Poignant and thoughtful, Urvashi Pathania’s ‘Unmothered’ is a 17-minute short, releasing on HBO today, about a daughter’s grief upon the death of her mother. The film is also about the debts and unanswered questions parents can leave us with when they go. It is a short film yet it manages to raise deep questions and asks each of us what we would do when faced with mortality under the circumstances.
Ostensibly a simple story about a college student in the US, Priyanka, who arrives in India to cremate her mother. Her mother has unexpectedly passed away from a heart attack while on holiday in India. Upon arrival, Priyanka is met by her father who takes her to the family home where members of the extended family have gathered for the cremation. Once she arrives at the family home, she finds that nothing is as it seems. The family is behaving rather oddly. Her cousins, aunt, and uncle greet her with obvious discomfort while her Nani (maternal grandmother) talks about signs from above. Within minutes, a female cousin reveals to Priyanka the true circumstances of her mother’s death. When she confronts her father, he can barely counter why the parents kept the truth from their daughter. And even as she reels from this shocking revelation, she realizes that a male cousin has been invited to perform the last rites for her mother. This is because Hinduism demands that only a son may immerse a parent’s ashes in holy waters; and worse, in the absence of a son any male cousin or relative will do. Daughters need not apply! Her father, consumed with grief, declares he’s simply following religious customs for her mother. So even as Priyanka uncovers how much was withheld from her by her own parents, she now also faces being robbed of this last participation in her mother’s final journey. What unfolds from there is neither melodramatic nor a declaration of hopelessness. I will leave you to discover the rest for yourself in this reflective 17-minute drama. While the subject is not a happy one, the young filmmaker has handled it with a maturity and sensitivity that reflects an understanding far beyond her years.
I found myself grieving for the mother who died knowing the loss her young daughter would face. But I couldn’t help asking why sometimes we desi parents are unable to give our kids the respect of truth and adult ownership in their relationship with us. We try to raise them to be independent, competent adults forging new paths in the world, and yet we judge them to not be competent enough to handle hard truths. Why do we feel compelled to do so even when faced with something as final as death? After all, there are no answers and explanations possible after that final departure. Perhaps answers with context and clarity can only come from those faced with such tragedy. It’s a rare film that makes us think and feel at the same time without hectoring us and leaves us with such weighty questions to reflect on.
Despite the loaded subject, what makes the whole production more complete is the filmmaker’s apparent understanding that life is rarely monotonic even in terrible grief. Humor and symbolism are everywhere and ours to notice. The misspelled street sign in India – a common source of jokes in India – and the bird that departs at the end both evoke emotion. And within the tragic unfolding, there are comic moments that lighten the load without seeming out of place. At one point Priyanka gets drunk and makes off with the urn containing her mother’s ashes and a chase by the panicked family 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 giggle at the antics of the Yoga-rockstar Nani, who I learned is the filmmaker’s Nani IRL! Pathania’s little nod to the comedic prison chase sequence from the Bollywood blockbuster Sholay (1975) made me laugh out loud. You will too if you are old enough to remember. That Pathania knows a thing or two about Bollywood classics did indicate to me her passion for film.
Pathania’s vision and craft belie her years. The subject at hand reminds one of recent Hindi films on the subject of death and its aftermath as old grouses, festering questions, and unpaid debts resurface in the family — “Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi” and “Pagglait” come to mind. Those are full features with stellar casts and slightly different concerns. Yet “Unmothered”, despite its inherently limited 17 minutes, holds its own. The cast of Unmothered is excellent; especially Sharayu Mahale, who plays Priyanka, and Ivan Rodrigues, who plays the father, both deserve kudos for their layered portrayals.
Today, Pathania is a writer/director based in New York. Her films explore emotions as pathways to knowledge. In 2021, Urvashi was selected for the Google Assistant Storytelling Fellowship in partnership with The Black List. I look forward to more of her work in the future and I urge you to check this one out. If her deft handling, sensitivity, and tight storytelling in this film are any indications, then she is a filmmaker to look out for.
Note: “Unmothered” is one of only three finalists for the Asian Pacific American Visionaries Short Film Competition. It will premiere during the 2021 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, 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 her human family and her beloved Labradoodle Dishoom! Reena graduated with an engineering degree from IIT Delhi and a graduate degree from Northwestern University. She is a poet and Arrivals & Departures is her debut poetry collection. Her work has been published in Poet’s Choice, Visible Magazine, and India Currents. As the 2020-21 playwright-in-residence for EnActe Arts, a leading San Francisco Bay Area theatre company, four plays by Reena were produced in April 2021. Reena is also a photographer on Instagram at @1stardusty.