The Flawed Retribution of MOM

Pop Culture

The Flawed Retribution of MOM

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

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ast year’s PINK, blew a hole in Bollywood’s long tradition of rape/sexual assault films. Not only did it inaugurate the conversation on consent and featured empowered female protagonists (with caveats), it dealt with a sensitive subject with less ham-fistedness than we’ve come to expect of mainstream Hindi cinema. But what was most refreshing about the film was that while it laid bare the inefficiencies of the country’s judicial system, it also voted for taking the legal recourse – as opposed to the rape-revenge dramas of the ’70s and ’80s.

That’s not a memo received by MOM, which released last week. Sridevi’s 300th – and this year’s third sexual assault film – goes to unthinkable lengths to resurrect the tired plot-device of an avenging heroine riding the cycle of retribution, albeit with a certain refinement.

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In MOM, we see the good old avenging heroine bypassing the workings of the law, traces of which we’ve seen in recent films like Mardaani, Angry Indian Goddesses, and Maatr. Sridevi plays Devki Sabharwal, a Biology teacher in a Delhi school, who has a strained relationship with her step-daughter Arya (Sajal Ali). Arya is abducted from a school party, gang-raped in a moving car, and denied justice at the courts. It is exactly, at this point, that the film takes the shape of a revenge drama, firing from the shoulders of the helpless mother, determined to get her daughter justice. So far, so familiar.

Devki’s means of snatching the justice denied to her daughter veers close to that used by the sisterhood of Dimple Kapadia and Zeenat Aman from the ’80s. Enlisting the help of a private detective DK (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), Devki transforms into a vigilante, castrating and poisoning the assaulters. The film’s conservative attitude is further evidenced in a scene where a distraught Devki tells her husband that their daughter will have to suffer the life-long punishment of being a rape survivor.

Almost thirty years ago, Dimple Kapadia’s turn as Kiran, the police officer who is gang-raped by four men in Zakhmi Aurat, set the ball rolling for the simultaneously titillating and deeply satisfying rape-revenge drama genre. Dispirited by the injustice meted out to her, Kiran hunts down assaulters and lures them by spiking their drinks before serving the ultimate punishment of castration.

Unfettered vigilantism is the last thing our films should be advocating as the only retort to sexual assault, especially in 2017.

At a time when conservative society was used to regarding women as sexual objects, Zakhmi Aurat‘s unabashed feminist stance that highlighted the loopholes in the justice system, was revolutionary. But the weight of its commentary ended up getting marred by the plot-holes of the film’s seemingly far-fetched castration fest. Zakhmi Aurat’s release was timed a few years after B.R. Chopra’s controversial Insaaf Ka Tarazu, which also did its bit to mainstream the plot-device of the avenging heroine. In the film, Zeenat Aman plays a rape survivor who is forced to dispense her own brand of redressal, after her assaulter (Raj Babbar) also rapes her sister (Padmini Kohlapure). Much of the film, then, unfolds as a courtroom drama with Zeenat Aman taking the stand for the second time, only now she’s accused of shooting her rapist in order to get justice.

The premise for these avenging heroines was suspiciously simple – building up to a crescendo of a convenient climax that played to the gallery – effectively eliciting satisfying seetis and taalis from the audience. Films have always served as an outlet for the restrictions of real life, and rape-revenge dramas, were the ultimate proof of one’s imagination running wild.

Tonally, MOM, is as much an updated version of Insaaf Ka Taraazu and Zakhmi Aurat, as it is of Raveena Tandon’s Maatr. Both the films show promise, especially MOM, in its chilling depiction of the gruesome rape sequence and an understated first half – only to royally squander the chance in its greed to utilise helpless victimhood to manufacture murderous rage. In doing so, it extracts a brand of justice that feeds the bloodlust of an audience rather than goad any iota of introspection. It only exists to remind the audience to be angry, at both the state of women’s safety in the country, and, the ease with which perpetrators of brutal crimes get away. The only solution it then advocates is an extreme method, and it does so, without providing an exposition on how the judicial system fails the victim. In a hurried manner, it merely tells you that it does, and asks you to buy into it enough to encourage responses of self-styled revenge.

Sridevi

Sridevi’s MOM resurrects the tired plot-device of an avenging heroine riding the cycle of retribution.

Image Credit: MAD Films / Third Eye Pictures

However, what worked in the favour of the rape-revenge dramas of the ’80s was that, at the time, the judiciary could indeed be seen as a convincing villain; one that would reduce victims into embracing actions laced with anti-establishment haste. Back then, when the country was still reeling from the aftermath of the Emergency, and social injustice against the common man continued to be on the rise.

There’s no denying that present-day India is still unsafe for women. Men getting away with rape is a terrifying reality, and that the judicial system is extremely flawed. But all of these factors still don’t negate the existence of improved sexual assault legislation. Unfettered vigilantism is the last thing our films should be advocating as the only retort to sexual assault, especially in 2017.

Not only is it an immensely hypocritical false resolution, it is especially dangerous in the times that we live in. Our social reality has been overtaken by a bloodthirsty mob-mentality that thrives on the belief that they can bypass the law and take matters in their own hands. For a film that desperately wishes to wear the badge of “socially-relevant”, the bellicose message it ultimately preaches is uncomfortably close to the irrationals who carry out lynchings all across the country.

This line of rash thinking might be an apt reaction if the endgame is to merely elicit raucous seetis from the audience. But for a film that also pretends to be a social commentary on the state of affairs in the country, MOM could have tried harder.

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