Film Review: Mammo (1994)
Mammo is the first of auteur Shyam Benegal’s woman-centric trilogy, which also included Sardari Begum (1996) and Zubeidaa (2001). An interesting and easy watch, this movie was relevant to me for its chronicle of personal experiences of ‘the partition of India’ without politicizing the issue. This deftly spun movie has a strong narrative and crisp dialogue; it avoids the usual melodrama associated with nostalgic films and has occasional bursts of humour. There is also a very slice-of-life cinema feel to it. However, the supporting characters seemed rather ill defined – I wish the director has widened his canvas.
As the title suggests, the movie is about Mammo, an exuberant character who often unbalances the pace of life for those around her. In the backdrop of the human drama of clashing personalities is the history of India’s partition. Mammo (Farida Jalal) comes to live with her sister her sister Fayyazi (Surekha Sikri) and her grandson Riyaz (Amit Phalke). She hints that an abusive family life after her husband’s death had made life living hell for her at Lahore. While sorry for her, Fayyazi and Riyaz remain resentful fearing that she will become a permanent guest in their matchbox Bombay flat. Fayazzi has had her share of misfortunes—Zubeidaa her daughter died at an early age and she was left to bring up her grandson. The focus of the narrative remains on 13-year-old Riyaz who comes to terms not only with the two women and their opposing personalities but also with his own past.
From the moment we see Mammo, she begins to talk and is always seen in this expressive mode. In the hands of a lesser director, this movie would have been reduced to one of those chronicles of a bubbling-with-life Pollyanna like character. But this is a Shyam Benegal movie, and he manages to elevate this character by carefully depicting her relationships with other characters as well as their reactions to her loud nature.
Eventually Mammo ceases to be a guest in the household. It’s at this juncture that Mammo is arrested and sent back to Pakistan. The police officer she has been bribing to ensure her stay in India is transferred and she is forced to leave, what is in reality, her homeland. The resolve of the film is rather whimsical, with a quirky fairy-tale ending.
Its very indolence and laidback character endears the film to me; there is no heavy social commentary nor are there tangled narratives to unfurl. Through this simple human story of a woman’s concept of home being shattered by an arbitrary line between two nations and the ensuing visa-politics, Shyam Benegal highlights the loss of individual identity due to the partition. This is subtly underlined when Mammo and Fayazzi attend a screening of ‘Garam Hawa’ and are reduced to tears. Mammo feels that the film is based on her life! Interestingly, Khalid Mohamed who wrote the script for this movie based it on the true story of one of his aunts. It is an accessible and entertaining watch for anyone interested in Asian cinema.
Director: Shyam Benegal
Stars: Farida Jalal, Surekha Sikri and Amit Phalke
Production Co: Doordarshan, National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC)