Mother Teresa & Me, a new film, uses a fresh framing device to tell a powerful story about Mother Teresa, the famous saint of Calcutta. Teresa is such an iconic figure that she has become difficult to dramatize in the arts. Director and writer Kamal Musale has solved this issue by making Mother Teresa & Me about two women, not just one.

Mother Teresa & Me portrays both Mother Teresa’s early years in India and the parallel story of Kavita, a young British violinist in the present day. By toggling between the two stories, the filmmakers create what otherwise might have been lacking: suspense. Instead of just watching another documentary on Mother Teresa, the viewer wonders, why are these two stories being told together? Gradually the answers begin to reveal themselves. The two women share similar traits — pride, tenacity, independent thinking and the desire to do something great with their lives. However, whereas Kavita is focused on herself, her romantic relationship and her career, Teresa is aiming for heaven.

Framing a Parallel Story — Two Women, Not Just One

While Kavita plays music in the environment of modern, secular Britain, Mother Teresa is navigating the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church as she feels called to help the poor and dying and educate poor girls in India. Kavita is a successful classical musician with a boyfriend. They are not married, and Kavita gets a surprise when she discovers she is pregnant. She is pressured by her boyfriend to get an abortion. Instead she visits Calcutta (Kolkata), her parents’ birthplace where she hasn’t been since a child. Again, this is not a simple hagiography of Mother Teresa but more of a mystery movie. Kavita, the very embodiment of the educated modern liberal woman, is going to the place she considers a religious and cultural backwater. Kavita visits Teresa’s post at Nirmal Hriday, at the request of Deepali, a family friend who was adopted by Mother. The experience changes Kavita’s life.

An Honest and Sympathetic Treatment of the Characters

What is so refreshing about Mother Teresa & Me is not only the framing device, but how sympathetically and honestly the characters are treated. It would have been easy to make Kavita a cardboard character, a selfish feminist, atheist and artist who has contempt for Christianity. Yet as beautifully played by Banita Sandhu (in her second film after Shoojit Sircar’s October), Kavita is an intelligent and sensitive violinist. She is urbane and reluctant to engage with India and spiritual ideas, but not abrasive or egotistical. She is thoroughly modern yet has a conscience. She looks pained and uncertain when, even while in Calcutta, her boyfriend Paul leaves messages on her phone telling her to get an abortion. Kavita remembers something Mother told her when she was a small child and still living India: “God gave you your life. What you do with your life is your gift to him.” Yet she still spouts the secular line on life: “It’s a woman’s body she can do with it what she wants.”

Yet Kavita’s natural mother Aparna (a terrific Shobu Kapoor) and spiritual mother (Teresa) slowly draw out the goodness of life and the sacredness of children. The film doesn’t shy away from the poverty and religious tension in India. When one man tries to chase Teresa away because “she is trying to convert us,” his wife calls him “a lazy drunk” and notes that it is Teresa, not he, who is bringing money to Calcutta and teaching the children to read. Mother Teresa & Me is also honest about the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church, which initially rejected Teresa. One priest slams the church doors in her face, telling Teresa, who is wearing the white habit that would become iconic, to “take off that ridiculous uniform.”

Absorbing Grace

Jacqueline Fritschi-Cornaz is wonderful as Mother Teresa, getting just right the balance Teresa had between gentle submission to Vatican authorities and God and an iron will. Particularly powerful is the scene where a distraught Teresa, almost broken by her plans falling apart and the poverty and suffering all around her, verbally lashes out at God. She is not a saint in the scene, but like all of us — a human being who is sometimes bewildered by the ways of the Lord.

Ultimately, of course, God does speak to Mother Teresa, knocking down the obstacles that were preventing her from doing her life’s work. Kavita can’t help but absorb some of that grace. She chooses life, and the quick scene, only a few seconds long and understated, of her leaving a message for Paul, carries tremendous moral power. “I thought you cared about me,” Kavita quietly says into the phone. She doesn’t yell or scream, just seems quietly righteous as she has found a genuinely loving and unmovable foundation in her life.

 

Mark Judge is a writer and filmmaker in Washington, D.C. His new book is The Devil’s Triangle: Mark Judge vs the New American Stasi.





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