Devaki is a biology teacher at the same school attended by her stepdaughter Arya. Although, Devaki is a caring mother, Arya remains distant. One unfortunate night, Arya is brutally attacked...
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Devaki is a biology teacher at the same school attended by her stepdaughter Arya. Although, Devaki is a caring mother, Arya remains distant. One unfortunate night, Arya is brutally attacked. When the justice system fails them, Devaki faces some tough decisions and goes to great lengths to find justice for her daughter.Written by
Sridevi Returns with a Powerful, Devastating Performance
Bollywood has a problem. And that problem's name is 'Sridevi'.
Gone (mercifully) are the days when actresses over the age of 40 were automatically relegated to matronly roles (see Nutan, Rakhee, Farida Jalal, and even Rekha and Dimple for proof of this). We're lucky enough to live in an age when many actresses over a certain age abound in modern Hindi cinema: apart from Sri herself in Mom, we recently saw Manisha Koirala (Dear Maya), Raveena Tandon (Maatr), Kajol (Dilwale), Juhi Chawla (Chalk n Duster), Aishwariya Rai (Ae Dil Hai Mushkil) and Tabu (Fitoor) taking center stage in major films, all playing roles that required them to do more than serve as mother figures to younger protagonists. Credit this to expanding mindset of an audience that has gradually woken up to the fact that women are interesting (and, indeed, desirable) outside the customary Bollywood sphere of commercial romance.
So what's the problem? The problem is that Sridevi has outgrown Bollywood. Arguably the greatest actor of her generation (and certainly a far more potent performer than the would-be usurpers who followed her), Sridevi has come to be regarded by the media and masses alike as "The Indian Meryl Streep". Which, though she may be, is secondary to the fact that she is "The Indian Sridevi". India has not witnessed an actor as complete and transformational as Sridevi since the dawn of cinema – so it makes sense that in the wake of her career as a mainstream leading lady, Bollywood is forced to confront a quandary unlike any other it's faced in the past.
Having outgrown the usual romantic roles of her repertoire in the '80s and '90s (her last of which was her bewitching turn as the shrewish virago in Judaai), Bollywood now has the dilemma of trying to figure out what to do with a talent the size and scope of Sridevi's (hint: it has no clue). Asking Sridevi to play "the mother" or "some generic older female relative" is like asking Picasso to paint a wall: you do not – indeed, cannot – ask a genius to perform the mundane. We know what she is capable of; hers is a talent whose full potential can never be tapped (I'm quoting Shekhar Kapur here). What, then, is an industry built around the trope of 20-something romantic musicals to do with an actor like Sridevi?
Sridevi is intelligent enough about her artistry to know that audiences will not accept her in the same mould of the past. She isn't the comic sprite of Chaalbaaz or Mr. India anymore – nor does she insist that she be treated as such. This is something megastar actors seem to have trouble accepting: remember Amitabh's disastrous re-entry into Bollywood as a leading/angry young man with "Mrityudaata"? Madhuri Dixit would also do well to learn this lesson given that she continues to insist that she be featured in song-n-dance roles (and now dance- themed television shows) which don't go over particularly well with either critics or audiences.
Which brings us to 'Mom'.
Bollywood is obsessed with rape. It's a trope that the Largest Film Industry in the World has relied upon quite steadily since the early 80s when every hero from Mithun Chakraborty to Amitabh Bachchan to Govinda regularly avenged the rapes (or would-be rapes) of his sister/daughter/and even mother. Leading men even play "hero" rapists from time to time: remember Anil Kapoor playing an unrepentant rapist in Benaam Badshah who is only tamed (incredulously) by the love of his victim (Juhi Chawla)? Things got (marginally) better when the same Anil Kapoor offered to marry a rape victim (Aishwarya Rai) when she was forced to consider marrying her rapist (Puru Raj Kumar) in Hamara Dil Aap Ke Paas Hai. Progress? Well, okay.
Mom – which follows a stepmother's journey to avenge the gang rape of her stepdaughter - has summarily been compared to the standard '80s Bollywood potboiler in which the (male) hero restores the dignity of his beloved by killing off her rapists. Ravi Udyawar's directorial debut certainly has this trope at its center, but the film reminded me in many ways of Sridevi's 1996 film Army, in which she plays a widow seeking to avenge the murder of her young husband (Shah Rukh Khan). Mom is a far, far superior film to Army, but the resemblance between the story lines is difficult to ignore. Sridevi was pure arresting melodrama in Army (as only she can pull off – remember the brilliant scene in which her pregnancy was revealed?) and holds a more nuanced yet bitter tone in Mom. But in Mom she's also an army of one, choosing to go it alone when the law lets her down and even a good cop named Francis (Akshaye Khanna) seems eager to thwart her maternal yearning for justice.
Yes, Sridevi's performance is devastating and brilliant, but even more than that, this is a performance which is agonizing to witness. She summons not only the tentative love of an unwanted stepmother, but brings to the surface the burden of a raw, all-consuming pain of a parent drowning in her child's misery. Much has been said about Devki's quest for revenge, but almost nothing is mentioned about the quiet moments of steeliness and stillness which punctuate Sridevi's performance throughout the film.
Watch, for example, the many scenes between Sridevi and Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Daya Shankar, the detective). She expertly conveys the resigned feelings of an unwanted quest, of a heroine in search of a destination she never wanted to seek out. Revenge is not something to be celebrated, her body language tells us, but it is (in some scenarios, it seems) the only path to resolution. She asks her cohorts on one occasion: if you must choose between wrong and very wrong, which will you choose? She will emerge victorious, we know from the outset; but she is also already defeated.
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