Despite what the trailers suggested, Mom is not a thriller. It is a hot mess, an op-ed piece masquerading as a fictional film.
Devaki Sabharwal (Sridevi) is a biology teacher in a Delhi school, and even though she’s older than her students by a few decades, she connects with them easily. She asks them whether they’ve seen the latest sci-fi release. She talks about the different muscles in the human body by pointing them out on a picture of bare-chested Salman Khan. She shuts up a creep by throwing his cell-phone out of the class. But back home, a quiet disappointment hovers in the air. Her 18-year-old daughter, Arya (Sajal Ali), also her student in school, often snaps at her, treating her unfairly. Devaki, we soon come to understand, is Arya’s stepmother. And the teenager frequently reminds her of this by calling her “ma’am”.
The story takes a dark turn when Arya’s classmate Mohit (Adarsh Gaurav), his cousin Charles (Vikas Varma), his underling Jagan (Abhimanyu Singh) and security guard Baburam (Pitobash Tripathy) abduct her from a school party, rape her and dump her in a sewer. A police case is filed, a court trial ensues, but justice isn’t served. (None of this is a spoiler; we get to know this in less than 30 minutes.) The rest of the film revolves around Devaki’s quest for justice.
Mom is a strange film. Unlike its trailers seemed to suggest, it’s not a thriller. The film doesn’t hide the identity of its perpetrators or their crime (neither from its characters nor from the audience). It isn’t a subversion of the genre either (where the audience knows more than the central character). At 147 minutes, the film meanders a fair bit, finding the crux of its story only near the halfway mark. So, what is it then? Mom, to put it simply and mildly, is a hot mess, an op-ed piece masquerading as a fictional film.
There’s a tendency among many Bollywood filmmakers, especially those making socially relevant dramas, to place their films’ message above the aesthetics of moviemaking. You can almost see the plot construction in reverse, beginning from the climax, which showcases the film’s true purpose, to different elements – characters, story, central conflict – responsible for it. And in most cases, the message – the reinforcement of everything ideal – is enough. It’s almost a formula: the film gets good reviews; it makes good money. Pink is a good example. So is Kaabil. So are the last segments of Mardaani and Angry Indian Goddesses.
However, Mom departs from Pink – based on a similar topic, using a similar framework – in a number of ways. Unlike the latter (where Bollywood’s patriarch, Amitabh Bachchan, cast as a lawyer, mansplained and solved India’s problem of sexual violence), Mom doesn’t entrust hope in a judicial system; it shows quite early how the court fails Arya. This plot point, though, like several others, is a ruse, designed to propel the film towards a convenient climax, justifying its ultimate message. Which is still okay: films can be preachy, perverse, naïve, anything they want to be, but Mom is fundamentally dishonest. In the guise of a thriller and a realistic drama (going by its first half), it hides a bloodthirsty heart and a simplistic dangerous message. The film would have been less disconcerting had it been a straightforward thriller, using violence in different ways to suit its ends (as films often do), but Mom is problematic, because it pretends to be weighty and then suggests a quick-fix solution to a complex problem.
And in the process, it fails cinema, too. To achieve its climax, which is thoroughly unconvincing anyway, Mom’s writers (Ravi Udyawar, Girish Kohli and Kona Venkat Rao) construct an elaborate subplot in the second half, which makes little sense. There’s also little character progression or consistency in Mom. We don’t get a sense of how Devaki, hitherto a regular school teacher, transforms so drastically. We don’t understand why Devaki and a local detective, D.K. (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who, needless to say, delivers another ace performance), meet publicly, knowing that the cops are monitoring their movements. There’s more: a character dies right after furnishing a vital piece of information. Another character’s oversight, which seems planted for narrative convenience, opens the case. Everything happens quickly, easily and conveniently. Mom, in that case, fails both as a genre piece and as a social commentary trying to understand the pervasive misogyny in the country.
Which is a pity because Anay Goswamy, the film’s cinematographer and director Udyawar show a keen visual sense. A longish bird’s-eye view shot of the perpetrators’ car on Delhi roads, which includes a change of driver at some point, conveys chilling information with economy. Another scene seamlessly transitions, in one take, from Arya in a hospital bed to a TV relaying information about her case in a different room, underscoring the narrow difference between real life and its televised retelling.
Sridevi’s performance stands out too. Appearing in her 300th film, she has a challenging role to perform. Her character has different shades, melding anger, innocence, hurt and betrayal. She stands tall, lending her part much credence and conviction. However, Akshaye Khanna, as the investigating cop, is a letdown, recycling his stock expression over the years – brooding intensity meeting easy cynicism – without much effect, mistaking, once again, subtlety for profundity. But this film couldn’t have been saved by superlative performances.
The main problem with Mom is that taps into the baser instincts of its audience, falsely empowering and misleading them. Sure, at some level, a case can be made that this is just a film where some characters are responding to their circumstances (and that movies need not be correct), but Mom’s calculated indifference to logic, crass manipulation of mother-daughter bond and single-minded pursuit of climax suggest an incendiary ideology. An ideology that favours actions over thoughts, short-term victories over disastrous long-term effects. I don’t think its audience will complain though; two discomfiting scenes in the latter part of the film elicited claps in the theatre. And that is the real question: Where are we headed? I don’t expect a fictional film to solve that for me, but at least its recognition is due. Films like Mom, though, are not helping one bit.