Murder is easy but parenting is hard in advertising filmmaker Ravi Udyawar’s debut feature. Mom is the latest in a series of rape and sexual assault revenge dramas, but it tries to rise above its shocking subject matter by looking at the subject from on high (literally so: top-angle shots are plenty). The rape that triggers Devaki’s righteous wrath is suggested but never shown – an eye in the sky follows an SUV that contains four men and Devaki’s 18-year-old daughter Arya (Sajal Ali) and interminably winds down deserted streets. As a capsule of agony and unspeakable violence, it’s one of the most effective scenes in the movie, second only to Devaki’s anguished howls after she sees her daughter’s tattered body in the hospital.
The courts fail Devaki and her husband Anand (Adnan Siddiqui). Investigating Crime Branch officer Mathew (Akshaye Khanna) is sympathetic, for a change, but all of them can only watch helplessly as the four perpetrators, which includes Devaki’s classmate, walk away in glee. Devaki’s eyes harden into the firm stare that is common to movie vigilantes. With the help of well-meaning shamus Daya Shankar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), she gets to work.
Mom feels very similar to the April release Maatr, in which Raveena Tandon transforms herself with superhero-like speed from posh teacher into rampaging vigilante after her daughter’s rape. Both movies owe their subject matter to the Korean thriller Don’t Cry Mommy (2012), with enough local elements to distance themselves from the source, such as allusions to the 2012 gang-rape in Delhi.
In Maatr, the big twist is that Tandon’s character is raped along with her daughter, thereby giving her a double motive for revenge. Mom takes a more unusual route to the same destination. Devaki is Arya’s step-mother, and the adolescent cannot forgive her for having taken her handsome father away from her. Some of Arya’s attitude can perhaps be attributed to her youth. She is at the age where surliness is de rigueur, and Devaki thinks it will pass.
Although this is as far as Girish Kohli’s screenplay takes psychological shading, the scenes between mother and daughter crackle with tension, and provide some support to the questionable idea that vengeance can be an effective parenting tool. Arya’s resentment is escalated to open hostility since she somehow associates her mother with her agony. By bringing the rapists to book, Devaki hopes to win Arya’s approval – a family bonding exercise, if you will.
Mom works harder than other films of its type to convince us of its importance and validity. AR Rahman’s background score is suitably portentous, and cinematographer Anay Goswamy’s rich colour palette – reds abound – and elegant framing enhance the seediest of locales. In its gorgeous camerawork and production design and clinical approach, Mom comes close to the spirit of the South Korean films by which it has been influenced, even though it is not always able to replicate the fleetness and clarity with which such movies tackle fundamentally sordid material.
This is revenge, served cold, with the only source of warmth emanating from Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s effective detective. The movie is held back by its sluggish pace, in which detailing of a scene is confused with depth. The ponderousness only amplifies the preposterousness, to the point of reducing Mathew, otherwise a likable character, to the archetypal Hindi film policeman who always arrives on the scene after everything is over.
Had Mom been narrated from Mathew’s point of view, it might have fulfilled its neo-noir ambitions, but it ends up satisfying neither the thriller genre conventions nor the requirements of a psychological drama of a family coping with rape.
Udyawar’s decision to let scenes run on benefits his perfectly chosen cast the most. Sridevi turns out a superbly controlled central performance, one that is low on psychological logic but high on emotional impact. Devaki’s behaviour isn’t always consistent with her actions, but the actor who plays her is always alert to the possibilities of every scene. Sridevi has several standout moments despite occasional scenes in which her facial muscles don’t seem to be matching her tremulous voice. Devaki’s all-too-human dithering makes her an unlikely heroine, and Sridevi’s ability to share scenes without overpowering her co-stars allows all of them to make their mark in a movie dominated by Devaki’s journey. Sajal Ali too turns out a commendably sensitive performance as the rape victim who struggles to make sense of her condition.
If Arya fades out of view, it’s because of the fidelity that Mom displays to the rape revenge drama template. Sexual assault in movies is depicted as the end of the world for the survivors (a line in Mom says that there can be no worse punishment than living with the experience), and the only form of justice is the death penalty. Such simplistic and flawed thinking has rarely been challenged by filmmakers keen on providing a cathartic solution to a complex crime. Rape becomes an excuse to unleash the righteous lone wolf who does the work of the police and the courts, and locks the assault survivor into permanent victimhood.
In Mom, Arya is the frozen shoulder over which Devaki aims her volleys. Reduced to a mass of bruises and tears, Arya disappears into the background. By devoting itself to Devaki’s journey, the movie misses out on Arya’s plight. Arya is the casualty first of a misogynistic culture and secondly of a reductive attitude to her importance in the scheme of things. Never once does she get to say, not in my name.