Mary Poppins Returns/ Roma: A Tale of Two Nannies
An edited version of this was published in Hindustan Times, on January 6.
The year 2018 ended with a much-loved film about a nanny being streamed into our homes and 2019 has begun with a film about a much-loved nanny opening in theatres. To complete this circle of life, a large number of the people who went to see these films would have relied upon nannies to take care of the fruits of their loins, so that the parents can focus on the on-screen entertainment.
On the face of it, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma and Mary Poppins Returns by Rob Marshall have nothing in common. Roma is elegant, shot in black and white, devoted to realism and profoundly arty. Meanwhile the colours in Mary Poppins Returns are saturated to the point of popping and everything is make-believe. Cuaron’s film is personal and cathartic. Marshall and David Magee’s story for Mary Poppins Returns is committed to being a recognisable knock-off that reminds you of the original with every set, scene, dialogue and situation. Roma has a debutante in the lead role, surrounded by actors who aren’t known faces to most of us. In contrast, it’s hard to find an unfamous face in Mary Poppins Returns. From protagonists to bystanders, practically everyone in the cast is famous (barring the three children) because the film hopes to milk their star appeal.
And yet, these differences serve only to hide in plain sight the fundamental similarity in the two films’ stories. In both Roma and Mary Poppins Returns, children in a family with an absent father find stability and comfort in their nanny, who appears to come out of nowhere and becomes an integral part of their lives. One of the children is a little boy with a vivid imagination and a quirky streak. His relationship with the nanny, who cleans up after all of them, is a little bit more tenderly affectionate than what the others enjoy. In Mary Poppins Returns, the father eventually checks the ‘present’ box while in Roma, he pulls a Mary Poppins and disappears because he has another family to which he must attend.
Irrespective of whether they’re arty or pop, at the heart of these two films is social inequality, which is manifested through the figure of the nanny. The fact that a family has a nanny in the first place immediately locates it in a higher-than-average socio-economic bracket — aspirational to those lower in the hierarchy and normal to the others. The norm being sold is that it’s ok to assume these women workers exist only for the benefit of the upper classes. To ensure audiences don’t feel alienated from the families that are central to the films, we’re told that the families are facing financial distress in an effort to make them seem less elite and more deserving of the audience’s sympathy. The point of both films is to shine the spotlight on the domestic help who is traditionally forced into invisibility.
Roma attempts to exonerate the family by showing that at least one person in the family grows up to be capable of empathy. We’re shown Cleo’s life as a domestic worker — cleaning dog poo, being the occasional punching bag for her employers, taking care of the children — and also her life beyond household chores. She exercises daily, goes on dates, pursues an ex-boyfriend, and Cuaron never lets you forget that we the audience are seeing her, rather than seeing the world from her perspective. Despite spending all the time that we do with Cleo, there are very few moments when we really know how Cleo feels. We’re almost always seeing her from a distance — she’s the backlit, near-silhouette figure at the end of a long passage; she’s the woman on the other side of a window, her features just slightly obscured by other reflections; she’s the one in the crowd that the all-seeing eye of the camera notices and everyone else ignores.
With a soundscape and cinematography that immerse you in the Mexico City of Cuaron’s youth, Roma has some moments of spectacular beauty. It’s also moving because of how tenderly the story is told and how beautifully it’s enacted by a fantastic cast led by Yalitzia Aparicio who plays the maid Cleo. From the soapy water on the floors to the airplane soaring in the skies above, the cluttered house that the maids keep and the greyscale of the panoramas that the film offers after spending long minutes inside rooms and in mid shot, Roma is lovingly and masterfully crafted.
The conceit in Cuaron’s Roma is that the one/ ones who really see Cleo are the family that employs her. While the film doesn’t whitewash the privilege that the family enjoys, the narrative is sympathetic and forgiving towards the employers. Yes, they do take her for granted and lash out at her now and then, but they also take care of her by paying for her medical expenses and are supportive at a time when she has no one to fall back upon. For all the moments when it seems Cleo’s life is following twists and turns similar to those upending her employer’s life, Cuaron inserts subtle reminders of the differences, beginning with the languages they speak (Cleo speaks an indigenous Mexican dialect while her employer speaks Spanish, which has far greater social currency). Still, Cleo isn’t just another worker; she’s valued, appreciated and almost family. And to invoke this sense of appreciation and gratitude for her services, it isn’t enough for Cleo to do the regular chores. The story has her literally risking her life for the children under her care. That’s what it takes for the help to be noticed and remembered.
