Ma Na Sapna – A Mother’s Dream

Biopolitical Times
Movie poster featuring a woman lying down, holding her pregnant belly.

Valerie Gudenus was inspired to make her award-winning film on surrogacy in India, Ma Na Sapna – A Mother’s Dream(2013), by American sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s work on the outsourcing of emotional services (The Outsourced Self: What Happens When We Pay Others to Live Our Lives for Us, 2012). As Gudenus says in an interview, she wanted to make a film about “how different worlds and different areas are connected through certain dependencies.” Following one month of research in India on her own, she and her team went there to shoot the film in the world’s largest surrogacy clinic: the Akanksha clinic, in Anand, Gujarat run by Dr. Nayna Patel. Indeed, the film shows surrogacy as an “amazing example of worlds being connected in a very interesting way” (Gudenus).

The clinic had already taken center stage in Zippi Brand Frank’s documentary Google Baby (2009), and it was key to sociologist Amrita Pande’s in-depth ethnographic work Wombs in Labor (2014) on transnational commercial surrogacy in India. Despite this existing coverage, Gudenus brings a new and sensitive view of the surrogate mothers who are otherwise largely invisible – whether in the public perception or to the customers from abroad whose babies they carry – and allows them to speak for themselves.

Over a period of three months, Gudenus and her team spent every day with the women either at the Akanksha clinic or in the home for surrogates which it runs in a secluded by-road. The film opens with Madhu, a surrogacy "scout" who recruits women to become surrogates. Heena donated eggs four times to pay grocery bills, and she wants to buy a small hut for her daughter.  She is one of six women the film follows. They live in the home with 70 others, many divorced or widowed, in close quarters that at one dramatic moment brings about a verbally violent fight.

Sometimes Dr. Patel comes to visit. The distance between her and the women is tangible. She is the professional doctor, a powerful business woman who reigns benevolently over her domain and insists the surrogates learn to sign their names before they leave. The women call her "our mother goddess" and bow in reverence and gratitude to touch her feet. They are in service, living in confinement far from their own children, lying on their backs most of the time, subject to strict quality control with regimens of nutrition and invasive medical procedures, including hormonal injections throughout the pregnancy and 100% rates of cesarean delivery.

At some moments, it becomes evident that not everything is as the women expected. Bikhi (pictured below), for example, is carrying a triplet pregnancy. Three months into the pregnancy she is shocked and heartbroken to learn that the doctors want her to undergo embryo reduction. If she had known about the reductions, she says, she would not have come here. “That a child will be killed in my own womb is really shocking.” To her relief, ultrasound shows that two of the fetuses are conjoined twins already dead.[1]

Gudenus and cinematographer Gabriela Betschart created a gentle and

respectful intimacy with the women whose stories they follow, without being intrusive. The film captures the atmosphere of a woman’s cosmos that seems quasi-intrauterine yet situated within a technologized environment of breeding. The sound track brings in the noises of machines beeping in the neonatal intensive care unit, and the clacking of plastic breast milk pumps in the wards where the women recover after giving birth.

Papiha (pictured) is a central character. We see her first at an ultrasound test toward the end of her pregnancy. The camera focuses on her rather than on

the screen. She is carrying twins and is told that they both weigh more than 2 kilograms. Her face shows she is proud and happy. Later she gives birth to twins, half drugged with partial anesthesia. Someone asks her: "What will you do with the money?" She answers, "I'll buy a house." Then she is left alone in the delivery room, sprawled on the surgical bed like a bundle of rags. "Her" couple will arrive only 3 weeks later, with the reason for the delay  unclear. Perhaps they are advised to wait, to make sure the babies survive and are healthy. Perhaps they were busy with their lives.

After five days she is pumping milk, which her husband takes to the

infants. He wants a rickshaw, and that's what they get. Madhu says there are no houses available for the money the women earn, not any more, even in a slum.

After ten days, Papiha goes to have a look at the babies and hold them for the first time. One of them stops crying when she picks her up. A few days later she is taking care of them in her room, and she names them. When it appears they are not gaining weight she starts breastfeeding. But she says, "it's better not to think I'm their mother" because it would make her sad. When Papiha's

couple finally arrive, the situation is awkward. They seem not to know what to say or how to thank her. She changes their nappies for the last time, obviously in inner conflict. The intended mother (pictured below, right) tells her "don't cry, come on, smile, visit us tomorrow at the hotel" but it is obvious that this is good bye.

Parul also stays for three weeks to give milk and is not happy when she departs. She says she gained money but lost the respect of her neighbors and friends. Her son stopped talking to her. The job is "bad:" it's seen as selling children even though it's legal with stamped papers.

“How can you make a film about somebody else’s feelings?” asks Valerie Gudenus in the interview. Well, you obviously can, if you are able to look and listen as carefully and sensitively to the stories of others as she did. Understanding and showing that there is a mother's dream for a better life is the way in which Ma Na Sapna gives so-called ‘surrogates’ a face, a voice and a touching human story.


[1] The condition is rare with only a few case reports and seems to be connected to in vitro manipulations causing trauma of the zona pellucida. Usually, the pregnancy of the unaffected fetus goes on without further complications. See Hirata T. et al. Conjoined twins in a triplet pregnancy after intracytoplasmic sperm injection and blastocyst transfer: case report and review of the literature. Fertil Steril 2009;91:933.e9–e12, doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2008.07.1730


Gabriele Werner-Felmayer is Associate Professor of Medical Biochemistry at Medical University Innsbruck working at the intersection between basic biomedical research and bioethics, and chairs the bioethics network Ethucation [Austrian unit of the International Network, UNESCO Chair in Bioethics (Haifa)].

Carmel Shalev is the founding chair of the Department for Reproduction and Society at the International Center for Health, Law and Ethics, Haifa University, and a member of Israel's National Bioethics Council.


Images via Ma Na Sapna and Akanksha Clinic