Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Mothers and vigilantes: thoughts on Mom

Forty-five years from now, when the birth centenary of one of our most beloved actresses is being celebrated through nationwide film festivals, Hawa Hawaai competitions and quiz shows, the following trivia question may be asked: “In which film did Sridevi play a woman named Devaki, whose great desire is for her child to call her Ma?”

Mom,” most people will confidently answer (that’s the one which won Sridevi all those awards in 2018, and was even hailed by Bharat Ratna recipient Pahlaj Nihalani as being a rare “ladies-oriented film” that conveyed the correct social message). But if any octogenarians or nonagenarians are participating in this quiz, their memories may hark back to the dubious 1980s, and to a film called Aulad. The plot of which is too complicated to discuss here; enough to say that in the best tradition of symbolic character names, Sridevi was Devaki, Jaya Prada was Yashoda, and Baby Guddu was Kishan, the bawling trophy in their game of maternal tug-o-war. While a tight-lipped Jeetendra watched worriedly from the sidelines and did almost no dancing.

I have a soft spot for Aulad – it was one of the rare films that choked me up as a child – but I’ll leave that little trivia-nugget here, and move on to Mom, in which today’s Sridevi – thinner, frailer-looking, but still a very reassuring presence for us kids of the 80s – plays a Devaki who takes matters into her own hands when the legal system fails her stepdaughter Arya. Some thoughts:

* I liked Mom overall, though it felt like many different films in one package. At one level, the entire plot – the gang-rape, the miscarriage of justice, Devaki’s clandestine badlaa – is a giant MacGuffin for what the story is really about: a woman’s journey towards hearing the word “Mom” from the lips of a girl whom she loves as her own child. The film is in a tradition of recent dramas – others include Madaari, Te3n, Wazir and Kahaani 2 – about a parent’s or grandparent’s response when something bad happens to a child. And like some of those, it is very much a pulpy thriller too, with genre staples such as the colourful private-eye-cum-comic-relief DK (another in a long line of roles that seem written for Nawazuddin Siddiqui to show off his full bag of actorly tricks) and a willing-to-be-crooked-if-required cop (a charmingly rakish performance by Akshaye Khanna’s eyebrows).

* It is also a very effective horror film in places, notably in the long and upsetting scene where the kidnapping and rape occurs, and a simple aerial visual of a moving black car becomes as sinister as David Lynch’s use of a similar vehicle near the beginning of Mulholland Drive (the effect of this sequence is heightened by the menacing score, which resembles the soundtrack of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, another film about a sexual assault and its aftermath).

* Though cooler and more polished than Aulad was (in the same sense that almost any Hindi film made today, good or bad, is more polished than most of the mainstream Hindi films of the 80s), Mom is just as emotionally manipulative in its own way. Normally I wouldn’t mean that as a putdown, but after a point I had to wonder about its championing of vigilante action. Like another 1980s film, Zakhmi Aurat, Mom plays like a rallying call – almost a public-service message – advocating capital punishment for rapists: quench a society’s collective righteous bloodlust as directly as possible, it says, through castration or death or both. It’s the sort of “justice” built on the idea that Evil can be neatly isolated, surgically removed from our midst; that it already exists as something separate from us.

This is not a film that engages with any of the more layered conversations around sexual violence: for instance, that rape doesn't have to involve penile penetration, and so castration is a simplistic, kneejerk solution. Or that the death penalty should be a no-no in any civilised society, regardless of how repulsed we are by a crime. Sidestepping the armchair-liberal position altogether, Mom goes for the direct emotional impulse and the potential for rage that each of us carries: “Imagine YOUR daughter being gang-raped and then kicked, bleeding and unconscious, into a ditch. What would YOU like to see happen to the beasts who did it? Well, then.”

* The young woman who undergoes that traumatic experience (compounded by media gratuitousness and societal voyeurism) survives and eventually gets to lead a normal life again. In itself, this is a welcome thing for a film to depict in a society where shame and judgement accrues to rape-survivors. But in this particular narrative, Arya’s healing is presented as a direct result of the revenge-taking that occurs on her behalf – which again invites questions about how to deal with savage crime in an imperfect, unjust world.

Of course, much of mainstream cinema is about the vicarious correcting of such injustices. In this context, I want to mention a line that I misheard at the film’s midpoint. When Devaki tells DK “Bhagwaan sab jagah toh nahin ho sakte” (or words to this effect), he replies “Issiliye ma ko banaaya”. It’s a famous cliché – God couldn’t be everywhere, so He made Mothers – but when I first heard the words (spoken in the weirdly variable voice Siddiqui uses for this role, a composite of accents ranging from Bengali to Daryaganji), I thought he said “Isliye cinema ko banaya”.

This was puzzling (had Mom suddenly turned into a Godardian meta-movie?), and I realized my mistake within a few seconds. But there is an aptness to the misheard version. “God couldn’t be everywhere, so He made Cinema” could easily be a guiding motto for a film like (to take one example) Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – an alternate WWII history where the Nazis are stopped in their tracks during a grand climax set in a movie theatre – but it applies just as well to films that are not so explicitly fantasist. Certainly, Hindi-film fans have experienced versions of this for decades (and people who don’t understand the nourishing role of escapism have tut-tutted about it for all that time).

At a time when sexual violence is a big part of our public discourse (and not taken as seriously as it should be by people in authority), there is something naturally appealing about a story that channels anger through the promise of swift and decisive action. But this position can be very problematic in a time and place where vigilante violence – disguised as justice – in response to crimes, or perceived crimes, is on the rise; when you can’t open a newspaper without coming across the word “lynching”.

Cinema can be a God-substitute, sure – but like God, it can also lead us down some very slippery slopes. And given the nature of the medium, it’s always hard to be sure about the line separating therapeutic escapism from the more dangerous version. 

* On a lighter note, here’s a magic-mushroom subtext (Spoiler Alert): in the climax, when Arya’s call of “Mom” serves as the trigger that turns Devaki into a full-blown psycho-killer, I became convinced (for a few minutes, then it wore off) that the film was hiding a great deal about these characters’ past. Could it be that Devaki was a homicidal maniac who had done something terrible to Arya’s real mother all those years ago, and then repressed her psychotic side once she settled down into comfortable domesticity – until her inner Mrs Bates was reawakened by this new tragedy?

Someone make a prequel along those lines, please. Just don’t cast Katrina Kaif as the young Devaki.


  1. "While a tight-lipped Jeetendra watched worriedly from the sidelines and did almost no dancing." LOL!
    I would be one of those octa/nonagenarians who'd have said "Aulad". Had the misfortune of seeing it, and worse, remember whole chunks of it!!! Especially the "bawling trophy"!
    Haven't seen this Mom, yet. But thanks for the unique review that only you can write!

    1. thanks RajK! Good to know someone is still reading this thing, since this was one of those very rare posts I did only for the blog.
      On Facebook, people have left detailed comments about Jeetendra-Sridevi-Jaya Prada films, leading to a very amusing discussion.

  2. I have similar emotions about Aulad. I remember it well :)

  3. DewMoonDrop: once seen, never forgotten!