Director: Ravi Udyawar
Cast: Sridevi, Sajal Ali, Adnan Siddiqui, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Akshaye Khanna, Abhimanyu Singh
The pivotal sequence of Mom has a definitive mood to it. Late into the night, we see the black SUV slither down a deserted Noida street. We follow this car from above with smooth drone-like vision; the music, too, reduces itself to a monotonous, aching Sicario-ish drill. We know that the young girl, Arya (Sajal Ali; stands out), who was abducted from a farmhouse party, is being assaulted within. We know that four men have turned into monsters inside that black speck. Take this visual out of context, and it's just a sleepy, calm vehicle betraying the intensity of the storm brewing within. But here it looks ominous and horror-like, especially from a distance. Seconds later, the sounds will cease once the camera rests on the brutalized face of the girl dumped into a gutter.
There is such a confrontational tone about this – a foreboding sense of craft – that's difficult to escape. Much of the film's unforgiving first half is like this. It locks eyes with us. It doesn't scream chaos. It mutters, menacingly, about something singularly bad happening in an inherently civilized universe. A universe with shock, lawyers, cops (Akshaye Khanna; needs a backstory), media hype and structure. Not one with detectives, booby traps, hidden footage and cat-and-mouse mind games. It mutters "slow-burning procedural thriller" or "behavioral drama," though it soon becomes increasingly clear that "clumsy revenge drama" seems to be the only cinematic peg left.
The presence of an eccentric God-fearing detective (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is the kicker; he is the device that takes Mom, both literally and figuratively, from the sobering practicality of No One Killed Jessica (2011) to the anti-establishment recklessness of Maatr (2017). He is the filmy in a stubbornly non-filmy atmosphere. And he becomes the change, the quirky colour, no self-serious film like this should merit.
I'm not saying revenge sagas are unrealistic, flimsy or commercially heightened genre traps. NH10 (2015) worked precisely because of its this-could-happen-to-us wildness, and more so because it unfurled over one impulsive night. It could afford to commit. There were no external factors. Society couldn't fail her because it wasn't around. Rang De Basanti (2006) managed because nobody in its texture was smart or even remotely in control of their decisions; the system remained plural and stubborn, beyond the social principles of redemption. But the problem with films like Mom, Pink (2016), A Wednesday (2008) and Te3n (2016) is that they unfold before our eyes over time.
Much of the film's unforgiving first half mutters "slow-burning procedural thriller" or "behavioral drama," though it soon becomes increasingly clear that "clumsy revenge drama" seems to be the only cinematic peg left.
The mechanics to lose control have to be elaborated upon – which is where most of these stories get their politics all jumbled up. The system, which manifests itself into the form of a cynical, withering journeyman, is provided with the heart to change. We're told how to feel through the inevitable – and masala-level unlikely – transformation of this one character. Suddenly, the method to the madness must assume the compromise of crowd-pleasing masks. They occur in a functional world, relying solely on the deceit of the ordinary-citizen template. As a result, by derailing from its original language midway, they end up propagating instead of theorizing.
Granted that extreme emotions like grief are beyond common understanding, and are prone to perhaps the most unpredictable results. But this doesn't mean that anything goes. The look of revenge – of letting go – is subject to the characters and their authenticity occupying its confines. For instance, there is immense truth to a scene in which Devki Sabarwal (Sridevi; too overcooked) obsessively stalks one of the perpetrators in her car, prepared to run him over if need be. This is a hair-raising moment exactly because we know she isn't capable. She is still in a movie where we saw the black car from above, not inside. A biology teacher has been driven this far. We believe that she is a stepmother, aching more for her resentful girl's healing than validation. Her outlet here is NH10-ish, and her brief conflict with morality is entirely worth empathizing with.
The economic status of the Sabarwal family is also worth noting: rich enough to survive, not modest enough to perish, though not influential enough to control the external narrative. It works on why she might go rogue – Heaven knows we all fantasize about it if we're weakened enough – just not on how she does it. How she does it has virtually no connection to who they are. It has no business going inside that car and trying to make sense of rage. It certainly has no business becoming a garishly glorified version of Anjaam (1994) or Koyla (1997).
Mom isn't a correct film. It's an apologetically primal one, and therefore by default a problematic one in this current climate. It isn't right for the path it chooses – you can't play to the gallery after emptying the auditorium – but even more wrong for the tone it forsakes. I'm not from the school of thinking that expects good, engaging cinema to be various combinations of real and sensible. It doesn't even need to be consciously sensitive. But the last thing a mother needs is to be surrounded by male idiots in order to show off her attributes. And the last thing this country needs is a rash personal vigilante tale that operates under the guise of accidental feminism.
Watch the trailer of Mom here: