SBS India

Interview with My Mother India writer/director Safina Uberoi

Safina Uberoi is the writer/director of My Mother India, which had its world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival, where it was awarded Best Video Production. My Mother India (generously funded by the Australian Film Finance Corporation and SBS Independent) is a very personal documentary about Safina’s Australian mother who went to India in 1966 to live with Safina’s Indian father. Safina’s film is an often humorous look at her mother’s cultural differences in India and her own experiences in growing up in a multicultural family. My Mother India also explores the impact of the anti-Sikh violence on Safina’s family during India’s political turmoil in 1984.

“Although My Mother India is a documentary, every image was thought about and conceived. It’s not an objective film. The only way I could make this film was to liberate myself from the idea of what a documentary is. It doesn’t mean that My Mother India is not truthful, far from it. By making a personal film you cannot escape from your own truth.”

When interviewing members of her family, Safina was often overwhelmed by how intensely past events were still affecting them. As a result My Mother India captures an emotional truth that is far more important and interesting than a dry list of historical facts.

“My mother is an extraordinary character who said things that are true to her. I could not manipulate that material to say anything other than the truth that she herself was looking for, that she herself felt, and that she herself broke down crying in acknowledgment for the first time. There was no way I could tell anything else but that story. The same goes for the rest of my family and myself. But my cinematographer, Himman Dhamija, also speaks through the film by the way he shoots particular material to emphasis his understand of what the film is saying. The same goes for the work done by my editor, Reva Childs.”

As well as Safina and her mother, the other women in My Mother India are very different from the stereotypical images of passive women living in South East Asia.

“I meet people in Australia and they say, “It must be very hard being a woman in India”. I reply “Do I look repressed?” and when they answer “No” I say, “Well, I didn’t learn to be liberated here”. India is full of beautiful and powerful women. Some of them are very poor, some of them are very wealthy, but they are very feminine and they are very strong. I think the relationship between women and power in South East Asia is much more complex than people think, and is much more complex than they want to think. Some people want to see films about oppressed South East Asian women because it makes them feel good about their own situation, but also it makes them feel that they are being really nice because they are spending time sympathising with other people. This is as bad as it is corrupt, because these images aren’t true and deny women the very power and volition that these people claim to support. Worst of all, they feel good about it.”

Despite the seriousness of the political situation in India during the time Safina was growing up, My Mother India is not a depressing film. In fact it is quite the opposite, filled with humorous anecdotes and Safina’s witty commentary.

“All issues which are human are intensely funny, because all human conditions are essentially ironic. We are never one or the other, we are an uncomfortable mixture. How can that not be funny? Being brought up in a mixed marriage was not traumatic – it was hilarious!”

Like Safina herself, My Mother India is charming and intelligent and never becomes self-indulgent. Although it is a personal story, it is a story that all audiences will identify with on some level.

“It is a film about marriage. It is a film about identity. It is a film about politics but it is not a political film. We think we are divorced from politics but we aren’t. We think politics takes place somewhere else, but in fact it takes place in our heart. A momentous change in history is also your history. It happens to you, there is no other person, it’s you. There are a few moments in your life when you actually recognise that kind of pain. This is what the film is about.”

Originally appeared in Filmink Oct 2001, Vol 5.1

© Thomas Caldwell, 2001