Maa: An extraordinarily sensitive foray into the world of a middle-class family

Sarjun’s short film, Maa, reminds you that great stories are around us. It makes you wonder why sometimes writers sit and wonder what to concoct, when all they really need to do is observe life and its fascinating complexities. Admittedly, the issue at the heart of Maa — teenage pregnancy — may not be altogether relatable, but the aftermath absolutely is. The secret glances, the lies, the insecurities… Maa feels like Sarjun sneaked into your average middle-class family household and shot them without their knowledge.

Much like his last short, Lakshmi, this film too has a woman at its heart, and again, she’s a homemaker. The producer, Gautham Menon, would likely call it, “the second episode of a homemaker’s life”. The problem concerns a 15-year-old girl who gets pregnant, and the film begins with a shot of her. The protagonist, however, is her mother (Kani, who plays her, is a revelation). She’s your seemingly average woman who runs the household, but this all-consuming problem that has cropped up demands that she display extraordinary strength and understanding. The stretches that show her gathering the resilience to do the right thing, are beautifully handled. When she first hears of the horrifying news, like many other Tamil film mothers before her, she reacts with outrage. She throws a fit, breaks into a wail, and hits her daughter. At one point, she even suggests that the girl kill herself. But then, true sense prevails. The questions now torment her. Must she tell her husband? Must she confront the boy concerned? Can she forgive her daughter? Does this reflect on her parentage?

Good films entertain, but the really, really good ones make you meditate too. Maa incites you to mull over all sorts of things. Whose job is it to educate youngsters about sex? Is your average breadwinner truly aware of what happens in the lives of the members of the household? Under what circumstances should you have a child? The questions linger well after the film ends.

What I particularly liked about Maa are the unassuming, tasteful touches. The mother asking the boy if he made any recordings of the encounter. The girl asking her mother if she should consider having the baby. The mother passing a word of good will from the boy. Best of all, the boy shedding tears and looking not just heartbroken, but also scared. It’s commendable that in this film about two women, the director resists the easy temptation to vilify men. In fact, he goes out of his way to humanise them. The boy shows remorse. The father—almost the villain—gets a scene that shows him to be benevolent. Sure, he’s guilty of insensitivity and conservatism, but on some level, he also comes across as a victim of the society he lives in.

There’s little that’s wrong with Maa. Perhaps you get the feeling that it’s not all completely etched out in as many vivid colours as you’d like, but that’s the nature of short films, of short stories. This is the first short film I have reviewed in this space, and it’s just as well, given the likely mainstream rise of this medium. It’s fitting that it begins with Maa, for this director, with his two shorts, could well have breathed life into this short film space. It’s not entirely unlike the protagonist of Maa, who breathes normalcy—beautiful, underrated normalcy—into her daughter’s life.

This review was written for Cinema Express, the cinema division of The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to its page if you’d like to share it.

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