Director: Arun Fulara
Writers: Arun Fulara, Shreyas Chougule, Pratik Kinnarimath
Cast: Sushama Deshpande, Anji Alva Naik, Suhas Sirsat
The title of Arun Fulara’s 16-minute short is self-explanatory, but it also reveals the inherent gaze that adult agency is subjected to. The perspective (“My Mother’s Girlfriend”) is that of a person referring to a parent. It’s the lens through which society views – and stigmatises – the concept of middle-aged desire. The implication is that the words “Mother” and “Girlfriend” are usually separated by a conjunction; they aren’t supposed to be connected like this. The triumph of Fulara’s film is that it allows the title to morph from a wry and accusatory phase into an anecdotal one. By the end, it sounds like the sort of memory that a son or daughter nostalgically narrates in the future. One can imagine a roomful of dropped jaws, but the story is recalled with warm hindsight.
That gaze here belongs to a Mumbai taxi driver named Mangesh. A character like him is the default protagonist by virtue of age, gender and social status. From his point of view, this is a story about a grown man confronting his single mother after discovering that she is in a romantic relationship with another woman. Yet, he is not overly aggressive or menacing. If anything, Mangesh is his mother’s son, who is still pretending to be a “what will people say?” guy. There’s a sense that he is okay with her living the way she chooses to, but is worried about the (lack of) discretion. Suhas Sirsat’s performance, too, explores the bridge between societal pressure and human empathy. He seems to know the truth, but is too busy playing the role of an Indian male, husband and father to realise his significance as a son. My Mother’s Girlfriend opens and closes with Mangesh in his cab. And the film sets out to remind him that he is not the central character.
Much of it is devoted to the “mother,” the only character whose name is not overtly mentioned. It’s a nod to the fact that intimacy becomes her reclamation of identity – as a woman, a partner, a body and a heart. It says something that her love is often associated with courage. She has to ‘dare’ to do these things; she can’t just do them. Her struggle brings to mind Ratna Pathak Shah’s reaction in Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017) when someone asks the older woman her name; she is so conditioned to being ‘buaji’ that she hesitates to remember her real name. Here, the fantastic Sushama Deshpande stars as that woman, except she is already in the process of defeating her anonymity.
Deshpande’s Renuka plans to spend her birthday with her girlfriend – eating, walking, wandering, frolicking on the beach. Most of this date unfolds in public spaces, which suggests how unassuming the sight of two smiling women can be. The couple isn’t conscious of how they look because they know that nobody sees them. They know that the world is too prudish to even consider that they’re anything more than friends, housewives or playful relatives. The staging is thoughtful. It doesn’t oversell a love story that exists at the intersection of gender, sexuality, class, age and religion. They’re not just two middle-aged women – they’re a vegetable vendor and housemaid; they’re Hindu and Muslim; they’re queer. Their professions reduce them to variations of ‘bai,’ an all-in-one label that imposes on them a domesticity bereft of flesh and blood.
But the film remains steady. The couple is aware of the prejudices that surround them. And they use it to their advantage, exploiting the culture that invisibilizes them in everyday life. (A companion piece of Rohin Raveendran’s lovely, similarly-themed short, The Booth). For instance, Renuka lies to her son (who casually mistakes her ‘friend’ Sadiya as Razia, another common Muslim name) that she will be at a temple for her birthday; it’s an excuse no God-fearing Maharashtrian man will doubt. She encourages Sadiya to take a day off work citing a “ladies’ problem”; it’s an alibi no male employer is equipped to probe. One of the nicest scenes features the aftermath of Renuka’s brief argument with Mangesh. She gets so worked up that she collapses; it’s at this moment that the son discovers how little he knows of his mother’s day-to-day routine. He has no idea what her ailment is, or what medicine and care to give her.
At some level, it almost feels like Renuka might have simulated the whole thing so that he is forced to call Sadiya, and see their companionship – an antidote to loneliness, bigotry and all-round apathy – for what it is. And perhaps also because it fleetingly urges Sadiya and Mangesh to join forces. Their ice-breaking involves the ritual of berating the same person. They both start scolding her (and completing each other’s sentences with “I told you so”) for eating recklessly, the way family members often do when an elder falls ill. It takes a real health scare – a ‘condition’ that society views as synonymous with what the two women share – to heal the setting. That’s when the phrase ‘My Mother’s Girlfriend’ transitions from conflict to curiosity. It’s the beginning of a bumpy but necessary taxi ride.