What does a long-married couple do when they discover that their years together have been based on a lie? Do they call it quits, or do they take a deep breath, step back, and try to figure things out?
The premise of ‘Maja Ma’ uses the domestic space to explore the complexities of sexual identity, social niceties, hypocrisy, and falsehood. In a patently Gujarati city, with its ‘bens’ and ‘mota bhais’ and ‘garba nights’, Pallavi and Manohar Patel (Madhuri Dixit and Gajraj Rao) appear perfectly content. Son Tejas (Ritwik Bhowmik) is somewhere in the US, dreaming of a union with the very American-desi Esha (Barkha Singh). Daughter Tara (Shruti Shrivastava) raises a gong for LGBTQi rights, while negotiating a long-distance marriage.
Things start going askew when the parents of the bride, Bob and Pam Hansraj (Rajit Kapur and Sheeba Chaddha) arrive in India, armed with their deep prejudices and exaggerated accents. The very grounded, middle-class Patels are patronised at every turn. So authentic, aa-then-tic, drawls Bob, when they are welcomed into the house with an ‘arti’; Pam delivers herself of strained smiles whenever an opportunity arises, which is often. To make matters more complicated, old friends Kanchan and Moolchand (Simone Singh and Kamat) show up, and it becomes evident that she shares history with the lady of the house.
The slight thaw amongst the desis and the NRIs is shoved suddenly into cold storage by a strange rumour floated about Pallavi, who has been all these years the very epitome of devoted wife and mother. The rumour takes root, and spreads like wildfire. Has Pallavi been true to her spouse? Or has she suppressed feelings for someone else, which have now burst out into the open?
Though Bollywood has grappled with same sex love in the past, and is now much more comfortable with what used to be considered taboo, a film which speaks so openly about what could have been, is still something to feel chuffed about. A conversation between Pallavi and Manohar about the importance of real feelings, and how dutiful marital sex is not the same as an act which gives true ‘maja’, is one of the high points of the film. As is a scrappy chat between three much-married but unhappy women about husbands who do not look, really look, at their wives, and about how the truth can set them free.
The rest of the film, sadly, doesn’t quite match up. The American couple is unintentionally hilarious, while not trying to hide their obnoxiousness. The ‘wokeness’ about agency and how it is always down to the person whether they want to ‘come out’ is underlined at one point, and in other places, it becomes a matter other people want to stick their noses into. By wanting to be brave and trying to keep it safe, the film becomes both confused and clunky.
Some of the performances are better than the film. Chaddha tries to rise above her lines, and succeeds in a few places. The affable Rao has had practice in being married to women with substance: in ‘Badhaai Do’, he walked alongside Neena Gupta; here he gives able company to Dixit. She is the pivot around which this film revolves, and in some places she does become the actor who can bring her character– complex, wistful, wanting — to life. If only there was more ‘maja’ in the movie.
Maja Ma movie cast: Madhuri Dixit, Gajraj Rao, Rajit Kapur, Sheeba Chaddha, Ninad Kamat, Simone Singh, Ritwik Bhowmik, Shruti Shrivastava, Barkha Singh
Maja Ma movie director: Anand Tiwari
Maja Ma movie rating: 2 stars