Happy Birthday Mummyji: Shefali Shah’s Directorial Debut Is A Thing of Beauty

What a brilliant directorial debut by iconic Shefali Shah! We only learn the lady’s name a minute before the film ends. Because a name doesn’t matter. She is all of us.

“Shefali Shah is always good news,” responds my editor when I text her my intention to cover her new short film. At the other end of the screen, I nod in ardent agreement.

From when she first caught my teenage attention in Banegi Apni Baat, all the way to Ankahi, her last outing I reviewed, she has grown only more riveting as an actor.

Now, we are treated to her talent as a writer and director as well, in Happy Birthday Mummyji, a short on YouTube. Settle in ladies, this is a good one.

*a few spoilers

A dutiful wife and daughter in law

The scene opens on a set that could rival a KJo movie. Artisanally arranged flowers in vintage achaar barnis, morning light flooding in, and soaring double ceilings set the stage for a milestone birthday in a family’s holiday home outside the city. A woman busies herself with the execution of plans, and by the “ji” at the end, we know it is for her mother-in-law.

It’s all coming along swimmingly until her spouse tersely informs her that Mumbai has gone into lockdown and the family won’t be able to make it. “The party is cancelled.”  Meanwhile our protagonist has been folding baby’s breath fronds into accordion-style napkins and ensuring there are no onions or garlic in the vicinity of all the food.

There’s beauty in her body language. In the slump of her shoulders as she sits, resignedly, plans scuppered, staring out into nothing. In nearly every scene, we notice her mangalsutra, chastely around her neck, declaring her foremost roles and responsibilities and a life lived in compliance.

Taken for granted?

In response to her disappointment, all she gets are self-absorbed statements from the rest of her marital family. No acknowledgment of her emotional labor. Or, for that matter, all the physical effort of planning an event solo when the birthday lady has at least three children of her own. Talk about being taken for granted.

It is up to her to suggest that the rest of the family meet in Mumbai to celebrate, while a way is arranged to transport her home. For her effort, she is rewarded with her man-baby of a spouse throwing a fit about hosting his own mother’s party. (Also, there is that tiny issue of my brain exploding when I hear someone wonder how they will manage a family gathering with only two full time help. Let’s just say it’s not an NRI problem.) So of course, our protagonist steps in to arrange it all long-distance.

As Indian women and daughters in law, we’ve all been there

We’ve all been there. Managing homes from afar because the people in them have a teeny problem: #BeingMale. AKA, my brain wasn’t trained to perform these incredibly complicated tasks while holders of XX chromosomes magically observed and learned from the womb.

Long distance celebration arranged, our friend here is clearly a glutton for punishment. She whines to her entitled turd of a spouse that she now has nothing to do. “Do nothing!” he snaps, and we imagine his eyeballs rolling way back into his skull.

And… the beauty of “doing nothing” for ONCE

So she does. And she loves it. To watch a woman steep herself in the sheer pleasure of leisure is a thing of beauty. There she lounges, unhindered, uninterrupted, marinating in that most precious of commodities womankind is deprived of: solitude.

There’s a heady freedom she luxuriates in. Of snapping her bra open without a thought to time and place. Of spending the night passed out on an inflatable pool raft. Of a meal of her choosing that’s clearly not Jain. Of climbing trees and playing marbles. In these seemingly microscopic but crucial details, Shah invites women to experience that freedom to just be themselves, shorn of all roles and their attendant responsibilities. As she licks the cake meant for another and sets free the birthday balloons, she isn’t alone. Thousands of women watching this will ache to be her.

Shefali Shah here is every one of us…

We only learn the lady’s name a minute before the film ends. Because a name doesn’t matter. She is all of us.

You’ve been there, in that role. Of master juggler, the one without whom all the glass balls come crashing to the ground, the invisible scaffolding that hoists up other lives. Would you be able to stop it all for two weeks, or even two days and only focus on your right to guilt-free rest? Who would you meet if you finally paused and looked deep inside? What would you do with yourself? Could you face her, this long-neglected woman who has learned to make do with little? Could you look her in the eye and tell her she is deserving of it all?

Without a word, Shah’s piece of art points us in that direction, and we wonder what if….? In watching this upholder of multiple roles reacquaint herself with the person she used to be, we witness a sort of rebirth. And therein lies the irony of the film’s title.

The film’s design is breathtaking, but Ms. Shah needn’t have bothered. One is unable to take their eyes off her for fear of missing a miniscule cue, an inflection of emotion, a wonder of her polished craft, all compressed into 12 poetic minutes. And so brilliantly does she fill up the screen that one only realizes in hindsight that this was a one-woman show. We never see another actor and we certainly don’t miss one.

Jug jug jiyo, Shefali Shah. May you be the mother of a hundred creative babies.

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