Maja Ma is the kind of film about which people say limp things like: its heart was in the right place
As someone somewhere has surely joked, there is not much maja in Maja Ma. Spoilers ahead, but honestly, it does not matter.
In Maja Ma, the beautiful-dutiful Pallavi’s (Madhur Dixit) son is to be engaged to the daughter of an obnoxious NRI couple. A series of unfortunate-for-the audience (because dull and lazily written) events, reveals that Pallavi is lesbian. After many humiliations showcasing multiple social hypocrisies, she stands up for herself. Characters have requisite turn-arounds. Cue dance sequence.
Maja Ma is the kind of film about which people say limp things like: its heart was in the right place. I submit that one must pinpoint where the heart of the film is, before deciding it is in the right place.
The heart of a film is not just in its declarations, but whose emotions and experiences are central to the narrative. From the moment the film reveals Pallavi loves women it becomes about the reactions of everyone, the endangered engagement and the son’s reform. We barely dwell in Pallavi’s emotional and sensual universe. The film spends more time listing homophobia than drawing us into the interiority of a woman who had to give up on romantic and sexual love.
While critiquing society’s discomfort with women’s desires, the film itself barely dwells on the past-closeness of the women-lovers nor a present-day intimacy laced with old hurts and buried yearning. Their awkward kiss made me wish for two erotically lush roses instead. There are a few jokes about men’s libidos and erections, but women are etched in terms of unconditional love, fidelity to family and that terrifying stereotype – indomitability (bachao!).
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To be fair, Maja Ma does acknowledge some less common insights of queerness. It suggests marriage could be imagined as a domestic friendship, that relationships and orientations are not defined only by who you have sex with but also who you have feelings for. But these remain theoretical. While standing for queer rights, the film is itself very straight, emotionally and sexually inhibited, keeping an arm’s length from queerness. It keeps swiping right on a list of second-hand politics and borrowed insights, aggregating them. But the filmmakers don’t make themselves vulnerable through an exploration, perhaps imperfect, but committed, of human loves and desires.
It takes great self-satisfaction, to think you can challenge everyone via an LGBTQ theme, scoring progressive cred—but not allowing what you learn about queerness to reimagine your own storytelling.
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People have on-paper turn arounds, but their journeys are not rendered on film because of inert writing and inert politics. Too much self-congratulatory art-direction, with blue mocktails, too little emotional world-building. This is why even potentially brilliant devices, like the lie-detector test, fail to achieve rambunctious absurdity, and a somewhat radical ending fails to make our hearts soar in liberating flight.
Good writing might have rescued the politics, or vice versa.
In one scene, a character alludes disparagingly to the normativity of old Hindi film songs. You have to be watching the cross-dressing of staged songs, the boy-boy love and girl-girl passion of picnic songs with a very straight eye to have come up with such a dour judgement bhai. Badli teri nazar toh nazare badal gaye, goes one old Hindi film song. If your nazar does not change, how can you make us see our world anew?
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org