In a Feminist Whats App group I am a part of , a cis-het-woman asked if anyone had seen Maja Ma and a discussion ensued about how Simone Singh and Madhuri had no chemistry and that the son wasn’t supportive of Madhuri. It ended with being grateful that mainstream Bollywood and, more importantly, known actresses like Madhuri are taking up “unconventional” roles and narratives under their wing. They declared that Bollywood is progressing.
While I am always weary and too tired to watch movies I know will not do justice to, with this one I was also cautious about my love for Madhuri not being tarnished. Yet, I decided to watch it to see the lack of chemistry between Simone Singh and Madhuri.
The movie’s protagonist is Pallavi, played by Madhuri, who is not only shown to be a well-adjusted woman in an arranged marriage, checking all the boxes of having two kids, a kind husband, even if not a passionate or fulfilling partnership. She is also popular in her society, loved by all and brilliantly creative and always gorgeously dressed. The movie begins with showing her as someone her adult son adores and draws strength from and the daughter, Tara, wants to bring out from the kitchen. We then see her oblivious to the pride flags that Tara brings, but shows a distinct discomfort when she spells out the words Lesbian, Bi, Gay, Transgender, Intersex and Asexual (LGBTIA).She is shown to be the woman who doesn’t take a stand when the father says that using the words ‘Sexuality”Is not appropriate in front of the kids and we don’t even know what she really thinks. She even asks her daughter if its necessary to announce everything in front of everyone after which Tara pushes her to take a stand, asking if she would be accepted if she were a lesbian (not if she also liked woman, but was a lesbian in particular) to which Madhuri after avoiding for a bit yells out that she is a lesbian and that she likes woman; Tara is stunned, yet unsure and lets her be.
The movie progresses with that scene being captured by a little girl in the neighborhood who loves recording everyday happenings on her camera, and blowing it up on a screen at a community event in the presence of the hilariously self-important ‘samdhis’ from America. What happens then on is that Madhuri coming to terms with her identity and a preachy sketch unfolds about what accepting a queer person in the family means and looks like.
We see the husband not talking about it to her and the response of the society towards him as questioning his manhood. Even with all this the husband doesn’t talk to her and asks a friend instead about how he keeps the sex life in the marriage going, and is offered Viagra as a solution . While the film addressed how the husband doubted his sexual prowess, it only brings to light the lack of intimacy in general, much later in the movie. Meanwhile his awkwardness in appreciating his wife in person and the whole stint with taking the Viagra and what can be understood as an untimely erection at a family gathering and everybody’s response to it, was, in my opinion, a bad comic relief that attempts to whitewash the sensitivity and self-doubt that the partner feels.
The relationship of the mother and daughter requires special mention here because it was to her daughter that Madhuri first came out and it was her daughter who pays attention to her discomfort around Simone Singh, who is also Tara’s mother-in-law and urges Pallavi to tell the truth about their equation. This urgency to know the truth seems to come from the place of curiosity instead of kindness. The daughter is typical of many daughters of this age who tries to rescue the mother while also trying to build a reality that is different from what the mother’s was. She is shown to be someone whose interest and work in Gender Studies and choice of lifestyle in terms of having a marriage without cohabitation is mocked and questioned by almost everyone, yet tolerated by Pallavi because she doesn’t advice her like other mothers do; but she shuts her down when she is speaking sense in the living room, painting it as an instance of sibling banter. The daughter looks out for the mother through the movie and tiringly so. There were many points in the movie when she tries to rescue her mother, which I am guilty of as well, but she is shown to have a mentor whom she values and listens to. What was upsetting in all this was that the movie didn’t address the character arc of the relationship between the mother and the daughter, which could have been really powerful. Not only that, the movie sadly has an exchange where Madhuri tells Tara, without first telling her anything about how much she values her support, that she wants a daughter on a particular day and not a social worker. Which young feminist has not heard these very words in their houses and felt torn between the two? The daughter is left standing on the streets while Madhuri goes on to speak her truth.
The relationship between Simone Singh and Madhuri too lacks screen-time .The backstory consists of Madhuri backing out from eloping with Simone several years ago, and what is left is cold anger from Simone’s side and pretence of pleasantry from Madhuri’s. There is one scene where Simone adjusts the mirror to meet Madhuris eyes when she is being held by her husband, and another with Madhuri crying softly when she learns that Simone is battling leukemia. Another troupe that needs to be discarded in Bollywood movies! We are tired of queer people dying and promises of reuniting in the next life. Clearly a movie which didn’t revolve around the families of queer folks, but them living together addressing conflicts and embracing joys would be too drastic for Bollywood.
The son is shown to be a manchild who has not yet separated himself from the mother who discards all respect and adoration for her as soon as she doesn’t fit into his image. He then manages to redeem himself at the end of the movie by breaking up with his partner, Esha, who stood by his side through this difficult and complex time. By doing that he goes to the other end of the game, playing it out as having to choose between the love of his life or his mother. He hides his guilt by breaking off the relationship without regard for the work she has put in and without doing the hard work of addressing his potential father-in-law to draw boundaries.
The character of Esha is bland at best who has nothing to say or respond to Tara who seems to have the same value. There is no screen time of both of them together nor of Esha alone. She is always shown either with her parents or her man-baby fiancé. If there is one person whose character development arc is gradual and un-abrupt, it was that of Esha’s mother who is shown to be someone who does everything to please her husband and feels less than everytime he makes a pass at other women. She seems to derive her identity and worth from being the wife of a rich and prestigious personality who is also a soon-to-be mayor. However, she later turns into an unexpected ally, a mother who takes a stand for her daughter’s future and also a wife and woman who asks for accountability. This seems to be a nice example of how questioning heteronormativity and patriarchy has its benefits even for cis-het people, allowing them to have real relationships and a fuller life.
On the whole, this movie places undue importance on the family accepting Madhuri rather than taking the pain to explore the relationship itself. Like in real life, everybody else’s feelings take precedence and become part of the dominant narrative than the queer people and their relationship, itself. The undue importance placed on showing how good a wife, mother and a person Madhuri is , even as she brings the medicine to her husband as she questions him, is nauseating.
I wonder if the film-makers ever thought of writing Madhuri or Simone as bisexual people and what would that would have looked like. When they are out to be ‘trendsetters’ of unconventional themes, given they already look at the film as bringing awareness among the public, would the possibility of either of them being bisexual not have added value and nuance to the film and brought out a fuller conversation? Instead of Madhuri saying that she didn’t enjoy sex with her husband what if she did? Would that automatically negate her love for and longing to be with Simone Singh? Would then the movie be Queer enough for the makers or the audience to stir up the waves of progressiveness? Simone Singh and her husband seem to be more than dutybound, why then can we not consider the possibility of Simone being Bi. We, queer or not, want to look at attraction as either/or and being romantically and sexually attracted to more genders than one still confuses our public consciousness. We would prefer to put people in a box and bisexual characters question that jarringly. When bisexuality is asserted and holds its ground, we see how quickly we ask for clarification, for loyalty to one gender. Would a Bi Simone and Madhuri still not choose the other? We don’t want to ask this because we have already decided the answer or are gripped by our own fear of what we expect to hear.
We need Indian movies that are more than how people perceive us or how they should perceive us. We need stories about queer folks told in all messiness and glory, with our anger, jealousy, doubts, faith and heartbreaks. Stories that centre us and our responses to our loved ones instead of always the other way around. Maja Ma would indeed be so if any of the characters got to explore themselves fully.