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.
- Maja Ma at IMDb
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