Mimi, On Netflix And Jio Cinema, Is Pregnant With Potential But Short On Ideas

The entire film – and not just the protagonist’s decision – is designed to appease the Asian-exoticism gaze of the Western tourists.
Mimi, On Netflix And Jio Cinema, Is Pregnant With Potential But Short On Ideas

Director: Laxman Utekar
Written by: Laxman Utekar and Rohan Shankar
Cinematography: Akash Agrawal
Edited by: Manish Pradhan
Cast: Kriti Sanon, Pankaj Tripathi, Sai Tamhankar, Supriya Pathak and Manoj Pahwa
Streaming on: Netflix and JioCinema

Feisty is an adjective I try not to use, but mainstream Bollywood knows no other kind of small-town girl. She dances on stage, slaps men, speaks to Ranveer Singh posters on her wall and bustles with generic North Indian spirit. What Mimi does is introduce this feisty girl in her quintessential firebrand narrative – one that promises love, freedom, dreams and all that jazz – before airdropping her into the most non-feisty (it's a word, I just invented it) situation imaginable. One kind of formula film simply collides – and is hijacked – by another. Rom-com Mimi meets Social Commentary Mimi: She agrees (too easily) to be a surrogate mother for an American couple in exchange for good money. All of this is executed with the clinical precision of a lab experiment. You can almost hear the technicians' drone-like instructions: Mating Exhibit A with Situation C, recording behavioral patterns. The result is mildly interesting and mostly forgettable. 

It's no secret that commercial Hindi cinema has a trailer problem, and the three-act trailer of Mimi is no exception. It's a montage of the entire movie, including the conflict: The American couple ditch the deal, leaving a heavily pregnant Mimi with no option but to raise the white baby on her own. While such a trailer can be annoying for the unassuming viewer, it does free critics from 'spoiler' accusations. I can now be specific about the film. The premise – based on the 2010 Marathi drama Mala Aai Vhhaychy! – is smart because the concept of surrogacy allows the film to organically address several other societal flaws. It's an all-in-one package deal: single motherhood, unwed pregnancy, India's fair-skin obsession, gender discrmination and so on. I like that the American couple – who bail on Mimi once they learn (in a poorly written scene) that the baby might be "disabled" – are a subversion of Bollywood's archetypical white villain. They are flaky, impulsive and selfish – and yes, one of them speaks Hindi too – but their desperation to be parents also humanizes them in the eyes of the viewer. They're the protagonists of their own marriage story. I also like that Mimi is an aspiring actress: a subtle comment on how the "shelf-life" of the average Indian heroine is inextricably linked to her domestic status. Kriti Sanon furthers her Bareilly Ki Barfi avatar into uncharted territory here, and for most part, she does fine. Physical transformations notwithstanding, she displays the kind of emotional depth that her filmography dearly lacked. If one looks past the 'nude makeup' that movies equip their crisis-ridden female protagonists with in the name of naturalism, Sanon shows glimpses of the performer she can become. 

But a small-town premise in the post-Stree (and post-Hindi Medium) era comes with certain caveats. The desire to be quirky forces the film to overreach for cultural humour. For instance, Mimi's nine-month hideout at her Muslim best friend's place is too on the nose. The idea – of having Hindu characters appropriate another religion for the sake of comedy – is hardly original. It's also lazy writing. Out comes the burkha, the broken Urdu, the suspicious maulvi, the namaaz jokes. Then there's the film's crippling dependence on Pankaj Tripathi, an actor who can make the air look funny if he wishes. Tripathi plays the driver who fixes the deal between Mimi and the couple. His character is compelling, because he is nothing like the stereotypical hustler one might expect. The actor's inherent integrity extends to the driver's personality as well. But of course, the Hindi film feels the need to spell the "driver metaphor" out in a scene where Mimi pointedly asks him why he didn't abandon her. You soon sense that the makers are worried about shooting any scene without Tripathi. (Who can blame them?). A silly track – of Tripathi pretending to be the father of the baby and living as a 'ghar-jamai' in Mimi's shocked household – is a consequence of the film force-fitting his presence into her journey. It does culminate in a classic confrontation sequence – the kind Priyadarshan used to excel at – when his real family crashes the party, but the double-ruse is a bit too far fetched. 

There's also the matter of the setting. Given that the plot features a white couple, Rajasthan makes sense on paper. But the texture and the treatment reflect an outsider's view of this world. Ironically, it's like the entire film – and not just the protagonist's decision – is designed to appease the Asian-exoticism gaze of the Western tourists. The makers are clearly out of their comfort zone, instead choosing to Bollywoodize a rural Maharashtrian tale: The accents are inconsistent, Mimi's parents look like they're dressed to host a desert sunset safari, and even the lanes are jarringly colourful. Thankfully, Pankaj Tripathi's character is from Delhi. 

The makers are clearly out of their comfort zone, instead choosing to Bollywoodize a rural Maharashtrian tale

Apart from being horribly overwrought, the final thirty minutes also reveal the film's fragile sense of craft. It's obvious that the film – once Mimi settles into the role of young motherhood – can only head in one direction. Once this portion begins, the melodrama regresses into a zone where only the reaction shots of Mimi's parents (Manoj Pahwa incidentally played Supriya Pathak's oldest son in Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi) and her best friend (the talented Sai Tamhankar is wasted) account for half the screen-time. The high-pitched palette is not unusual, but it feels sterile and predictable after the writers are done with the comical beats. Here's where the music comes into play. Mimi is not the kind of film one might associate with an A.R. Rahman soundtrack. Which is why it makes for a curious watching experience. There is a strange sense of dissonance between the storytelling and the sound – as though both composer and movie are trying to meet midway. 

On one hand, the story uses Rahman's background score and songs as an artistic crutch. Most of the dramatic portions pass by in a musical blur. On the other hand, some of the music makes the film look far more contemplative than it actually is. For instance, the track Rihaaye De – which has strands of Rang De Basanti's Tu Bin Bulaaye – scores the entirety of pregnant Mimi's sadness at home. It looks cinematic, but it's also a shortcut: the writing itself is too superficial to deal with the consequences of time. The tension of the parents, the hostility of the neighbourhood, the betrayal and rage – it's all magically resolved by the time the song ends. It's not even like a sports training montage, where the mundanity of working out is best presented as a visual feeling. Lightweight movies like Mimi speak about life while simultaneously shying away from it. The presence of artists like Tripathi and Rahman may lift a moment or three. But it also suggests that they're merely narrative surrogates for a film struggling to conceive a life of its own.

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