Even though there’s no similarity in the visual language or cinematic style of the two films, Mary Poppins Returns tries to pull off a lot of the same tricks as Roma while giftwrapping social inequality with pretty visuals and special effects. It also attempts to recreate a world made of nostalgia and memory, and immerse the audience in an upper middle-class neighbourhood in London that’s full of sunshine, quirk and happy colours. It’s not as though the original Mary Poppins was in any way realistic, but its artifice felt cheerfully surreal. Mary Poppins Returns, in contrast, feels artificial. Everyone is performing, everything feels like a set and for those who have seen the 1964 film, every episode invites a comparison with Mary Poppins. Unfortunately, there are hardly any instances in which the 2018 film comes out on top and perhaps the biggest fail is the music because not one song or phrase became an earworm in my head after I watched the film. Ben Whishaw and the small shoe brush that co-stars as the actor’s moustache is the only performance that has any heart. Emma Blunt looks gorgeous, but has all the emotional tug of a clockwork toy. Lin-Manuel Miranda is wasted and Mary Poppins Returns may go down in history as the one film in which Meryl Streep delivered a cringe-inducing performance.
Mary Poppins Returns makes some valiant attempts at infusing a story set in the 1960s with the sensibility of the 21st century. One manifestation of this is the sprinkling of people of colour in the film. There are no songs like ‘Sister Sufragette’ or ‘The Life I Lead’, which made fun of posh people. Neither are there moments of solidarity with the downtrodden and underprivileged, like the ‘Feed the Birds’ scene or the chimney sweeps’ dance. It seems like the character of Mary Poppins exists outside of the frames of reference within which everyone else operates, but if you think about it, she’s actually very deeply entangled in this society.
Even though she’s the star of films that are ostensibly meant for kids, Mary Poppins is a manifestation of the domestic help of most adults’ dreams. For one, It’s also the biggest fantasy ever that if a capable domestic help leaves at the drop of a hat (or umbrella, as the case may be), the family she was working for won’t be inconvenienced. But that’s not all. Mary Poppins a working woman, but sounds posh and doesn’t care about money. She loves the children in her charge, but isn’t possessive and happy to hand them over whenever the parents feel the need for a little cuteness in their lives. Her emotions are irrelevant and while she might yank her employers’ chains occasionally, she knows her place.
Most of this is true of Cleo too. She seems diametrically different because she’s quieter and can’t pass for posh the way the irrepressible Mary Poppins does. However, you get hints of Cleo’s spirited nature in the macho man she’s attracted to and the dogged way she pursues him when he tries to break up with her. If Mary Poppins is the fantasy nanny that every parent dreams of, then Cleo is the reality that employers hope for – both in terms of how the relationship the employers want to have with their hires and what they hope for in the help.
Unless you live in India, that is. This is a country where over four million people work as domestic help and the norm is to segregate them so that they are never allowed to think of themselves as in any way equal to those who pay their salaries. We’ve had films like Mrinal Sen’s Kharij, which is about the middle-class hypocrisy that unfurls when a child ‘servant’ is found dead in the home where he was employed. The film is a difficult watch and people say that it felt like a tight enough slap to make a vast number of people stop hiring children as domestic help. One can only wonder whether Roma and Mary Poppins Return will make Indian audiences introspect about the warped nature of the social inequalities that we’ve accepted as normal.
Take a moment and think of the most generous, open-minded and progressive family you know. Now imagine the matriarch of that family hugging the domestic help and pressing a grateful kiss on her forehead as the mother does in Roma. Or keeping the pregnant nanny on the job and buying her a crib for the baby that’s coming, or being reduced to tears at the thought of the nanny’s suffering — all of which happens in Roma. Think back to all the words of caution that are doled out when a woman is evaluated for the role of a domestic help. Is she too nubile, too old, too chatty, too serious, too smart, too lazy, too much of a threat? Ours is a society that finds nothing problematic about making a nanny (often a teenaged girl hiring whom is a human rights violation) stand at the edge of a table at which she isn’t allowed to sit or eat. She is to use a different bathroom, as though her hygiene levels and requirements are different from those who belong to a more privileged set.
Compared to what is reality for the bulk of domestic workers in India, Cleo’s story in Roma is a fantasy. We’ll never know if those who have watched Cuaron’s film in India came out of the theatre wondering about the respect and consideration they extend to their domestic help. Or if after watching Mary Poppins Returns, they smiled contentedly in their sleep while dreaming of a nanny who helped them pay off bank loans.