Director: Anand Tiwari
Writer: Sumit Batheja
Cast: Madhuri Dixit, Ritwik Bhowmik, Srishti Shrivastava, Gajraj Rao, Simone Singh, Rajit Kapoor, Sheeba Chaddha
The day will come when I run out of ways to suggest that the treatment of socially-expressive stories is as important as the message. Today is almost that day. So many Hindi movies rest on the laurels of a progressive premise. Given the kind of repressed environments most of us grow up in, we are inclined to judge these films based on their subjects alone. (Adjectives like “brave,” “well intentioned” and “noble” then dominate popular and critical opinion). How they go about it – the actual telling of the story, the detailing, the context and craft – becomes incidental. Maja Ma is the latest example and an inadvertent reminder of why we should demand more from movies that strive to be important. It follows in the footsteps of the recent Jayeshbhai Jordaar (2022), in terms of its cultural setting (an exoticised Gujarat) as well as a penchant for narrative melodrama that makes me appreciate Badhaai Do (2022) harder with every passing day.
Maja Ma opens with a young Gujarati man in Manhattan, Tejas (Ritwik Bhowmik), preparing to meet his girlfriend Esha’s (Barkha Singh) parents. She assures him that they aren’t bad people, they just “think differently”. Cue Tejas taking a lie detector test designed by the wealthy, Trump-loving, Texan NRI couple (played with accented glee by Rajit Kapoor and Sheeba Chaddha). Once Tejas passes it, the couple cites the old marriage-of-families trope and demands to meet his parents back in India. Tejas flies back to prep his well-to-do-but-not-too-rich family – vintage society-president father Manohar bhai (Gajraj Rao), dance-teaching and home-making mother Pallavi ben (Madhuri Dixit), and fiery activist sister Tara (Srishti Srivastava) – for the arrival of his future in-laws. After a few conveyor-belt, culture-clash moments, the central conflict presents itself in the form of a viral video that reveals Pallavi coming out of the closet during a heated argument. The rest of the film is rooted in the aftermath of this dhokla-shattering revelation.
On a (very) broad level, Maja Ma gets some things right. I like that the long-married lady’s truth belongs to everyone except herself. The narrative reflects her deep-rooted lack of agency in the way it branches out into her family’s struggles. Neither of them pauses to think of Pallavi as a woman with secrets and desires – she remains a mother on the verge of letting her children down, a wife on the brink of tarnishing her family, a neighbour shunned for bringing disrepute to the locality, an in-law corrupting proud Hindu culture. Manohar sets out to revive the ‘spark’ in his marriage; Tejas is busy resenting his mother and doing damage control with Isha’s pompous parents; Tara is disappointed with her mother for not validating her own academic reading of feminism and LGBTQ+ rights. In a sense, this extends the generational conflict that shaped director Anand Tiwari’s first two titles, Love Per Square Foot (2018) and Bandish Bandits (2020) – raising questions about the framing of reverence as love, and about how little we choose to know about our elders in order to depend on them.
But this intuitiveness also means that the last 30 minutes becomes an assembly line of on-the-nose monologues by each character. Everyone is supposed to come of age in such stories (this is no spoiler, by any stretch of un-imagination), and the problem with mainstream cinema is the preachy language. The faces on screen are meant to teach the viewers and communicate with each other at once – a task rendered impossible by the modern constraints of mass entertainment. A few years ago, this may not have been a deal breaker. But at some point, even the message gets diluted here. Take the way Esha is written – she is ultimately praised by Tejas for loving and accepting her parents for who they are because he has been unable to do the same. I’m not sure why films feel the need to pit one person against another to make a point. Esha not questioning her small-minded parents is not a virtue, just as Tejas questioning her mother’s image isn’t; both can co-exist at once. That NRI families tend to be more orthodox than ‘Indian Indians’ is a well-known fact, but the simplistic moral posturing pushes it too far.
There are other problems. The performances are a bit derivative. Everyone seems to be playing a version of a role they’ve played before. Dixit deserves credit for the sort of complex author-backed roles coming her way, but her turn as Pallavi is not too dissimilar from her woman-under-fire role in The Fame Game (2022). The drama feels airbrushed, not least because of the film’s sanitised view of life. I mentioned the setting (Vadodara, but more like Vibrant Gujarat), which is somewhat reminiscent of OK Jaanu’s (2017) cosmetically obvious rendition of Ahmedabad. The family lives in the sort of house that could be listed on Airbnb as “Authentic And Colourful Indian abode” to attract existential white tourists. The screenplay is hardly interested in turning the location into a real character; it is instead content with playful stereotypes. At least Bandish Bandits, for all its faults, had a reason (classical music) to be placed in exotic Rajasthani mansions. But this one seems afraid to be too specific, lest it offends a region that’s emblematic of the India we live in today. Which is why you have two men driving to a juice bar for “liquid courage,” instead of them perhaps clinking beers and reaping the dividends of underground bootlegging in a dry state. You have a man asking for “Sambhogra” instead of viagra at a chemist shop. You have garba as the backdrop for both stolen kisses and scenes of self-reckoning. You have a female character suffering from leukaemia for no reason other than to draw a parallel to Pallavi’s own perceived ‘illness’. You have a not-so-fleeting shot of a book by an openly gay Indian author, whose works in mythology further hint at the state’s notorious dualites. All of this is more text than subtext – a symptom of appropriating a world rather than living in it.
Similarly, you can almost touch the design of the more dramatic moments. For instance, the mother-daughter tiff leading to Pallavi’s revelation is too sudden. The wokeness of the girl is aggressive rather than organic; she is nearly hounding the older woman (“What if I were a lesbian? Would you accept me?”) to evoke a reaction. Also, why is it that every personal secret in movie history is always overheard, or worse, captured on camera by another human in the vicinity? Does nobody have peripheral vision? Is there no better way to spill a story-defining secret? Maybe an online chat, internet history, a nosy housemaid? But the screenplay is reluctant to dig deeper into Pallavi’s personality. You get a sense that family-friendly Hindi films about dysfunctional familyhood are too often trapped in the space of maintaining the sanctity of its protagonist, not least when it’s played by a superstar. As a result, apart from a childhood flashback, Pallavi has been flawless and dutiful; she cannot stray. Her principles are unshakable.
Ultimately, then, even the film falls into its own trap and treats her like her family does – as a device for its own enlightenment. This is evident in how Pallavi’s sexual identity morphs into a gimmicky journey of viral videos, lie detector tests and cable-car spats with questionable visual effects. The day will come when the story of a middle-aged woman coming out on her own terms can exist on its own terms – unshackled by the need to be accessible, educative and safe. Today is not that day.