In 2011, an event in Norway revolving around an immigrant couple of Indian origin shook up India. Sagarika Bhattacharya and Anup Bhattacharya had their two children taken away from them by Barnevernet, the Norwegian Child Welfare Services, on grounds of improper and thoughtless parenting which included feeding them by hand, applying kohl on them and co-sleeping. What followed was the mother’s struggle as she fought back against all odds to win back her children’s custody. This might seem to be a heart-wrenching story on paper. So, it’s no surprise that Bollywood decided to translate her journey on the big screen.
Inspired by the fateful event, director Ashima Chibber and producers Nikkhil Advani, Monisha Advani and Madhu Bhojwani helmed Mrs Chatterjee VS Norway. Starring the inimitable Rani Mukerji, the film provides us a generous glimpse into how Velfred, following a ten-month along evaluation, decided to take away Debika Chatterjee’s children – the kindergarten going Shubh and five-month old Suchi. Ashima wastes no time and the film opens with a rather unsettling scene which sets its tone immediately.
Anirudh works at Oilwell-AS and the only thing he is concerned about is keeping his image sacrosanct and getting a Norwegian citizenship. While he spends most of his time at work, his wife Debika, much like any Indian homemaker, runs the household right from waking up in the wee hours of the morning to feed her baby girl to helping her son make projects and taking him to school every day. What adds to her chores is pleasing Sia and Matilda from Velfred as they visit her daily to keep a tab on their way of life. And then one day, they declare that the Chatterjee household isn’t ‘conducive’ for their children and forcefully take them away and declare Debika as ‘unpredictable’ and ‘mentally unstable’ to take care of them. Thus, begins a slew of court cases for Debika and her husband to bring their son – who is declared potentially autistic – and daughter home.
Mrs Chatterjee VS Norway is themed on a mother’s unconditional love and captures her life as she goes against a country’s government to win the custody of her children. The film successfully grabs your attention right since its first frame. But soon, the emotional scenes become too contrived. The intense and profound emotionality doesn’t quite transform on celluloid and you might be left waiting for more. As sadistic as that may sound, the core essence of the narrative is harrowing to say the least but the loud howl and the chest beating don’t strike a chord in the way you would have expected them to. The execution is dry and it seems like the sentimental scenes are coerced on you only so that you can shed buckets of tears.
What instead makes it sadder is the fact that this story told from the perspective of a mother about herself is penned by a woman director. It is said that women telling women’s stories are told from the lens of sensitivity, tenderness and compassion. And mind you, Mrs Chatterjee VS Norway boasts of a story that is all kinds touching and painful and rides high on feminine sensitiveness. And yet what the outcome appears to lack is the rawness of feelings. Debika’s gumption and fierce spirit become so overpowering that it takes away the tenderness from certain gut-wrenching sequences.
Having said that, there are some scenes both loud and quiet that tug at the heartstrings. And the credit for those solely goes to Rani. A day after her children are taken away by Velfred, she is seen sitting on the floor of her home, dejected and beat up. She bursts into tears and screams out her children’s names time and again expecting them to respond so that she can convince herself that the tragedy that she experienced was all but a nightmare. It hits the softest nooks of your heart and breaks them. In another scene, she is seen sitting at the dining table lost in thoughts about her children and being a nursing mother, her t-shirt suddenly goes wet. These are the gems that stay back with you.
But brownie points to Ashima for capturing the essence of a Bengali household with aplomb. Meticulous attention to details like the kind of food is usually served to infants in Bengali families, humming a Rabindra sangeet while getting chores done and decking up for Durga Puja by applying aalta (a red dye) on the foot using a soft brush are just a few examples. In one scene, Rani is seen complaining about how it is practically impossible to feed maacher jhol (fish curry) to her son using a fork, and that remains a popular point of conversation for Bengalis across the board. Rani’s heavily accented English and Hindi and her stunning Dhakai Jamdani drapes also add to her Bengali-ness, and kudos to both the director-actor duo for treading the fine line without making Debika too caricature-like!
As is evident from the trailer, Rani plays to the gallery, rather unapologetically. She steals the show with her high-octane performance but it is the silent moments that bear a testament to her true potential. She is the heart and soul of Mrs Chatterjee VS Norway. Her Debika is an awe-inspiring mishmash of fierce and fragile, and vicious and vulnerable. The quiet strength Rani brings to the table amid all the mess outside is incredible. Her scenes with Jim Sarbh are pure gold.
Jim plays a lawyer named Daniel Singh Ciupek, who may or may not herald a beacon of hope into Debika’s life. He performs his part with a rare charm and restraint. Yet another remarkable performance in the film is by acclaimed Bengali actor, Anirban Bhattacharya. His Anirudh is chauvinistic, condescending, manipulative and controlling, and by the end of the film, you end up hating him and that’s perhaps where his victory lies. Mrs Chatterjee VS Norway also has a plethora of some noteworthy veteran actors from the Bengali film industry such as Bodhisattwa Majumder, Saswati Guhathakurta, Mithu Chakrabarty and Barun Chanda. In a cameo appearance, Neena Gupta plays Vasudha Kamat, who is inspired by the late minister, Sushma Swaraj. While her presence causes a monumental change of events in the story, she doesn’t have much scope for performance.
Mrs Chatterjee VS Norway tries to tell an inspiring and tear-jerking tale of the fearless and resilient Sagarika Bhattacharya but its ham-fisted and bumpy treatment stops it from becoming one.