What is sacrifice when it is encouraged, cultivated, expected? How do you exist in a society that asks you to make yourself so wide that you encompass everything and thus cease to exist as an individual?

Further, what happens when you follow the rules and are still mocked? You devote your life to your children, and then chided when you are sad when they leave home. You arrange marriages and then are blamed when they fail. You keep house, and told to do more; you try to find friends and hobbies, and chided for that, too.

“When my mother-in-law, I didn’t just inherit the keys, I inherited the title ‘mummy,'” Baby (Kiron Kher) explains early in the film. She is everyone’s mummy, she takes care of everything. Those around her love her but also treat her with condescension. Her given name really is “Baby,” and so she is a dichotomy: the mother who is in charge of everything, and the child who cannot be completely trusted. Further, both names (Mummy, Baby) are descriptions, not the names of an individual. Who is a woman but a mummy or a baby?

Ultimately, she does her best to take care of everyone. She looks for optimal matches for her children. She is proud of her sons, and tries to allow her daughter independence. She sees to the house. She even enjoys going online and helping strangers’ with their problems. Her husband and children complain at times, but ultimately do as she asks or commands.

The younger generation of women show how easily these cycles are passed down, both intentionally and not. Baby gives her daughter Simran (Simran Vaid), but ultimately insists the girl marries. She arranges suitors and tells Simran to lie; Simran directly points out that the divorce rate is high because of the lies told before marriage. Baby does accept it when Simran explains she wants to marry for love, but still, heterosexual expectations are upheld.

Baby finds a sweet, simple, traditional girl, Preeti (Nimisha Goswami), for her oldest son. Preeti is the perfect daughter-in-law. But she reveals a personality and thoughts of her: she bristles that Simran, who is the same age, has such a different life. Ultimately, Preeti cuts her hair, eschews her traditional clothes, and starts living the life she wants. This doesn’t detract from her marriage, and as far as we can tell, Preeti’s relationship remains a happy one.

For her younger son, a doctor, Baby insists on an NRI girl from the US or UK. However, the girl she chooses, Jeena (Urwashi Gandhi), doesn’t know all of the social and religious rituals. She is perfect in that she is a doctor from the US, but she doesn’t fulfill any other expectations. And later, she is revealed to be a fraud; originally trying to bilk the family but falling in love instead.

Side note, that sounds like a good movie.

The young women see the parts they are expected to play. However, they are able to buck against them and create happy lives of their own. They uphold tradition by marrying and having children. But Preeti, in particular, shows that one can be a good wife, mother, and daughter-in-law without having to be completely beholden to tradition.

The young women are contending with the same thing Baby is, they are just lucky enough to do it in their 20s instead of their 40s: who am I and what do I want? Baby has been a mother, but her children are leaving to pursue their own lives. Baby and her husband have a comfortable relationship but are not particularly close. She goes out with her friends, but they can be cruel. Other than jogging and providing advice online, Baby doesn’t really have any hobbies or interests outside of the home. So now what?

The movie’s ending destroyed me. The movie had been light and funny, but the ending is tragic. And it feels earned and organic, not melodrama for melodrama’s sake. All of Baby’s children have moved to the US. Her husband dies. What does she have left?

My dad died when I was 18, my mom when I was 26. I have lived far away from extended family for most of my life. My mom fell apart after my dad died, and now I have trouble picturing life without my husband. So as Baby dealt with her new reality, I found myself sobbing in a way I haven’t in a very long time.

Rajinder (Kanwaljit Singh), Baby’s husband, appears to her in a dream. He encourages her to color her hair, put on colorful clothing instead of her mourning whites, to get out and live. And so the movie ends on a hopeful note, with Baby creating a new life for herself.

We all must contend with the question of who we are, how to live, and what to live for. The question can be especially sharp for people who are expected to live within a narrow role. When that role is over, what are you left with? How does the show continue?

Mummy Punjabi shows how women contend with identity by participating in and rebelling against society.

The title is a play on the 1957 classic Mother India, which is a serious drama about the lengths a mother will go to sacrifice for her children. This movie is very much a response to that; what is sacrifice in the 21st century? However, the last time I saw Mother India was in 2003 or 2004, so I can’t really comment on the way this movie responds to that one. Clearly those ideas of sacrifice and punishment run deep. 

Posted by Natasha

Natasha received her MA in Literature and Culture in 2008 from Oregon State University. Currently she lives in Oregon with her husband and cats.

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