Add this to the bucket of movies made during lockdown, about lockdown, an unsurprisingly meek genre. The logistical and narrative limitations notwithstanding, the genre does have its surprises — like the 1-minute film by Ananya Sharma “Connecting Souls,” which swerved from horror to comedy in an unexpected jab, one of the winners of #LetsMakeAFilmIndia, an award last year judged by Anand L Rai, Nitesh Tiwari, and Ekta Kapoor among others. Which is to say, limitations can often be their own muse. Which is to say, Shefali Shah, a premier actress used this time to swerve towards writing and directing, while retaining her compelling reticence in the camera’s front-center. But which is also to say, the landing isn’t as smooth as the intention.
Any situation is all about the way you look at it. Our 3rd winner for #LetsMakeAFilmIndia. Congrats Ananya Sharma and thank you for spreading positivity.@CastingChhabra @aanandlrai @ektarkapoor @MahaveerJainMum @MaddockFilms @WardaNadiadwala @montoo pic.twitter.com/3G0w2YGMBi
— Nitesh Tiwari (@niteshtiwari22) May 6, 2020
Happy Birthday Mummy Ji is entirely around and about Shah. Her name, Suchi, has been deadened by The Family Man to imply immediately a marriage so lazy that it is easier to stay in than walk out, and so her annoyed husband on the other end of the line, at the receiving ends of her voice notes, spells disaster.
The film is set in a luxurious out-house where Suchi is planning the 75th birthday party for her mother-in-law. She’s alone and waiting — for Bahadur to come help make lunch, for the caterers to come with the party food, and for the guests to come to break bread and birthday cake. Instead, she gets a call saying a lockdown is imposed and no travel is possible. The remaining run-time of the 14-minute short is about where Shah takes this premise. Unfortunately it’s nowhere special, shocking, or memorable. Fortunately, her acting finesse and visual clarity help paper through.
To her credit, she really populates this empty film with a sense of people — the roving calls, all on speaker, and the voice notes really, oddly, add texture and take space in such an interesting way that even as you see Shah ambling about the empty house and the pool and the grill, you never feel she’s alone. This might be because of the elaborate set-ups in the garden and dinner table, which imply people being there to set it all up. This luxuriant framing of candles, and cakes, confections and confetti keep the visuals fresh, her flowing red dress adding drama and sweep where none exists on paper.
Even as she keeps the visuals extravagant, she doesn’t let go of the intimacy — the camera framing her while she tries to push the apple stuck on her pursed lips as she guzzles sangria, the music swelling as she snaps open her bra in relief, the un-creasing of cloth stuck to her thighs as she gets out of the pool. She is folding a napkin into a fan as her husband is telling her the party is cancelled, and yet her muscle memory keeps going, finishing the one fan she started working on. It tells us so much about her — an excitable figure of dedication, and precision. When that dedication and precision comes to no avail, without an audience to enjoy it, what happens? Turns out, not much, and it is this not much-ness of it — having more visual than narrative drama — that ultimately underwhelms.