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Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway: One-Note Screech Fest That Makes You Wish It Stayed Mum

Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway: One-Note Screech Fest That Makes You Wish It Stayed Mum
Detail from the poster for Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway

Last Updated: 10.22 AM, Mar 18, 2023


This is #CriticalMargin, where Ishita Sengupta gets contemplative about new Hindi films and shows. 


AS A WRITER, I have one rule of thumb while judging someone else’s writing. If any piece starts with a random quote, I find myself slowly, but steadily, dismissing it. Before you judge me, my counter argument is you cannot borrow your first words from someone else. After watching Ashima Chibber’s Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway, a film so loud that my brain sent a signal to my ear to stop listening, I will be applying the same rule to films. Chibber’s sophomore outing opens with Rudyard Kipling’s overused, Hallmark-esque quote, “God could not be everywhere, and therefore he made mothers.” Subsequently, the film spends an awful amount of time to prove this right but the treatment is so overwrought and heedlessly dialled up that by the end I was left feeling irrationally mad at Kipling.

Levity aside, Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway is based on a compelling real life incident. Back in 2011, an Indian couple in Norway faced an unimaginable tragedy: their children were taken by the Norwegian Child Welfare Services on the grounds of improper treatment. This initiated an uphill struggle of the mother, Sagarika Bhattacharya, as she fought legalities, cultural barriers and moved countries (literally) to get her children back. In the midst of this, her own marriage broke down. In interviews later, Sagarika revealed she was in an abusive situation and after fighting two-year-long legal battles (even in India), she now lives with her children and is the sole bread earner of the family. No matter how you look at it, this is a tale of impossible courage emboldened by maternal prowess. It is also a rite of passage story where a woman realises her potential in the sea of drowning possibilities.

Retelling such a story thrums with promise. For one, it enfolds the prospect of viewing a mother through the lens of womanhood, a balance Hindi films have seldom succeeded to strike. The cultural dissonance also opens up the chance to inspect the follies buried in the two customs — ours and theirs; the benefit of hindsight allowing room for inspection in both parties involved. Being overbearing, after all, is the default state of Indian parents. But Chibber’s outing is a one-note screech fest that not just refuses to ponder over nuances but unfolds in the broadest of strokes; as a result the characters are reduced to clichés and the protagonist is minimised to a stereotype.

Debika (Rani Mukerji) and Aniruddho Chatterjee (Anirban Bhattacharya making his Hindi film debut) live in Norway. The film opens with two women from the Norwegian Child Welfare Services (aka Barnevernet; renamed as Velfred here) arriving at their doorstep, and moments later, taking their children away in haste. From here, Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway unravels in familiar beats. One courtroom scene after another, followed by one Rani Mukherji breakdown after another. The pattern is troubling, as is the binary depiction. Everyone in the film is portrayed either as a good or a bad person. Debika’s husband turns out to be a monster, so does his family. Representatives from the child welfare agency are shown as sleazy villains, with the two women entrusted with taking the children from Debika behaving like vamps in K-dramas (Balaji Telefilms’ serials for the GenZ crowd). 

This tendency to present the foreign country as the antagonist is amplified by glossing over the real-life details like Sagarika’s son exhibiting autistic symptoms when young. And that when enrolling her children to a kindergarten school, she had asked for help to be sent at home. That caseworkers from Barnevernet arrived instead is a different matter but in the absence of such details, a fascinating story gets bartered for a crowd-pleasing, palatable narrative.

The problem with Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway is that even as an obviously manipulative, emotionally rousing film, it fares poorly. The fault lies as much in the filmmaker’s rendition as in her interpretation. In a formulaic turn, it equates motherhood with nation (a pivotal courtroom scene is scored to the national anthem), implying that you cannot question either, no matter what. This insinuation is responsible for both, toxic parenthood and malignant patriotism. But even without that, Chibber renders the pathos of a mother separated from her children as a performance. The writing analyses the protagonist’s sorrow in assumptions like how one would imagine a mother to behave when she is sad. She screams and shouts but there is hardly a moment of solitude, of quietude. Her grief is always articulated, never felt. Much of the reason for this reading is also coloured by the actor who portrays it.

Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway marks Mukerji’s loudest turn. She essays the role of a Bengali woman who is uncomfortable in a foreign land. But the actor translates this physical discomfort, with people and language, like a mental block. Her inability to express herself is somehow depicted as her inability to understand everyone else. She takes recourse to Bengali freely but the actor’s lack of familiarity with the language shows, especially before someone like Anirban Bhattacharya who is a Bengali actor. Her enunciation is not the problem, her tone is — which gives away that it is a Hindi-speaking person trying to speak Bengali. There is just one scene where Debika sobs seeing her son on the phone in which the actor comes close to being affecting. Unsurprisingly, it is a wordless moment.

Such excess robs the film of an emotional core. The effort is so blatant that even residual authenticity comes across as fabricated. Be it at their home where giant-sized pictures of gods adorn the walls (on the contrary think how well it was done in Piku) or the way Debika refuses to let go of the car which has her children. No one needs to corroborate that they are real. But everything in Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway is so performative that even the most heart-rending story of a mother moving mountains for her children leaves one unmoved.

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