“Mom”… A predictable, problematic, well-made thriller, helped by its performances

Posted on July 8, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

Every Mother’s Day, we see this sentiment: MOM upside down is WOW. Repeat this mantra for two-and-a-half-hours and you get Sridevi’s new movie. Or Maatr, which featured Raveena Tandon and several of this film’s plot points. The crux is the same: a daughter’s rape is the radioactive spider that transforms mom into crime-fighting Supermom. (To accept these ordinary housewives as avengers, you need the same suspension of disbelief you bring to… The Avengers.) But Maatr didn’t have a scene where the heroine says God cannot be everywhere and gets this reply: “That’s why He made moms.” A few decades ago, the brothers and the fathers used to be the ones who set out on revenge missions. Something’s changed. Maybe it’s that DAD upside down is just hieroglyphics.

Devki (Sridevi) is a wow teacher. She explains rectus abdominis using a picture of a bare-torso Salman Khan. (We aren’t allowed a peek into the English class next door, where, presumably, Dickens is being discussed with stills of Katrina Kaif and Aditya Roy Kapur.) At home, too, Devki is wow. She’s on top of everything. Her husband (Anand, played by Adnan Siddiqui) says he’d be lost without her. Between you and me, the character is lost even with her. After the daughter, Arya (Sajal Ali, who looks like a pre-size-zero Kareena Kapoor), is raped, Anand breaks down – but the camera quickly shifts its gaze to Devki. Anand told Arya she could attend the party (the crime is committed by four men there), but his guilt is never explored.

What about Arya’s trauma? We get a few scenes of her screaming, weeping. And we get a glancing touch that hints at healing. At the hospital, she draws the curtain around her bed. When she hears that one of her attackers has been castrated, she opens the curtain in her room and lets some light in. But had the story been about her, it would have been a different movie. (And the film would have had a different producer, not Boney Kapoor). This is about Devki. This is about Sridevi. Does that make Mom a vanity production? No more than Tubelight is one. If male stars can build shrines to their awesomeness, why not the female ones?

But with this star and this story, there’s the unavoidable tabloidy subtext – for Arya is Devki’s step-daughter, the child of her husband’s first wife, and while she accepts that Devki is her father’s wife, she refuses to accept Devki as her mother. I was reminded of Arjun Kapoor’s confession on Koffee with Karan that Sridevi would always be his “dad’s wife” and nothing more. What does one make of dad’s wife (in a movie bankrolled by dad) finally being accepted by her stepchild? Wish-fulfilment taken to the extreme? Or inadvertent tastelessness? Not since Silsila – and outside the Mahesh Bhatt oeuvre – has a film so blatantly flirted with real life.

Still, Mom is a fairly predictable affair, helped by the performances. Akshaye Khanna plays a cop, and he proves again that he’s a much better supporting actor than leading man. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, as a detective, slaps on a balding wig and bad teeth and has a lot of fun. He keeps flicking his tongue out like a snake, and I’d pay good money to know what went through the actor’s mind when he came up with this tic. As for Sridevi, her star quality is undeniable. One part of me protested that this was too much of a performance, while another part marvelled at her control, the way she lets just a cheek quiver in indignation or allows her entire body to convulse with grief. Whatever it is, it’s unquestionably effective.

Director Ravi Udyawar is a painter and ad-film maker, and his control over his frames is breathtaking. (Anay Goswamy is the cinematographer.) Whether a film about a ghastly crime can afford to look so gorgeous is another debate altogether (can you soothe the eyes while seeking to lacerate the soul?) – let’s, for now, just look at that gorgeousness. The film plays with reds – the frames of Devki’s spectacles; the colour of her car; the dress Arya wears to that fateful party. By the time we get to apples being used as a murder weapon, I began to wonder if it was due to the cyanide content of the seeds or the colour of the fruit. So precise is the palette.

The filmmaking is equally precise. During the rape, we hear Arya’s blood-curdling scream from inside the car, and in an instant, we’re yanked to silent outside, with just the thrum of AR Rahman’s disorienting score. The long-drawn court case is blithely free of surprise – if the accused aren’t set free, there’s no movie – but the slick editing makes the sequence less tiresome. Much later, after Devki nabs her first target (with a very problematic representation of transgenders), the passage of three days is elided in an instant. Udyawar seems to have decided he’d have to freshen up this stale content with form. And by jettisoning a lot of potential dialogue. The Akshaye Khanna character’s reason for doing what he does at the end is presented in one simple stretch after a murder.

But should we buy this reason? I wished Udyawar had lavished his skills on another subject. Given the headlines today, it seems wrong to be thrilling at Devki’s deviousness and the punch moments. (Some of the audience actually clapped.) Then again, this is another kind of wish-fulfilment. A cop says it’s impossible that Arya’s family could have anything to do with the murders, because they are “shareef log,” good people.  A film like Mom is designed to make the good people in the audience feel a little less impotent. At least on screen, justice is served.

Plus, the film makes the case that this is divine retribution. It’s not just that line about God creating mothers because He couldn’t be everywhere at once [to vanquish evil]. Devki – she of the appropriately mythical name – is aided by a man whose every other utterance is “bhagwan” or “Bholenath,” and who has an idol of Shiva in his office. And the most stunning use of red comes when we see a painting about Draupadi avenging herself with her tormentor’s blood. Mom says: What if the law says it’s wrong? Hindu belief says it’s right. The result is a vigilante movie that’s scarily of our time.

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi