‘Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway’: A Cultural Eye Opener On The Lopsided Nature of Indian Arranged Marriages

Caffeinated Thoughts
9 min readJun 16, 2024

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A real life exposé on the sexist and discriminatory nature of Indian arranged marriages.

Photo by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash

*This article contains movie spoilers.*

Introduction

‘Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway’ is a movie about an Indian immigrant mother’s nightmarish ordeal with ‘Barnevernet’, the child welfare authorities of Norway, during a custody battle for her children.

The movie, based on a real life incident that took place more than a decade ago, released to critical acclaim last year (2023). It gave rise to epistemiological debates and online criticism questioning whether the imposition of Western standards of childcare upon immigrant parents was a valid and justified way of dealing with issues pertaining to parenting in the first place.

Even more heated debates took place on social media where netizens questioned whether child welfare authorities confiscating children from their parents based purely on subjective interpretations of cultural differences and not any objective reasoning was even within the purview of the law.

I’ve read dozens of reviews on the web about the tearjerker movie, which even caused a rift in international relations between Norway and India at the time. While most reviewers called out the injustices apparent on the surface, such as the subjective interpretations of cultural differences for example, the lopsided nature of the Indian arranged marriage system, whose true colours were revealed to the poor woman during the worst ordeal of her life, is something that none of the reviewers spoke about.

The movie is littered with a jumble of bad characters whom the unlucky woman has the misfortune of crossing paths with in life:

  • A selfish conniving husband only interested in securing his Norwegian citizenship right from the start. He doesn’t shed a single tear or express the slightest remorse at his failure in repossessing his kids multiple times after lengthy court sessions and numerous lawyer visits. He seems totally unfazed by the confiscation of his kids and the subsequent repeated let downs by the judicial system in Norway. His patience and perseverance for the entire ordeal is derived solely from the fact that he might attain citizenship at any moment, after which fighting the case as a citizen and not an expatriate, would be much easier.
  • A manipulative ‘vilfred’ (Barnevernet) set out to steal a couples happiness and joy in life with innocent cultural differences cited as serious reasons for why the authorities think they are “unfit” to be good parents.
  • A bitter and spiteful mother-in-law who only sets out to blame the daughter-in-law for everything that’s happened to the family. This indicates that the entire premise of their marriage was false, that its foundation was on shaky grounds to begin with, and that it only took an event of such grave nature to reveal the true colours of the husband and his family.
  • A devious and crafty brother-in-law gladly ready to, again, steal the light and joy of the couple (or rather, from the mother as the father doesn’t even care by this point) by taking custody of their children for a lump sum transfer of money from the legal system in Norway.

But more than all the nefarious characters in the movie, it is the actions of a particular few that captured my interest:

  1. The judge of the supreme court of Norway accepting a video depicting the woman physically wrestling the vilfred authorities to see her children as evidence that she is “mentally unstable”.
  2. The two faced in laws whose dirty side is revealed the moment the family is put through trying and difficult times.
  3. The underlying fact that Anirudh was indeed a perpetrator of domestic violence in the Chatterjee household, and that this was what led the couple to be investigated in the first place for months on end, a fact which is revealed to viewers rather tritely very late in the movie.

Let’s begin with the first one.

Pray tell me, in which world is it okay to antagonize and provoke someone to frustrating levels of anger by snatching their kids away from them, and then using their response to those actions as evidence of them being “unfit” or “mentally unstable” parents? And how on earth did a judge even take this particular piece of evidence at face value? It baffles me that such crafty and conniving wizardry is possible even in today’s day and age with all the progress we’ve made on the evidence gathering front.

This speaks volumes not only about just how judges, advocates, and lawyers conduct court in Norway, but also about the insidious and deceptive nature of the legal system itself.

Everyone who’s watched the movie knows that Debika was never “mentally unstable” or even threw hissy fits at home just for the sake of it. It was only when she was lied to and betrayed by the crafty Vilfred authorities over and over again that she lost her marbles and made a scene at the childcare facility where she had gone to collect her children believing they had won the case and that there were no other charges laid against them.

It seems that this devious sleight of hand was, quite intentionally, planned and executed by the Vilfred authorities (and everyone else in the legal pipeline if Daniel Ciupek is to be believed) in such a way as to elicit a reaction from Debika intense enough to be admissable to court as an evidence of mental instability. This invariably allowed them to prolong the case — when in reality, there were no other charges left to be levied against the couple and one literally had to be manifested from thin air — for as long as they wanted.

Nothing could be further from this basic truth.

Coming to the second.

The vile and malignant nature of Debika’s in-laws are apparent the moment they enter the scene where her mother-in-law is seen, quite shamelessly if I may add, berating her on the tragedy thats befallen the family for absolutely no fault of her own. The inherent lopsided nature of the Indian arranged marriage system is later revealed for all the world to see when the in-laws gloriously take custody of the child and flee back to India only to render all attempts made by the mother to reunite with her children futile and hopeless.

The eternal tale of conflict between a MIL and DIL has basically formed the premise of most daily soap operas on Indian Television for years now.

