Early on in Mrs Chatterjee vs. Norway, an Indian infant is being taken away by two white women. The mother runs after them, tries to hang on to the car, chases it shrieking, and takes a dramatic fall. This indicates right away that the melodrama will be dialled up and the decibel levels will remain deafening, unfortunately wrecking what could have been a moving story about a mother’s indomitable courage.
Directed by Ashima Chibber (Mere Dad Ki Maruti), Mrs Chatterjee vs. Norway is based on the case of Sagarika Chakraborty, an Indian woman in Norway whose two young children were taken away by the country’s child protection service on the ground that was she an unfit mother. Chakraborty wrote about her ordeal in The Journey Of A Mother, which has been turned into a script by Chibber, Sameer Satija and Rahul Handa. While the salient points are from the 2022 publication book, creative liberties have been taken in the journey between page and screen, throwing out any vestiges of restraint in the process.
Rani Mukerji plays Debika Chatterjee, who is married to oil rig engineer Anirudh (Anirban Bhattacharya) and lives in Stavanger. Although Debika, who has all the outward signs of Bengalines’ – Jamdani saris, photos of Ramakrishna Paramhans, Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda, a morning conch-blowing ritual – Debika has barely any contact with other Stavanger residents. Despite spending years in Norway, she doesn’t speak Norwegian. Despite being a science graduate, she communicates in the broken English of an uneducated woman.
The shock of her children being snatched away would unhinge any mother, but Debika is repeatedly seen to be screeching, wailing or thrashing, which, to an undemonstrative European society, looks like mental instability. If feeding her children by hand, allowing them to sleep with the parents or putting a black dot on her son’s forehead to protect against bad luck suggest poor parenting, Debika’s constant stridency confirms it. In getting Mukerji to perform loudly as though she were in a large amphitheatre, Chibber strips Debika of the sympathy we would otherwise have felt for her.
There is very little background about the state of Debika’s marriage, except a line about domestic violence, and no explanation for her complete isolation. The husband is more interested in his pending citizenship application than the trauma of his wife and children.
There is racism at play, obviously, but an intriguing subplot about the social service running a scam around the children of immigrants is mostly unexplored.
Debika’s persistence and her appeals to an Indian minister (Neena Gupta) visiting Norway gets the Indian government involved, as it had in reality, with politicians Sushma Swaraj and Brinda Karat coming to the aid of the distraught mother.
When the film shifts to India, where Debika’s theatrics would be considered normal behaviour, she actually calms down and acquires the dignity that would have worked for her in Norway (not to mention the Indian audience). Jim Sarbh and Balaji Gauri. playing lawyers on opposite sides of the lawsuit, go by the established norms of screen courtroom dramas and bring much-needed spark to the film. But it’s too little too late. By this time, Rani Mukerji going at it like a soldier with a grenade has done the damage.