My Mother the Film Critic

In search of a sequel to parental abandonment

Blade Runner, Mommie Dearest, Throw Momma from the Train.

Each chapter of Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother, Priscila Uppal’s deeply thoughtful and carefully constructed memoir, refers to a film.

Two staggering traumas shaped Priscila Uppal’s childhood and youth. When she was two years old, and her brother, Amerjit, three, their father, Arvat, an Indian immigrant to Canada, an up-and-coming civil servant, “tall-dark-and-handsome,” in a matter of 48 hours became a paraplegic. Five years later Priscila and Amerjit’s beautiful mother, the daughter of the Brazilian military attaché, emptied the family bank account, surreptitiously packed her bags, attempted but failed to force Amerjit into a waiting car, and fled to Brazil, leaving behind her two children, aged eight and nine, to care for their invalid father.

Leap ahead 20 years. Priscila, now an acclaimed poet, novelist and academic, stumbles upon the website of her vanished mother and courageously boards a plane for Rio de Janeiro to meet the woman who abandoned her.

Blockbuster film or reality? Sadly, tragically, fascinatingly, reality. But between reality and meaning, there is always a storyteller. In Projection, so cleverly titled, conjuring both Freud and the unfolding of cinematic narrative on a screen, there are two main storytellers, a daughter and a mother. Only one is the author and composer of the narrative we are reading. Can we trust her? Is it possible to write with honesty about one’s mother? To offer a just portrait? Projection does not fall in the Mommie Dearest category of disclosures of family nastiness, but lands closer to Sarah Polley’s brilliant film, Stories We Tell. Although not so daringly innovative as Polley, who slyly undermines our faith in appearances by duping us with scenes from fake “home movies,” Uppal nonetheless navigates admirably between conflicting “truths.” Dialogue snatched from a context of conflict, then spliced and showcased, ought to inspire skepticism, but Uppal’s integrity of purpose is palpable. In this intimate, sad, probing and self-aware, often very funny logbook of a harrowing encounter, she does not indulge in self-pity, and although she puts humour and irony to excellent use, both to preserve her sanity and to entertain her readers, she is rarely mocking.

The mother whom Priscila Uppal sets off to meet has become a film critic, a woman who views one to eight films a day. She also happens to be an intensely narcissistic woman, both frightened and aggressive, a person holed up inside a defensive fantasy, a self-serving interpretation of the past that is radically at odds with her daughter’s understanding of reality.

What role, Priscila muses, does watching movies play in this woman’s ability to ignore painful truths? Art shapes our expectations, feeds our dreams. Can it help us to more honestly accept reality or merely offer us a means of escape? Although art may hone our understanding, how many of us apply the tougher lessons we have learned from films and literature to the way we conduct our lives?

However negligible or significant their contribution to the “good life,” the movies play a crucial and enriching role within Uppal’s memoir. Discussing the cinema allows her to deftly, even jokingly, shape her difficult journey so that it repeatedly points from the personal outwards.

Director Carlos Diegues loves road movies, Uppal informs us.

He utilizes the journey structure as the foundation of all of his films … I don’t know what genre my mother and I are participating in. We too are definitely on the road, but whether this is comedy or tragedy, farce or satire, inspirational vehicle or warning exposé, I’m not yet sure. (This might be related to whether we are meeting or unmeeting.) I don’t even know who’s the good guy and who’s the villain. I could easily be cast as my mother’s worst nightmare. Could I also be her salvation? While I know it would please her to no end if I just wrapped my arms around her and begged, Mommy, let’s start over, let’s cry until everything is healed … and then let’s hold hands and go shopping and go to church … Such a gesture would negate who I am. In life, unlike in art, I am a realist. My mother, an escapist.

As I read Projection, I thought of Devyani Saltzman’s Shooting Water: A Memoir of Second Chances, Family and Filmmaking, another deeply intelligent, though very different, account of a trip taken in the hope of healing old wounds. At age eleven, when asked to select between parting parents, Devyani, daughter of renowned film director Deepa Mehta, chose not to live with her mother. The ability to choose, how we bear the burden of the choices we have made, to what extent we choose who we become: these themes form a fascinating current that runs powerfully through Projection.

When Uppal decided to leave, for twelve days, the comfort and safety of her Toronto life, a life of her own arduous making, to enter temporarily her mother’s world, she went as a vulnerable daughter, but also as a highly skilled novelist armed with the intention of writing a book. She trusted that intellectual curiosity would protect her from pain, or at least render whatever she encountered bearable.

Neither she nor her mother was to be spared acute pain. Here is a sampling of the words they exchanged. Warning: I have removed Uppal’s passages of calm reflection to intensify the rawness, the volleying of emotion; consider this a movie trailer, if you will:

YOU are so full of yourself … You spend the whole day talking … never once stopping to ask me anything or to let me speak …

If your purpose here is to be mean to me … I did not abandon you. I left your father. There is no need to bring up the past … I live only in the present … You have no right to judge me. You will not believe me no matter what I say, so what’s the point? You want to throw garbage at me … I do not want people who do not like me around … I don’t have to ask you anything. This is a democratic country and no one can demand anyone else listen to them.”

After all these years, you don’t want to listen to anything I have to say?

I was going to die. Just die if I stayed. I tried to get in touch with you and your brother. Your father would not let me. No one can get angry at me for that.”

I was eight years old … You’re asking me to pretend I am not who I am and that I did not live the life I’ve led … I had to take care of my father and my brother: shopping, cleaning, cooking, medical procedures … I was so old and worn out by the time I was fifteen that I left home …

I can’t face these things, Priscila. I know you want to talk about them. If I have to face them I am afraid I will die. I’m afraid I will break and the breaking won’t end.”

Uppal chose to write and publish Projection in part to dispel the illusion of the happy ending. It is her gesture of solidarity with anyone who has suffered a “failed” reunion. “One thing I’ve learned on this trip,” she states, “is that when someone is scared of you, this person can’t have a real relationship with you.” But Uppal’s journey is not a failure. With her Brazilian grandmother, she feels an immediate closeness, and with her most outspoken uncle she forms a lasting bond. Brazil becomes a part of her.