My Mirror column:
Sridevi's return to the screen as an avenging mother offers us a chance to think about the female vigilante film in Hindi cinema.
A particular subset of this genre centres on an older woman who steps in to mete out vigilante justice on behalf of a younger or defenceless victim. An early Hollywood film in this genre, involving an elder sister and a teenaged younger sister -- Lipstick (1976) -- inspired BR Chopra's Insaaf ka Taraazu (1980), which cast Zeenat Aman and a childlike Padmini Kolhapure as a pair of stereotypically 'modern' sisters who find the world ranged against them -- and on the side of Raj Babbar's skin-crawlingly creepy admirer-rapist. Ravi Udyawar's Mom is the latest film in this sub-genre.
The last few years have seen Bollywood return to the avenging woman protagonist. In the wake of the widespread protests after the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in December 2012, mainstream film producers seem to have finally decided this was a theme whose resonance they could monetise. Industry writers also clearly find the female vigilante slot useful, especially when tossing up comeback vehicles for heroines whose formidable acting chops aren't enough to keep them in male-dominated Bollywood.
So in August 2014, we got Pradip Sarkar's Mardaani, marking the return of Rani Mukherjee as a cop named Shivani Shivaji Roy who is provoked to violence by the abduction of an orphaned girl she has semi-adopted. In April 2017, we got Ashtar Syed's Maatr, with Raveena Tandon turning bloodthirsty avenger after her daughter is sexually assaulted and dies. And now, in July, we have Mom, in which Sridevi returns to the Hindi screen for the first time since English Vinglish (2012), again with a plot driven by an ungrateful daughter.
In a non-coincidence of the Bollywood kind, Sridevi's Devaki Sabarwal is an ethical schoolteacher pitted against Delhi's 'Pata hai mera baap kaun hai' louts - just like Raveena's Vidya in Maatr. Given the ubiquitousness of sexual violence in India across class, caste and region, it is remarkable how limited the Hindi film imagination of it is (barring notable exceptions like the superb Anaarkali of Aarah, or the more uneven Parched). One fixed node in that imagination is the youthful upper middle class victim; another is Delhi. Within Delhi, too, there are two points upon which Bollywood scriptwriters seem to converge: the farmhouse and the car.
The first imagined location for male predators in Mom is a farmhouse, as it was in Maatr and in another recent film about sexual assault in Delhi: Shoojit Sarkar's Pink (2016). But it is the car with windows rolled up, circling the streets of the capital, that offers a bone-chilling depiction of how sexual violence takes place, in plain sight. In Pink, as well as in Nicholas Kharkongor's Delhi-set drama Mantra (2016), we are allowed into the car; in Mom, we are kept terrifyingly out. Of course the car is not just a site of violence but also a mode of escape and an instrument of revenge: think of Navdeep Singh's NH10, in which the car amplifies Anushka Sharma's sense of siege - but can also conquer it.
Mom ticks off a host of other predictable Delhi types: men with no redeeming qualities like the spoilt schoolboy rapist, his drug-taking playboy cousin, a security guard who's a Bihari or Eastern UP migrant (the talented Pitobash Tripath, wasted here). Sridevi's husband Anand (Adnan Siddiqui) and daughter Arya (a Kareena Kapoor-lookalike called Sajal Ali) are pretty but merely decorative. The only pleasurable character is a Daryaganj detective, and this is because Nawazuddin Siddiqui sinks his teeth into a slim role to prove he can still surprise us with unheroicness. Udyawar tries with his locations, filming on the Delhi Metro, in a Mehrauli stepwell and a suitably upscale art gallery, but the Sabarwals' home has an unlived servantless poshness that simply doesn't cut it, especially for a family in which the woman works and is a hands-on mother of two.
Motherhood is the film's titular theme. As with Maatr and Mardaani (and Drishyam, in which Tabu is the cop-mother engineering violence), it is maternal protective instinct that is churned into cold-blooded revenge. Here all the strict biology teacher wants is to have her brattish stepdaughter call her 'Mom' rather than Ma'am. Of course we know of Sridevi's personal status as real-life stepmother to Boney Kapoor's children. And Udyawar doesn't spare the mythic references: naming her Devaki after Krishna's loving mother, or citing Draupadi as the original Indian avenger.
Mom does offer glimpses of fun on the femininity front: a criminal who makes her own poison from something ostensibly healthful; men obsessing over other men while a woman drives off under their noses. But the film is weighed down by a trite, obvious sense of righteousness.
Vigilante politics aside, it left me longing for a little of the legendary Sridevi lightness.
Published in Mumbai Mirror, 16 July 2017.