We know who Mother Teresa is, but who is the “Me” of the title? She is Kavita, a fictional young woman whose story is interwoven with Mother Teresa’s in director Kamal Musale’s new film, Mother Teresa & Me.
Kavita (played by Banita Sandhu) is a 20-something accomplished violinist living in contemporary London, but – musical ability aside – her life is a mess. Her Indian parents, unaware that Kavita is pregnant, are seeking to make an arranged marriage between her and a young man from a Brahmin family. In frustration, Kavita flees to Kolkata (once, Calcutta) to be with the woman, Deepali (Deepti Naval) who had been her nanny.
And why wouldn’t she flee? It’s bad enough that she’s between a rock and a hard place with her parents, but her guitar-playing “boyfriend” is a slug. He wants no part of becoming a father.
The film actually begins with a scene of Mother Teresa, in the habit of the Missionaries of Charity, accusing God of having abandoned her, then in flashback to Teresa as a black-habited nun of the Sisters of Loreto, crawling on the streets of Calcutta during the so-called Week of the Long Knives in 1946 – nationwide riots and murderous violence between Muslims and Hindus. Teresa is searching for food for the girls at the Loretto convent school where she is a teacher. A Muslim man threatens her with a scimitar but is shot by a Hindu man, who, in turn, is chased away by British police.
From this point on, director Musale interweaves mostly true stories of Mother Teresa’s work in the slums of Calcutta, in the 1940s and ‘50s, with Kavita’s present-day struggles to decide whether to keep her unborn child or abort it.
For both women, it’s also a story of self-discovery and doubt. As did William Riead in The Letters (2014), Mr. Musale dwells overmuch on Mother Teresa’s depression and disbelief. Are there any viewers who’ll watch a Mother Teresa biopic who don’t already know about her dark nights of the soul? And is this now the way we’re supposed to remember the great saint?
Anyway, these parallel lives of Mother Teresa and Kavita, in different eras, appear to be disconnected, except through the nanny, Deepali, who, in the film’s fictional context, worked with Mother Teresa at Nirmal Hriday, also known as the Kalighat Home for the Dying – the hospice founded by Mother in 1952. She is the moral force binding Kavita to her life both as an English woman and an Indian woman. And she’s Vergil to Kavita’s Dante.
When Kavita finally finds herself (or begins to), the journey of self-discovery has a remarkable twist. And she becomes more connected to Mother Teresa than she (or we) could ever have imagined.
Along the way, Kavita meets a real man, by which I mean a good one, named Rupert (Kevin Mains), an Irish volunteer at Nirmal Hriday. Romance seems to spark, although the flame never ignites true love, no doubt because of Kavita’s pregnancy.
Swiss actress Jacqueline Fritschi-Cornaz gives a fine performance as Mother Teresa. She is around 5’8” tall, whereas Mother was all of five feet – if that. Fritschi-Cornaz is convincing, stooping to conquer, you might say, when necessary, but always convincing as a little woman with so much courage and determination that it makes you want to weep or cry out with joy.
As Kavita, Miss Sandhu is believably a young woman who is talented, intelligent, conflicted, angry, lost, and, as it happens, courageously determined to find herself.
Kavita’s “arc” in the film suggests it’s the path that matters more than the destination. I know something about this, having been a lost soul through much of my youth. Then I became a Catholic. Years later, I saw again a friend from my years in the wilderness. I professed my faith to her, and she said, “I think I liked you better when you were a seeker.”
So, Kavita seeks, but what does she find? Mr. Musale leaves us to speculate about Kavita’s relationship with the man who is the father of her unborn child, about her feelings for Rupert . . . and about the fate of that child.
The best things about Mother Teresa & Me are Keiko Nakahara’s cinematography, in both color and black-and-white, and Ms. Fritschi-Cornaz’s ability to move back and forth between English and Bengali. She is multilingual (most Swiss are), and I’m given to understand she memorized her lines in Bengali as the shooting progressed. (I learned this from press coverage of the film – then called Kavita and Teresa – when it premiered in India in 2022.)
It’s good to come from Switzerland where there are four official languages – French, German, Italian, and Romansh – and where English is widely spoken. It makes for an extraordinary linguistic facility – even, apparently, in languages you don’t actually speak.
The principal problem with Mother Teresa & Me, besides its glacial pace (especially in the unnatural rhythms of its dialog), is that it offers nothing new in our understanding of the great saint – unless, that is, you really are someone unaware of Mother’s spiritual struggles.
And there’s an odd slackness about the film: for instance, it wants us to “be” in Calcutta/Kolkata, where 9 months of the year, minimum, it’s over 90 degrees, yet nobody sweats. It’s mostly a good story but with little authentic atmosphere, visual or emotional. And that sparking romance between Kavita and Rupert is simply dropped. Too bad. He seemed like a nice fellow.
Still, overall the story is compelling enough and very clever. I mentioned that there’s a twist: it’s a very good one, and I will not reveal it. I did not see it coming, and it packs quite a wallop. A film that can deliver a jolt like that is worthy of our admiration, attention, and respect.
Note: The film will have a limited release in theaters on Thursday, October 5th for one night only via Fathom Events. Tickets may be purchased here.