‘Inka phool tumhare garden mein laga rahein hain, mujhe maali ki naukri karne do na’. The Netflix release Mimi is replete with a string of painfully tired metaphors that render the womb as a sugarcane field where the surrogate mother is supposed to harvest someone else’s crop in return of a hefty sum. Starring Kriti Sanon as the titular lead, the film is a Hindi remake of the Marathi movie on motherhood and surrogacy, Mala Aai Vahhaychy! (2011). Modern in its look and feel, but archaic in its ode to motherhood, the Hindi dramedy co-written and directed by Laxman Utekar is more of a merry and then sentimental campaign of surrogacy.
A dancer in Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region, Mimi Rathore is an aspirational star who wants to star opposite her Bollywood dream hero someday. Mimi, of course, needs the finances to sponsor her portfolio and ‘viral’ video shoots in Mumbai. Enters a childless American couple [Evelyn Edwards, Aidan Whytock] looking for a surrogate. Bhanu Pratap [Pankaj Tripathi], a local street-smart taxi driver, maneuvers a series of events that land Mimi the project as the tall, healthy and sprightly surrogate. What follows is how Mimi decides to give birth to and then raise the child when the American couple abandons the project midway and leaves the country, leaving her in a lurch after a report indicates possible ‘disability’ of the foetus.
A regressive stand on female agency
[Spoiler alert for the rest of the article]. Mimi takes us through the journey of an Indian surrogate abandoned by the biological parents (white) of the baby at an advanced stage of the woman’s pregnancy. Agreed that Mimi didn’t promise to deliver an incisive take on surrogacy. However, what is finally delivered is a typical Bollywood fare on a supposedly serious subject, making not only light of it, but shying away from showing how surrogacy pans out in a third world country like India where exploitation is common. When she decides to be a surrogate, Mimi finds her allies in good friend Shama [Sai Tamhankar] and Bhanu, who later grows from being merely a manager to develop a bond with the child. Fair enough, but is life so hunky dory for an Indian surrogate? No matter how kaleidoscopic the palette in Mimi, it can’t hide the fact that in the dark underbelly of India’s poverty-ridden surrogacy map, young girls and women have met with biological, legal and emotional complications owing to loopholes in law, illiteracy, lack of decision-making agency, the presence of middlemen, societal stigma, amongst others. For such women, surrogacy is a poverty-alleviation procedure, often to feed their families and not to render their Instagram with kitsch videos. To even not acknowledge that there are darker subtexts to this subject where women have not had choice and where they have been rendered as mere pawns in a privileged barter system is to get the context wrong.
It is a different matter that the couple abandons Mimi when she is well ahead into her pregnancy. It is, however, offensive for the movie to not weigh in as abortion as not medically possible at that stage, but rather to project it as a less moral, motherly, and humane act. In the recent Malayalam movie Sara’s released on Netflix, a progressive male, Muslim gynecologist upholds a woman’s right to bodily autonomy as he sensitizes the lead couple about the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971. The movie champions the ‘my body, my choice’ template and frees motherhood of any divine responsibility.
Who deserves the child, the biological mother who disowned him while still unborn fearing not a perfectly healthy child, or the nurturer who raises him as her own? This forms the core of the movie that eventually pits the protagonist along the lines of nature vs nurture. It is bewildering to see how Mimi forgets her own firebrand self, her dance, her dream of becoming a heroine and motherhood becomes not only her ‘career’ but the sole purpose of her life. In this day and age, when the movie Mimi itself establishes the premise of a small-town girl with access to the internet and a Bollywood dream of her own, it is disheartening to see how it fails its own premise to saddle the woman with the ‘heroic’ role of a mother. Mimi doesn’t see it as a hindrance, especially because even when it is an unplanned and wanted pregnancy. In a later sequence, Mimi’s mother (Supriya Pathak) tells her, ‘Devaki bhi tu hain, Yashoda bhi tu’. In an altruistic picture, Mimi’s patriarchal family accepts her and her child born out of surrogacy. Kriti Sanon shines as the warm and vivacious mother at times, but her character arc lets her down.
Class, color and the narrative of privilege
There is a sequence in the film when Mimi on her first meeting with the client, the white couple in question, says in her typical no-holds-barred tone what if she delivers twins. Will she be paid double the price? We are reminded that this is a world of womb shopping, where a privileged white couple can size up an Indian woman, select her, negotiate with her, ‘buy’ her womb and then abandon her in the middle of it, and even come back to reclaim the child. We are supposed to sympathize with the pangs of the couple who thereafter go through mental agony including the wife’s suicidal bout, but how can the audience see them in isolation even when they refuse to acknowledge their own privilege and double standards?
The agency lies with the white woman throughout. It is she who chooses Mimi, abandons Mimi, then comes back to claim custody of her biological child, again taking agency away from Mimi. Even in the end, Mimi decides to let go, finding a rationale in the thought that she is, after all, incapable of providing the child (Jacob Smith) with the privilege of an American life that is his right. When Mimi gets to keep the boy, it is after all, owing to the sudden magnanimous spark in the white woman that makes her realize how Mimi, the nurturer, is the rightful mother. Mimi is a passive recipient of her decisions, good, bad and ugly. To show the privilege narrative play out so starkly in a film that is supposedly championing surrogacy and women is to white-wash connotations of race and class entirely. Mimi seems to tell us it’s an equal world where gender is not cut through with class.
It is this same privileged, white and ableist narrative at play when we see the doctor diagnose the possibility of the birth of a child with Down syndrome, which is described as ‘disability’ in a casual tone, underscoring the baggage that comes with such binaries pitting the ‘normal’ against the ‘abnormal’. Mimi delivers a healthy, white, ‘normal’ and ‘beautiful’ child, who is then looked at through the brown-native gaze of awestruck wonder. The way everyone enquires about the secret behind the complexion of the child is realist cinema, but one that is too careless to bring in the nuance that it is after all, colonial hangover.
The comedy is frothy at times, the song and the dance live up, but Mimi could have been a far more nuanced watch had it not been for its casual take on a woman’s aspirations and rights and the undertone of class privilege.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)