In 2011, Sagarika Chakraborty and her husband Anurup Bhattacharya’s story made headlines in India and led to a diplomatic incident between India and Norway when their two children were taken away by the Norwegian child welfare department. The department’s actions subsequently led to the children being put into foster care till they turned 18. The agency’s concerns included the parents and children sleeping on the same bed and hand-feeding, which the Norwegian authorities interpreted as force-feeding.
The experiences of this Bengali immigrant family in Norway has been adapted as Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway (script by Sameer Satija, Ashima Chibber and Rahul Handa), a story largely sympathetic to the mother. In the film, Anirudh Chatterjee (Anirban Bhattacharya) works on an oil rig in Norway. He’s a chauvinistic husband and father of two. Following a complaint about domestic violence, his family has come under observation by the Norwegian child welfare organization, Velfred. His wife, Debika (Rani Mukerji), is a full-time homemaker and mother of their toddler and breastfeeding child. Unlike her husband, she doesn’t speak Norwegian, has a smattering of English. At home, their conversations are a mix of Hindi and Bengali.
Velfred deems Debika an unfit mother and Anirudh an unhelpful husband. The children are ripped away from their parents and put into foster care. It’s a horrifying experience and director Ashima Chibber captures the Chatterjees' shock as they chase the fleeing car and Debika screams hysterically in search of her children.
Their trauma is exacerbated by the accusations levelled against the parents for practices that Indian families would observe as ‘normal’. These register as disgust and astonishment on the faces of the somewhat evil women from Velfred, indicative of the wide cultural chasm.
The film is predominantly in service of Mukerji and Mrs Chatterjee, and does Anirudh no favours. He is obsessed with his citizenship application, which is mentioned repeatedly in the script. He is barely moved when the children are suddenly whisked away by a mercenary organization claiming to be concerned about the welfare of these kids. He has little respect and fleeting affection for his wife, blaming her for this debacle. In his Hindi film debut, Anirban Bhattacharya does his best, in spite of being saddled with a character designed to be unlikable.
The Chatterjees enlist lawyers, but hysteria and irrational actions jeopardise and derail their efforts towards being reunited with their offspring, more than once. Doubts are also raised regarding the questionable motives of the child welfare agency, such as endemic racism, lack of cultural sensitivity and even financial gain. But that investigation is cast aside, reduced to back-alley negotiations and stepsisters of Cinderella-like performances by the ladies representing the agency.
In the latter part, the location shifts to Kolkata when the children’s custody has been handed over to Debika’s villainous brother-in-law and her in-laws, who seem to have wandered off a soap opera set into this cross-cultural human drama.
But Debika’s not done. She moves the court once again. The court case in Kolkata gives the narrative a much-needed shot of energy and form, in particular the repartee between opposing lawyers: Balaji Gauri playing Debika's lawyer and Jim Sarbh representing Norway. In this moment you finally feel for Debika, as she sits mute, Mukherji holding back the tears at last, awaiting her turn in the witness box. It’s the kind of restraint one would have appreciated rather than the amped up melodrama of the first hour. Sarbh delivers the film’s most nuanced performance, as the lawyer who finally reveals deep-rooted prejudice on both sides of the fence.
I wanted to feel more, or at least feel something, for the anguish of these parents separated from their children. I wanted to root for Debika as she fought for the return of her children. Her lawyer describes her as a well-educated woman, yet she is devoid of street-smarts, casually forgetting homework submissions, unwilling to heed the counsel of experienced professionals. But for all of Mukerji's histrionics, for all of Sarbh's efforts, for all of Anirban Bhattacharya's submission to the director, it was hard to root for the Chatterjees in a film that has greater recall as a tear-soaked Bollywood drama than a recreation of a real life human-interest story.