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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri : Who Says Mother Is Unique to Indian Cinema?

A small town in America is equally fond of the mother, as seen in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Gautaman Bhaskaran |

Updated:February 20, 2018, 10:50 AM IST
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri : Who Says Mother Is Unique to Indian Cinema?
A still from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Indian cinema has for years suffered from a Compulsive Obsessive Disorder: the fetish for mother. Who can ever forget the punch of a line from Yash Chopra's 1975 Hindi blockbuster, Deewaar, where Sashi Kapoor retaliates to Amitabh Bachchan's brag with a “Mere paas maa hai”.

So, it did come as a surprise to me when I read Peter Bradshaw's report in The Guardian the other day. And this is what he wrote: "What a resounding and rather surprising victory at this Baftas (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri which was crowned with best movie. It also got best British film – a little counter-intuitively for a movie from an Irish-heritage writer-director, Martin McDonagh, and a story drenched in Americanness.

“Three Billboards is a film that has snagged, sharply, in the minds of Bafta voters, and they have responded generously to its mix of satire, jagged black comedy and wan romantic melancholy – and they also absolutely loved Frances McDormand’s powerhouse performance in the role of Mildred, which won her best actress. She had a kind of postmodern Mother Courage role, the grieving middle-aged women who is past caring what people think of her and who rents three billboards just outside of town to complain that the man who raped and murdered her daughter has still not been caught. The movie has been paid the ultimate compliment of becoming a meme. We have seen a three billboards display deployed after the Florida school shooting, to attack Senator Marco Rubio over administration and gun control – and also to attack the British Government over Grenfell.”

I first saw Three Billboards.. at last year's Venice Film Festival, where it premiered in Competition. A hardened movie critic like myself was floored by the film's stark simplicity and its unassuming portrayal of a mother, who is shattered by the death of her young daughter. That fateful evening – as we see on the screen -- the mother, Mildred, and daughter quarrel, and the girl walks off in a huff to a party, refusing to use the family car, instead footing the miles along a lonely highway in Missouri. She is raped, murdered and her body burnt.

When the police fail to make any arrests seven months after the horrific incident, Mildred takes over by buying ad space on three billboards outside the town of Ebbing to make a statement on Easter Sunday: Her daughter was ‘raped while dying, and still no arrests Sheriff Willoughby?’, the boards ask consecutively

A unique way of addressing police apathy, I would think , which in the film leads to television channels picking up the story and to a whole lot of unpleasant incidents -- a movie that gripped me with its pace and novelty. And yes, McDormand was just delightful, foul-mouthed and funny, to watch as a mother mourning over her daughter's death, but not giving up to get to the bottom of it all. Her guts at fighting the lethargic system and her singularly unique way of shaking the small town out of its unfeeling slumber by letting the billboards scream her own angst and helplessness are scripted without fuss. If there was drama, it was in the way director Martin McDonagh narrated the sad story a young life gone.

One is sure that only an actress like McDormand with her captivating dignity and riveting screen presence could have made Mildred so melancholic, and yet so memorable.

Many years ago in 1996, I saw McDormand in Fargo, heavily pregnant, playing a cop with all the cunning in the world, tracking down a car salesman after he had murdered his wife for insurance money. (I think Sujoy Ghosh modeled Vidya Balan on the American actress in his 2012 Kahani, where also we see the Indian star pregnant and trying to crack a mystery). And decades later, McDormand would return with yet another portrayal that will remain etched in memory.

And, nominated under Best Film and Best Actress for the March 4 Academy Awards, Three Billboards.. may well walk away with a trophy for McDormand and for Best Picture. For, the mother may moves mountains, I presume, and a mother battling the murder of her young daughter may move the mightiest of men – the humongous number of voters at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Who says that Indian cinema alone is obsessed with Ma. A small town in America is equally fond of the mother, and I saw that in Three Billboards...

(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic)

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