Without a mother: Parents’ debts go away, even in death – Best American Indian magazine | San José CA
Poignant and thoughtful, Urvashi pathania ‘Non-mother’ is a 17-minute short film, released on HBO today, about the grief of a girl after the death of her mother. The film also talks about debts and the unanswered questions parents can leave with us when they leave. It’s a short film but it manages to raise deep questions and asks each of us what we would face mortality under the circumstances.
Apparently a simple story about a student in the United States, Priyanka, who arrives in India to cremate her mother. Her mother died suddenly of a heart attack while on vacation in India. Upon arrival, Priyanka is greeted by her father who takes her to the family home where extended family members have gathered for cremation. When she arrives at the family home, she finds that nothing is as it seems. The family is behaving rather strangely. Her cousins, her aunt and uncle greet her with obvious unease as she Nani (maternal grandmother) talks about signs from above. Within minutes, a cousin reveals to Priyanka the true circumstances of her mother’s death. When she confronts her father, he can barely counter why the parents have kept the truth from their daughter. And even as she is in shock at this shocking revelation, she realizes that a cousin has been invited to perform the last rites for her mother. This is because Hinduism requires that only a son can immerse the ashes of a parent in holy waters; and worse yet, in the absence of a son, any cousin or male relative will do. Girls don’t need to apply! His grief-stricken father says he is simply following his mother’s religious customs. So even as Priyanka discovers everything that was denied to her by her own parents, she now risks having this latest participation in her mother’s last trip stolen. What unfolds from there is neither melodramatic nor a declaration of desperation. I’ll let you discover the rest for yourself in this 17-minute reflective drama. Although the subject is not happy, the young filmmaker handled him with a maturity and sensitivity that reflected an understanding well beyond his years.
I found myself mourning the mother who passed away knowing the loss her young daughter would suffer. But I couldn’t help but wonder why sometimes we desi parents are unable to give our children respect for truth and adult ownership in their relationship with us. We try to raise them to be independent and competent adults who open up new paths in the world, and yet we deem them not competent enough to handle hard truths. Why do we feel compelled to do this even in the face of something as final as death? After all, there are no answers and explanations possible after this final departure. Perhaps the answers with context and clarity can only come from those who are faced with such a tragedy. It’s a rare film that makes us think and feel at the same time without harassing us and leaves us with questions so heavy to think about.
Despite the loaded subject matter, what makes the whole production more complete is the filmmaker’s apparent understanding that life is rarely monotonous, even in terrible grief. Humor and symbolism are everywhere and ours to notice. The misspelled road sign in India – a common source of jokes in India – and the bird that leaves at the end both evoke emotion. And in the tragic unfolding, there are comedic moments that lighten the load without appearing out of place. At one point, Priyanka gets drunk and runs away with the urn containing her mother’s ashes and a panicked family chase ensues. It ends in a crash that changes the course of things, albeit behind the scenes. Even as the action-packed scenes unfolded, I couldn’t help but laugh at the antics of yoga rockstar Nani, who I learned was the filmmaker’s Nani IRL! Pathania’s little nod to Bollywood blockbuster jail chase comedic streak Sholay (1975) made me laugh out loud. You too if you are old enough to remember it. Whether Pathania knew a thing or two about Bollywood classics told me about her passion for cinema.
Pathania’s vision and craftsmanship belies her years. The subject matter is reminiscent of one of the recent Hindi films on the subject of death and its consequences as old grouse, rotting issues and unpaid debts resurface in the family – “Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi” and “Pagglait” come to mind. These are full features with stellar casts and slightly different concerns. Still, “Unmothered”, despite its inherently limited 17 minutes, holds up. The cast of Unmothered is excellent; especially Sharayu Mahale, who plays Priyanka, and Ivan Rodrigues, who plays the father, both deserve kudos for their performances in childbirth.
Today, Pathania is a New York-based writer / director. His films explore emotions as paths to knowledge. In 2021, Urvashi was selected for the Google Assistant Storytelling Fellowship in partnership with The blacklist. I look forward to more of his work in the future and invite you to check this one out. If her skillful handling, sensibility, and tight storytelling in this film are any indications, then she is a filmmaker to watch.
Note: “Unmothered” is one of only three finalists for the Asian Pacific American Visionaries Short Film Competition. It will premiere at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival 2021, presented by Visual Communications, on Saturday, September 25 and debut on HBO Max on September 27. Don’t miss it!
Reena kapoor lives in California with his human family and beloved Labradoodle Dishoom! Reena holds an engineering degree from IIT Delhi and a graduate degree from Northwestern University. She is a poet and Arrivals / Departures is his first collection of poetry. His work has been published in Poet’s Choice, Visible Magazine and India Currents. As playwright in residence 2020-2021 for EnActe Arts, a leading theater company in the San Francisco Bay Area, four of Reena’s plays were produced in April 2021. Reena is also an Instagram photographer at @ 1stardusty.