In heavily conservative India, it is a well known fact that a woman is dutifully bound towards her in-laws the moment she marries into her husband’s family and is expected to revere and serve them through the course of the marriage for an indefinite period of time. Although the joint family setup no longer dominates the Indian cultural landscape at least in cosmopolitan cities, the reverence for age old traditions when it comes to marriage and settling down, nonetheless, continues to thrive and be the norm.

In what should have been an ordinary custody battle between a family that has been wronged and the Norwegian Child Welfare Services i.e. ‘them’ (Barnevernet and the Norwegian judiciary) VS ‘us’ (the Chatterjee family), quite tragically in an unfortunate sudden turn of events, turns into a battle between Debika and the entire world including, but not limited to:

  • Her mother-in-law.
  • Her husband.
  • Her brother-in-law.
  • The vilfred authorities.
  • The border control agents when she attempts to rescue her kids and flee the country.
  • And later on, the legal system back home in India.

The hapless woman is on her own through and through for absolutely no fault of hers despite dutifully obeying her parents and complying with all the demands made by them right from the very beginning as a young adolescent, a journey of constant conformation that she painfully narrates to the Indian judge towards the very end of the movie. The fact that she obediently toed the line (as all good girls should in India) by not pursuing higher education, by not taking up a job, marrying a man of her parents choice, and giving up her own dreams and aspirations for the sake of birthing children and following the traditional family way of life as per her parents wishes doesn’t seem to offer her even an iota of respite from the entire ordeal and speaks volumes about the lopsided and unequal nature of respect in India.

The average Indian woman is predestined to ‘give’ much more than she will ever be allowed to ‘take’ in her entire lifetime. Just let that sink in for a while.

P.S. It seemed to me that the crafty Vilfred authorities were well aware of this dynamic that existed within Indian arranged marriages, and hence decided to take full advantage of this inequality to make as much money as possible from the entire ordeal; the lengthy court proceedings, numerous lawyer consultations, the safekeeping of the children, transfer of children to relatives in India, and everything else in between. It almost seemed like an Indian himself let the Norwegian authorities in on this particular secret and they connivingly decided to hatch a plan to take maximum advantage of it. I’m looking at you Daniel Singh Ciupek!

Now for the third.

The viewers are in for a shocking revelation towards the end of the movie — where Debika’s husband, Anirudh, is seen manhandling his close friend from work for divulging details of an instance of domestic violence that transpired in his house to the Barnevernet authorities — that Barnevernet did have reasonable suspicion of doubt about the couple being unfit parents, and that their remarks weren’t purely based on “cultural differences” or “parenting styles” as made out to be in the beginning of the movie, as well as by many bloggers who reviewed the movie on the internet.

Fighting in front of your kids, AKA domestic violence, should be considered as evidence of being unfit parents regardless of whether you lay your hands on the kids themselves or not. No child should ever have to witness his parents having a full blown squabble inside the house. It is a traumatic event that could possibly give the child flashbacks for years together or even worse, impart the message that violence is the method of dealing with conflict which they might use against others outside.

Final Thoughts

What do you think? Should legal entities have a say on how one is supposed to raise their children or set standards for them at home?

Are cultural differences really that big of a deal when it comes to grading parents on their abilities, and then failing them for the same? Have we gone too far by treating parenthood and family life as a ‘kindness and compassion competition’, something which is nobody else’s business but that of the family’s itself? Should the long arm of the law even be allowed to penetrate so deeply into one’s personal matters?

OR

Have unscrupulous individuals unduly started taking advantage of the leniency of the legal system, the fact that we no longer bother about what people do behind closed doors just because it falls under the purview of privacy and personal property rights? By not allowing the long arm of the law into people’s homes, are we allowing perpetrators of domestic violence and such injustices to get away with such crimes? We seem to have enabled a “what happens at home stays at home” mentality much to the dismay of victims who are unable to voice out their sufferings and their indifferences with the one’s whom they’re forced to shelter with under the very same physical space.

By making people dependent on their blood relatives for survival, have we disempowered them to such an extent they no longer have autonomy even over their very own bodies?

What could possibly be a middle ground — one that respects a family’s privacy (and cultural differences) as well as monitors them for appropriate behaviour towards their children and dependents at home — in order to bring the perpetrators of such injustices to book?

Where do we draw the thin line between violating someone’s privacy and empowering their dependents to raise an alarm should something go wrong at home?

Do let me know in the comments bar to the side.

Disclaimer: I do not intend to portray all Indian arranged marriages as patriarchal and violent by nature, although that might be the case for most of them. Lots of forward thinking and progressive parents also get their adult children married through the arranged marriage system and they go on to do perfectly fine in life. So no one’s throwing shade on arranged marriage here but only highlighting the fact that the platform is utilized by unscrupulous individuals to facilitate unequal relationships where women usually get the raw end of the deal.

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Caffeinated Thoughts

No niche in particular. I am a keen observer of society and gain my inspiration for new articles from observation.