Amazon Prime’s first original film Maja Ma is a coming-of-age story of a middle-class Gujarati matriarch Pallavi, played by Madhuri Dixit. It catches you by surprise but fails to deliver on its promise.
Directed by Anand Tiwari and written by Sumit Batheja, the film opens up like a can of worms. Pallavi is stripped off her secrets right after her scintillating garba performance. She has been a regular at the community Navratri celebrations but this year is particularly important. Her son Tejas (Ritwik Bhowmik) is set to marry Esha (Barkha Singh), who has deeply judgemental, suspicious and uptight NRI parents, Bob (Rajit Kapoor) and Pam (Sheeba Chaddha).
How Pallavi’s family and the potential in-laws respond to the outing of the secret forms the crux of this drama.
The older players do it better
Madhuri Dixit gives top-notch performance as the ‘perfect’ mother, wife and community member. She enjoys a God-like stature in the eyes of her son, and the community trusts her judgement to organise Navratri festivities every year. Pallavi is effortlessly the woman that we all know and have grown up with–trying to balance the old and the new, and sacrificing her identity and life for her family.
Things turn around when a video made by a kid accidentally gets played at a gathering. When almost everyone turns against Pallavi, she finds her voice. The character’s journey of accepting her identity and sexuality, and of confronting the consequence of making a ‘safe’ choice through her marriage is performed with finesse by Madhuri.
Gajraj Rao only keeps getting better with every film he does. In Maja Ma as well, he plays the hapless husband Manohar who tries everything—like accidentally ingesting Viagra—to keep some balance in the quickly unravelling family fabric.
However, one performance that stands out is given by Simone Singh, who shines in a confrontation scene with both Madhuri and Sheeba in the frame. She does her small bit flawlessly, and drives the plot forward. Barkha’s accent sounds too fake for her to make much impact, as does that of Rajit Kapoor’s. In fact, the exaggerated accent and ‘purity’ and lie detection tests turn the entire family into caricatures.
Ritwik plays the millennial privileged son who wants Pallavi to be a good mom over a human being. Srishti Shrivastava is earnest in portraying a problematic activist who is so hell-bent on being a saviour that she forgets to be a daughter. She doesn’t even understand the trauma of a woman whose sexuality has been outed without her consent.
The ‘safe’ path
Maja Ma follows Badhai Do—it takes a safe path. While it takes a step forward by looking at sexuality not just through the lives of youngsters but women in their fifties, it remains shy of being revolutionary. It wants to provoke but also goes vanilla in its politics.
The ‘resolution’ feels incomplete after the brave moments in the film. Why it falters is because it does not use out-and-out comedy but tries drama, and caricature to drive home the point. In making its audience ‘comfortable’, the film loses its plot.
There are definitely some powerful, and tender moments, in the film but many are unused. It could have been an Astitva (2000), the Tabu-starrer Mahesh Manjrekar film that also looks at a married woman’s identity and whose resolution is way more impactful even though it came out two decades ago.
The exploration of the changed relationship between a couple married for 30 years comes too late and is too little. Also, the trope of cancer needs to stop being used as deus ex machina in Bollywood.
Maja Ma has a good heart and the space of an OTT platform to be bolder and braver, but eventually it gets cold feet.
(Edited by Ratan Priya)