Gupta in The Threshold and whole Seema Bhargava Pahwa in every other modern middle-Indian rom-com. In the last decade of Hindi cinema, she has excelled as the quirky household mother to heroines, and as the pushy wife to existential middle-aged men. In all these films, her character has succumbed to her fate as a peripheral soul by turning into the narrowest versions of themselves. But Mansi Jain’s sensitively crafted short humanizes this character. It reveals that she, too, has her own resentments, regrets and coming-of-age aspirations. It suggests that she, too, gets tired of playing a role. And most of all, it hints that nothing is fine, even when everything is fine. Think Shefali Shah in Juice or Sakshi Tanwar in Ghar Ki Murgi – but older, wiser, and therefore, too committed to make a resounding statement. Companionship is her weakness.

The best scene of this short unfurls after the parents arrive at the daughter’s apartment. The young woman (Palomi Ghosh) wakes up from her couch in the middle of the night to see the terrace door open. She is surprised to find her mother standing in a corner, overlooking the neighbourhood with teary eyes. The older lady breaks down. She’s had enough of this marriage, and her cry for help (“Can I stay with you here?”) is unnerving. “But what is the problem?” asks the daughter. You can tell that she’s startled by the vulnerability of a parent; she has no time to empathize yet. It’s the kind of irrational reaction that most kids have when they recognize that their childhood heroes are not unbreakable. “I don’t really know, it’s everything and nothing,” the lady says, trying to find words to define her predicament. At this point, the girl scolds the mother, belittling her sadness and telling her to “adjust” – an uncanny tone that mirrors the broadness of the logic that most Indian parents use when their own daughters want to end an abusive marriage. The tragedy of life coming full circle probably dawns upon the mother, who quickly realizes that she is alone in this. She was never meant to be understood. She wipes away her tears and attributes her “tantrum” to tiredness. The daughter, otherwise a strong-minded liberal, walks away. The next day, she notices her mother’s face drop every time the man absent-mindedly overrules her plans with his own. It’s like watching a meek child being bullied, bit by bit, recess by recess, until he is overcome by an urge to explode. Only, in her case, the explosion is actually an implosion. 

It’s only in the end that the opening shot of the film suddenly hits us. It features the three struggling with luggage on the staircase, with the daughter wondering why her parents have packed so many suitcases. “It’s your mother,” complains the crabby man. Unbeknownst to everyone, she has come with her bags – and baggage. She has no intention of going back. Given that most of us enable a culture in which we aren’t conditioned to recognize the subtext of motherhood, this moment is difficult to swallow. It made me think of all the times I failed to lift the bags of my own mother at my doorstep, and all the times I told her to be strong by dismissing her concerns. She never wanted to puncture the aura of her own invincibility, but the invisibility has been a burden.

A short like this is designed to confirm that we are brought up to believe that everything is fine, and we grow old wanting to believe that nothing is wrong. And while we spend a lifetime reconciling one phase with the next, somewhere in between, a mother stands on a terrace. She doesn’t need to jump. Because every single day is a painful leap of faith. 

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