Cast: Rani Mukerji, Anirban Bhattacharya, Neena Gupta, Jim Sarbh, Tiina Tauraite
Director: Ashima Chibber
Rating: One and a half stars (out of 5)
A film that has its heart in the right place – or so it appears at first flush – should inarguably be worthy of generous applause. Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway, directed by Ashima Chibber, isn’t. Almost everything else in the overwrought and exhausting film, including the central performance by Rani Mukerji, is all haywire.
The mushy melodrama hinges on a mother’s agony at being separated from her children in an alien country. The film does everything that it can to paint an entire foster care system as malicious and compromised. The brazenly broad strokes do little justice to the story of a distraught woman pushed to the wall and left with no option but to fight to be reunited with her children.
Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway is based on a true story. One can fully comprehend what the aggrieved mother would have gone through as she took on a heartless system bent upon pummelling her into submission. Sadly, the film never rings true because it is way too strident and unsubtle.
Debika Chatterjee (Rani Mukerji) suffers the consequences of doing with her children – a two-year-old boy and five-month-old girl – what most Indian mothers tend to routinely do by way of parenting. She is unable to understand why feeding a child with her hand would be construed as force-feeding and used as a pretext to accuse her of being unfit to be a mother.
The film is primarily about a clash of cultures – the sort that immigrants often encounter in their adopted countries – and its unfortunate fallout. The heavy-handed treatment of the character’s ordeal and her response to it turns her despair into a spectacle. What could have been a genuine cry from the heart turns into a shrill shriek in the process.
Two women from Norway’s Child Welfare Services who take Debika’s children away are projected as unscrupulous operators who give the Indian lady no chance at all to get her point across before they swing into action. Debika begs and bawls but to not avail.
Rani Mukerji, a performer of proven ability, is let down by the writing. She struggles to hit the right notes. She shifts back and forth between the rattled and the raucous. As a result, the essence of the character never quite comes through.
When the 135-minute drama, about an hour and half in, settles into a somewhat more controlled rhythm, Mukerji gets into her stride. But in the light of the mauling that the story of Debika’s perseverance in the face of daunting odds has been subjected to in the first half, there is little left for the film to salvage in the run-up to the climax.
The screenplay by Sameer Satija, Ashima Chibber and Rahul Handa has been adapted from a Kolkata woman’s published account of her brush with Norway’s uncompromising child protection system. It is too erratic to be able to make the most of the deeply emotional core of the story.
Unrestrained melodrama is the film’s preferred mode, which drags its away from the possibility of capitalising on a persuasive real-life story. You obviously want to empathise with Debika’s plight as she battles forces that are out to crush her, but owing to the manner in which the film stages the courtroom wrangles – in Norway and in Kolkata – the character does not develop into a believable figure nor does her story move the audience the way it should have.
The film opens with Debika’s children being surreptitiously driven away in a government vehicle from her Stavanger home. She runs after the vehicle, howling and hollering. Her son Shubho, a boy with autistic spectrum disorder, and daughter Shuchi, a toddler, are gone before she knows what has hit her.
After she has been observed and questioned over several days and a Norwegian government counsellor has examined her ways as a parent, Debika is told that her children cannot be left with her. Her husband, Aniruddha (Anirban Bhattacharya), an engineer, appears to be supportive but has way too much on his mind to be of much help.
The wronged lady does not do her cause much good by resorting to terribly desperate measures. The child welfare machinery pins her down to the ground as she stakes her all in her attempts to regain custody of her children. Some of her acts seem illogical but understandable given the anguish she is in. Why then are the film and the lady at its centre unable to stir us emotionally?
Debika’s actions are often at odds with who she is – an educated woman who has been in Norway long enough to appreciate the differences between her own culture and the Norwegian ethos. Instead of making Debika look like a feisty and courageous mother, the film reduces her to a squealy, volatile and hyperventilating woman.
Such inconsistencies also derail the two principal male characters in the film – Debika’s husband and an Indian-origin lawyer Daniel Singh Ciupek (Jim Sarbh) who represents her in court. It is difficult to figure what exactly they are out to get. One moment they are by Debika’s side, the next moment they aren’t.
Anirban Bhattacharya and Jim Sarbh are accomplished actors. Their performances are markedly more refined than the film as a whole. But Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway is a Rani Mukerji show. She is the solitary star here. She renders everyone else insignificant.
In a film about a woman fighting the good fight, the screenplay gives the other women in the story no leeway at all. Neena Gupta has a fleeting cameo as an Indian minister on a visit to Oslo to sign an Indo-Norwegian deal.
The two mothers – Debika’s and Aniruddha’s – are nonentities. The former is essayed by Saswati Guhathakurta, the latter by Mithu Chakraborty. Both are Bengali television and film veterans but that does not count for much here. One does not get so much as a line in, the other is reduced to a cantankerous mom-in-law who raves and rants in a couple of scenes and disappears.
Rani Mukerji, on her part, lets it rip and the film trips on its excesses. Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway is an overheated affair that sucks the air out of an intrinsically moving story that deserved infinitely better.