Tag Archives: Gajraj Rao

Movie Review: Maja Ma (2022)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Who we are is a complicated question because so much of our identity is relational. Descriptors like wife, mother, sister, friend, or co-worker all depend on there being at least one specific person on the other side of the equation. Navigating all those identities is tricky enough before we introduce individual identities that can be broader yet also more personal: artist, woman, gay, or straight. Maja Ma follows the members of the Patel family as a rumor makes them examine their own identities and their relationships with each other.

Tejas Patel (Ritwik Bhowmik) is trying to convince the wealthy parents of his Indian-American girlfriend Esha Hansraj (Barkha Singh) to allow him to marry their daughter. Tejas already passed a lie detector test required by Texans Bob (Rajit Kapoor) and Pam Hansraj (Sheeba Chaddha) to ensure that he isn’t just after the family’s money. The real challenge is a meeting between the families in India to prove that the Patels embody Bob’s idea of true Indian values. Bob believes anything less might harm Bob’s future campaign to become mayor of Houston.

The Patel family is pretty typical — dad Manohar (Gajraj Rao), mom Pallavi (Madhuri Dixit), Tejas, and his sister Tara (Srishti Shrivastava) — but Tara is the wildcard. She’s working on her PhD in gender studies, and she’s a vocal supporter of LGBTQIA+ rights. She’s so vocal that even the advocacy group she volunteers for asks her to tone down her fiery rhetoric to spare them the negative press.

Pallavi is supportive of her daughter, but she’s not keen on discussing sexuality with her. During an argument in which Tara presses her mom to admit whether she would have accepted Tara if she was gay (she’s not), Pallavi blurts out that she herself is a lesbian. It’s an effective way to end the argument, but Tara suspects that maybe there’s some truth behind her mom’s words.

When the Hansraj family arrives in town, the Patels do their best to tolerate their insufferable future in-laws for Tejas’s sake. Bob leers at Pallavi and says things like, “Exotic,” during her welcome ritual. When Tara serves snacks, Pam asks her if she’s menstruating (she’s not) since Bob won’t eat any food prepared by a woman who is.

At a festival that night, the host shows a video recorded by one of the nosy neighborhood kids that includes secretly recorded footage of Pallavi’s confession during her argument with Tara, sending the whole town into an uproar. Women exclude Pallavi from their activities, Manohar’s manhood is mocked, and Bob and Pam threaten to call off the engagement — unless Pallavi can pass a lie detector test.

Whether Pallavi’s confession is actually true is immaterial in the sense that everyone in her life changes the way they treat her anyway. Manohar’s concerns are the most understandable since Pallavi being a lesbian alters the foundations of their marriage. Tejas is willing to haul his mom off to conversion therapy if it means he can still marry Esha. Tara is thrilled at the prospect of having a lesbian mother, as it would give her more credibility in her gay rights organization.

One of the counselors in Tara’s organization emphasizes that it’s entirely up to Pallavi whether she decides to publicly embrace being a lesbian. The reactions by her family, the Hansrajs, and everyone else in the neighborhood show that doing so would not come without a cost. In addition to being a lesbian, Pallavi is a mother and a wife — two roles she’s let define her knowing that other options were not available to her when she was of marriageable age.

As far as the audience knows, Pallavi loves being a mom and being part of her community, and she and Manohar have an amicable relationship. Is making a public declaration worth risking damage to the other parts of her life she’s spent decades building? Director Anand Tiwari and writer Sumit Batheja compassionately provide context for a heart-wrenching decision people are still forced to make in places where it is not safe to come out.

Maja Ma also thoughtfully depicts the changing family dynamics as adult children finally realize that their parents are more than just “Mom” and “Dad.” Likewise, Manohar’s attempts to rekindle the physical romance in his marriage are handled with grace and good humor. This is a movie that is very fond of the main family at its core.

Conversely, Bob and Pam are shown to be buffoons who get away with awful behavior because they have money. One curious point is that the movie gives Esha a pass for tolerating her parents’ rude, bigoted behavior. Her unconditional love of them is painted as a good thing, but that doesn’t mean she should condone their abuse. Far less emotional growth is demanded of her than the other adult children in the film, and it seems like a missed opportunity.

Still, Tiwari’s and Batheja’s attempts to address as the many complications that would arise from Pallavi’s confession is worth applauding, as are the performances by Maja Ma‘s terrific cast.

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Movie Review: Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (“Be Extra Careful of Marriage“, SMZS henceforth) — Bollywood’s first mainstream romantic comedy about a gay couple — is at its most effective when it leans into genre traditions.

Aman Tripathi (Jitendra Kumar) and Kartik Singh (Ayushmann Khurrana) are a dating couple living in Delhi. Aman’s parents Shankar (Gajraj Rao) and Sunaina (Neena Gupta) don’t know that their son is gay, but Kartik is sure they’ll be accepting. The dating couple meets up with the family on a train on the way to Aman’s cousin Goggle’s (Maanvi Gagroo) wedding outside of Allahabad.

On route to the wedding venue, Shankar spots Aman and Kartik kissing. Shankar’s dramatic negative reaction provokes the couple to kiss again, this time in the middle of the dance floor in front of all the wedding guests. Despite Shankar’s and Sunaina’s hilarious attempts to explain the kiss as some sort of family tradition, Goggle’s fiance cancels the wedding, and the Tripathi’s return to Allahabad.

Rather than embrace Aman as he is, his parents insist that he can be converted if removed from Kartik’s influence. They go so far as to get Aman engaged to a cute young woman named Kusum (Pankhuri Awasthy), who is all too eager to marry him.

The rest of SMZS is essentially the second half of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, but if Raj was trying to save Kuljeet from marrying Simran instead of the other way around. In DDLJ, Raj’s strategy was to convince Simran’s family that he was the best person for her to marry. In SMZS, Kartik’s approach is less personal and more about asserting Aman’s right to choose who he wants to date and marry, regardless of gender.

Perhaps SMZS would have struck a stronger emotional chord had Kartik used more of Raj’s strategy. This is a film about a family, but Kartik’s aggressive tactics and the Tripathis’ intransigence make it hard to see how he would fit in if he and Aman did marry. Scenes in which Kartik is emotionally vulnerable play as though they are meant to convince Aman of his loyalty — something that is never really in question — rather than prove his worthiness to the Tripathis.

Writer-director Hitesh Kewalya uses SMZS as an educational opportunity, focusing more on the moral and legal grounds for Aman’s relationship with Kartik instead. This plays into some of the issues that hampered the film SMZS spun off from: 2017’s Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, which Kewalya wrote but did not direct. Both stories periodically lose momentum as the plot gets bogged down in dialogue-heavy scenes.

The slow narrative pace is mitigated by the terrific performances by the entire cast. Awasthy is especially hilarious as Kusum, whose ostentatious shyness feels straight out of an old movie.

One of Kewalya’s strong points is his ability to write humorously about adult topics (Shubh Mangal Saavdhan was about impotence) in a way that never feels vulgar. SMZS is family-friendly. If one of the goals of the film is to normalize the depiction of gay relationships in mainstream Hindi cinema, making it a movie that is accessible to all ages is a great way to accomplish that.

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