Cast: Sridevi, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Akshaye Khanna, Sajal Ali, Adnan Siddiqui, Abhimanyu Singh, Pitobash
Director: Ravi Udyawar
Mom is a two-hour-thirty-minute long enterprise devised and mounted to return one of our favourite heroines to us, gently simmered, nicely spiced — like a tall glass of mulled wine. Sridevi is a powerhouse of talent. Has always been. Earlier, when she would be jumping up and down, skipping about all bubbly and bouncy — whether dancing in the rain or writhing on the floor and inching towards the sapera, her blue-eyes squirting tiny fireballs — she was pitch-perfect, bang-on. Now she has reduced her area of operation. She’s contained, internal, not that physical. These days she simmers and glowers, weeps and seethes in a tiny, tight space. Her saucer eyes are either overflowing wells of emotion, or volcanoes spitting angry lava. And she’s still bang-on, very effective. Few actresses can project anger and the promise of vengeance that excites and stirs a hall full of people. She can, and how. With one look, one line, Sridevi catapults Mom into stealth action mode. It’s another thing that the film isn’t as up for the task as she is.
Devaki Sabharwal (Sridevi) is a rather cool biology teacher. She’s also a bit scary. Her step-daughter Arya, 18 years of age, is being harassed by Mohit who looks like that Delhi-Haryana speciality — the smug-spoilt son of somebody with pull. Devaki takes swift, effective action, but Arya is not impressed. In fact, she is pissed off. Devaki is not her mother and Arya makes her rejection all too apparent. Sitting around the dinner table, she says to daddy Anand (Adnan Siddiqui), “Papa you are looking very handsome”, but addresses Devaki as “Ma’am”, the A’s elongated for bitchy-teenager effect. The message is not lost on anyone. And yet Devaki follows Arya around like a needy puppy, saying “aap, aap” — forever playing the respectful, loving, caring mother. Devaki yearns to be called Ma, Mom.
“I have accepted little Piya. I can’t do more,” Arya tells her papa. While Arya’s pain and anger at having lost her mother is understandable, her batameezi with Devaki deserved a tight slap. But in our movies, bin-Ma-ki-bachchis are creatures of eminence. They are fragile and are to be handled with care. This being the status, how to ruffle the quo? How does one stir things up to get Arya to realise that, real or sauteli, her Mom is the real deal. That Devaki is the gold standard of all moms in the universe? The film’s three writers didn’t go very far for inspiration. They simply cast the events of December 16, 2012, in a slightly different setting, with an unabashed motive. Mildly exploitative and lazy, you’d think. Also inappropriate. But what is real life if not a servile orderly at the beck and call of Bollywood’s screenwriters?
A Valentine’s Day party, booze, drugs and Arya being uninterested in Mohit set off a chain of events that are every parent’s worst nightmare. Mohit, the spurned schoolboy, his drug-snorting cousin Charles Dewan, drug dealer Jagan (Abhimanyu Singh), and farmhouse’s guard Baburam (Pitobash) pack into an SUV and cruise around the city’s empty, dimly-lit roads. Cast in the role of helpless guardians, we are moved far and above. A sickening fear mashed with impotent rage grips us, the eerie soundtrack turning our bones to ice. We don’t see what’s going on inside. We don’t need to. We have lived this nightmare a hundred times. We do hear one thing, though — “Ab bula apni Ma ko”. And then the SUV stops. First for a change of guard, and then to kick someone into a gutter. It’s effective, it’s heartbreaking, it’s decently done. The Sabharwals take the legal route. But the criminal justice system gets paralysed all too soon by sham reports, testimonies and technicalities.
And, caught in a maze of deception and lies, it loses sight of the victim and delivers a judgment that’s stillborn. Somehow Devaki gets blamed, and has to now prove her love, her worth. Father talks of an appeal, fansi. But there’s little umeed of justice. What do you do when a young, vulnerable loved one has been wronged and then denied justice? Should you pursue justice till its final appeal, or forget it and get on with life? Should you believe that karma will catch up eventually and leave it all to God? Or should you take charge and deliver justice as you see fit? Mom makes that decision in the split second when Devaki casts her eyes on the creepy man she had met in the thana. That’s Daya Shankar Kapoor (Nawazuddin Siddique), or D.K., a private detective from Darya Ganj.
Mom offers a dialogue justifying vigilante justice. And when it goes in pursuit, it acquires a solemn air, exuding a mummy’s righteous determination that commands respect. But to stay on the right side of law, it also puts a serious cop on mummy’s trail. Mathew Francis is a cop played with more than one expression this time by Mr Curly Brows, Akshaye Khanna. Like Liam Neeson in Taken, Devaki in Mom is also powered by “a very particular set of skills” — a desi mom’s rage. And on top of the dogged determination to punish the perpetrators, is her resolve to prove that sauteli moms care as much as the biological ones. I often binge on revenge films, especially Korean and French ones. I like them a lot and will readily admit that I have a problem. A garden variety of penis envy, perhaps. Vengeance movies are uniformly exploitative. They ignite and then pander to our base instincts, primal impulses.
They work because they give the protagonist a purpose, bestow him/her with deadly grit and a death wish. And for the duration of the film, they give us, the viewer, powers that we desire but don’t have. There’s a certain primitive purity in the pursuit of medieval justice that’s powered by righteous rage. The world is simple and the moral equation straight-forward: Anyone in pursuit of evil has to be good; and there’s absolute clarity about the purpose. There is no happily thereafter. In Mom, however, revenge is just the means to a familial end — a hug-kiss and to hear that three-letter word, Mom. The impulse is a bit too domestic.
The film, in fact, is so invested in this gharelu patch-up that it signs off the second the three-lettered word is uttered. A happy-ending to a vengence film is rare, and for good reason. You can’t build your happy home on the mound of the dead. That makes the moral universe, as concocted by our mythologies and movies, all topsy-turvy. That was one of my issues with Mom. I had others that I can’t discuss them without giving away the little bit of the plot that’s left. Suffice to say that one of them has to do with the mandatory “purification” ritual all victims of sexual assault in have to perform under a tap or a shower. Why is it so hard for Bollywood to imagine that a woman may, after being assaulted, embrace her body, try to nurture and heal it, rather than reject it and hurt it more? Luckily, Mom doesn’t make us dwell on such depressing questions for long. It keeps going to D.K. for comic relief and gentle lessons in what this actor is capable of. In the focused march to catharsis, he’s a happy distraction. Someone we can sit with and sip tea. Because Mommy, though excellent and significant, is too lofty, and a bit scary.