Today, if someone were to belittle cinema's influence on the ticket-paying masses, that someone could not but be farther from the truth. Much like religion, the images on the screen, however fleeting they may be, can be as addictive as opium – to borrow a time-worn phrase. How many, many times we have seen the young and the impressionable copy the dare-devil acts they watch in movies – or even in advertisements – and how they impersonate their heroes and heroines.
And if a renowned and popular actress like Sridevi were to become a vigilante out to seek vengeance on all those men who raped and brutalised her 18-year-old school-going daughter only to dump her in a filthy ditch, it almost amounts to a go-ahead it-is-okay certificate for others to follow. And not just mothers like Sridevi in Ravi Udyawar's debut feature, Mom. Others may also be tempted to take the law into their own hands.
Are we not fighting against this kind of “justice”? Are we not protesting against mob lynching in the name of “gau raksha”? Are we not lambasting the so-called Romeo brigades out to harass courting couples in the name of protecting women?
And in today's India where the judiciary can be slack or slow, where policing is not always above board and where considerations of religion, caste as well as money and muscle power influence the legal process and the quantum of punishment (one American Supreme Court judge said famously that capital punishment is for those without capital), the kind of message Mom conveys may well bode ill for society.
Mom of course revisits a story that has happened time and again in India, a narrative done to death in cinema. Sajal Ali's Arya goes on Valentine's night party with her friends to a secluded farmhouse. Her stepmother, Devaki Sabherwal (Sridevi, seen after English Vinglish and Puli in Tamil), dotes on the girl, and is far from the kind of evil women we have been fed by fairytales. She is not too keen on Arya going for the party, but being her father, Anand's (Adnan Siddiqui), pet she wangles a nod. We know only too well what is set to happen. Arya is kidnapped as she steps outside the farmhouse to book a taxi, and is raped inside a moving SUV. Handled well this scene, with great sensitivity.
But the four perpetrators – one of whom is Arya's classmate, earlier rebuffed by the teenager – go scot free, because the court feels that there is not enough evidence to incriminate them. So what if the victim had identified them! I do not know whether this will hold good in a court of law. But, how then would the story progress?
Devaki is consumed by the thought of revenge. While her poor hubby is busy trying to get past the judicial impasse, the wife plans her moves to eliminate the four men, one after the other, in what appears like a clever game of chess. To begin with, she gets hold of a private detective, Daya Shankar Kapoor or DK (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who relies more on his wit than investigative prowess to help the mom-in-distress in finding valuable inputs about the rapists.
Devaki – a biology teacher – uses methods like castration and poison (potassium cyanide prepared from apple seeds) to eliminate the guilty. But the last of the guys proves too tough for Devaki, and this is where our good cop, Mathew Francis (Akshaye Khanna), has to step in. So what, if he hands over his own service revolver to mom to hammer the last nail in the coffin of a humungous crime.
We have seen this kind of vigilantism in A Wednesday and several other films, but I still have a problem when, for instance, cops turn a blind eye to what is clearly an extra-judicial act.
Beyond this, Mom suffers from lazy writing. The script takes an unrealistically easy way out, by allowing its protagonist to plan and execute cold-blooded murders. Come on, you cannot so easily break into someone's house, prepare the poison concoction and leave – and mind you with no help. And then we have a detective like DK, who seems too vulnerable when he is attacked by one of the villains, and Kapoor goes down with a helpless question on his lips! For all his investigative ability, he fails to see the danger to his own life!
Indian cinema's biggest bane has been poor writing, and Mom gets sucked into this and suffocated. There are any number of other loopholes that stop Mom from being a believable portrayal of a horrific crime like rape. And in the process, it wastes some great actors.
Khanna re-emerges after a long hiatus, and what a fantastic performer he is – sort of wasted in Mom with very little screen time. Siddique has an image makeover that makes him almost unrecognisable, and as the private eye, he brings spring and sunshine to his character – much in the same way he had done in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, where he essays a TV anchor.
So, what could have been a taut thriller turns out to be a bit of a plod, a movie where the make-believe takes over completely with some disturbing messages thrown in. If the courts and the cops fail, gentle citizen take over. Oh, please, no!