- “Mrs. Chatterjee vs Norway,” currently streaming on Netflix, is based on the struggles of Sagarika Chakraborty whose children were taken from her by Norwegian authorities in 2011.
It is based on a true story about Sagarika Chakraborty whose children were taken from her by Norwegian authorities in 2011 (the ambassador of Norway to India has denied the verity of the plot).
At first blush, the writer and director Ashima Chibber paints the abduction of an innocent woman’s children as a shocking incident, but once the film advances you understand that this is a “set-up.”
The Bengali couple Aniruddha and Debika Chatterjee live in Stavanger, Norway with their son Shubh and five-month-old daughter Shuchi. There seems to be no love lost between the two. So, unlike the heartwarming relationship portrayed by Tabu and Irrfan Khan as Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli in the movie “Namesake,” Aniruddha Chatterjee looks down upon his wife, thinks she is overly dramatic, physically abuses her, rebukes her friends, ignores the pleas of Debika’s parents, is not phased by his own children living in foster care “ as long as he gets his foreign citizenship.”
The cold unsympathetic climate of Norway is projected through the unyielding, emotionally distant welfare workers, lawyers and judicial system. Debika is punished and deemed an unfit mother because she encourages co-sleeping, hand-feeding, and applying kohl ( to ward off the evil eye) on the eyes and faces of her children.
It is a common fact that many accepted norms of Eastern cultures are viewed as bizarre and “voodoo”( like applying bindi, tilak, wearing janeu, wearing turbans, and saris, and eating with hands) in Europe and America although the Westernized versions of Indianisms like “hot” yoga, turmeric chai, Buddha’s hands, Namaste and naan bread are loved by the Westerners. There was no standing room in the popular Indian restaurant in Huntsville Alabama, because everyone was trying to romance their wife by treating her to Indian food!
And what’s wrong with co-sleeping? It prevents Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and keeps the kids secure. I believe even Swedish parents practice co-sleeping. I think as Indian immigrants we have to be cautious not to flaunt our colorful and ancient heritage to conservative people although, on a lighter note, I know of a young Indian American who keeps a picture of Shiva in his office. If people ask him about it, he coolly says: “This is my cousin who lives in the Himalayas”!
I have not verified all the facts behind this tale but I can well imagine that something like this could happen to any immigrant parent not “savvy” with the culture and laws of their foreign residence. I know that there are many snoopy souls in schools, gymnasiums, child care facilities, and doctors’ offices who have the number of child protection services on speed dial. This is a good thing to protect children subjected to “real physical and emotional abuse” but if an Indian kid shows up with idli and chutney in their lunchbox instead of a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, it is not abuse. Although all Western societies claim to put children first, what happens in foster care (or even in nursing homes for the elderly) is not always in the best interest of children. The practice is complicated by monetary gain.
Meanwhile Debika, the loud, wailing, confused, scared, mortified mother portrayed by Rani runs helter-skelter to save her kids. No one helps her, finally, she is deported for the “crime” of trying to kidnap her own children. Not only is she stateless, homeless but also childless. The final blow is meted out by her husband who dupes her by cutting a convoluted deal with his brother (Soumya Mukherjee) and parents who are awarded custody of her children. What a nightmare!
The final courtroom scene with Balaji Guri as Advocate Sunaina Pratap and Jim Sarbh as Norwegian lawyer Daniel Singh Ciupek (someone who is a product of Norwegian foster care) brings the story home. The venerable High Court judge played by Barun Chandra passes a verdict to appease the Indian sentiment that “children are best in the care of their mother.” But how many Indian mothers have control over the life and destiny of their children in their households is a question that is worth debating.
“Mrs. Chatterjee vs Norway” was released in the theaters in March 2023 but was met with a lukewarm response. It is streaming on Netflix. I watched it on Mother’s Day. It raises a boatload of questions about a woman’s agency towards her own life, her career, her decision to marry, her control to stay in her hometown, her mindset in raising her children, and her sovereignty in the Indian patriarchal society or on foreign soil. I wonder what many women would do in her shoes. I am sure they would all empathize with the spectrum of emotions portrayed by Rani from cajoling to hysterical to psychotic to numbed by pain. The film wants you to get up and watch over your kids and protect the ones you hold dear.
With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published hundreds of poems, movie reviews, book critiques, and essays and contributed to combined literary works. Her two books are My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.