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Sridevi’s ‘Mom’ revisits the 80’s rape revenge genre

LiveMint logoLiveMint 10-07-2017 Rajyasree Sen

It’s difficult to forget the first time you see a Hindi film actress bobbitize (this is before Lorena Bobbit made the word and act famous) an actor on screen. Crying “Vengeance” while tossing her lustrous hair and hacking off the offending appendage. She even sang a song or two after that.

I remember as an 11-year-old watching the Dimple Kapadia-starrer, Zakhmi Aurat, in stunned horror. We had guests from foreign shores visiting and my cousin and I had told them we’d introduce them to Hindi cinema and Calcutta’s single screen halls with Rs5 tickets. What none of us realized was what we were letting ourselves in for. We had thought they were screening the Moon Moon Sen horror flick, Woh Phir Aayegi. A genre every movie watcher should be introduced to. But the film had changed to Zakhmi Aurat and the poster only showed Kapadia in a police woman’s outfit, accompanied by Anupam Kher and Puneet Issar. For all intents and purposes, the poster made it seem like this was a cop caper.

We couldn’t have been more ill-prepared for what was to come our way. Because we found ourselves watching the precursor to Kill Bill, without Uma Thurman or Quentin Tarantino. This was a film wildly inappropriate for an 11-year-old girl, and one which thankfully didn’t make me believe that every time someone sexually harasses me, I should simply whip out a knife and hack off the offending appendage.

Zakhmi Aurat had Kapadia playing an avenging cop who had been raped. She hunted down her rapists—including our future Duryodhana, Puneet Issar—and castrated them. But since this is Hindi cinema, castration is too subtle. So, she essentially hacked off the rapist’s penis itself. After which, Kapadia sang a song or two while her lustrous hair shone and she looked pensively into the camera. This film in a way, just in a way, showed Kapadia as a woman who took her fate in her own hand and instead of weeping in a corner, wreaked vengeance for the crime that was committed against her. She had a motive to kill and dismember. Quite revolutionary for the time. Because usually we saw Hindi film actresses being raped on screen regularly, cowering in their rooms and crying or hanging themselves with their dupattas, only to have the hero save and restore their honour by killing the rapists. Followed by a song and a dance. If not two. This film though, was the beginning and end of the rape revenge genre.

In Hindi cinema, it is revolutionary to show criminals being arrested and the law taking its course. Which of course is thanks to our dodgy arrest and conviction rate. But still, we love showing our actors as vigilantes.

Times have changed, though. Those were the 1980s. But it seems, nothing really changes. Especially if you’re an 1980s or 1990s actress making a comeback. As Raveena Tandon’s Maatr —The Mother —and now Sridevi’s Mom has proven. Both actresses have used rape revenge films, where they play the avenging matriarch who will bring their daughters’ rapists to book. Damn the courts and the police, who are shown as utterly ineffectual and corrupt. Both quite true.

As a genre, the rape revenge one isn’t a bad genre. It has scope for drama, histrionics, physical dexterity and being able to position the actress as the “hero”. The latter being the most welcome, going by the roles most actresses seem to have to deal with in Bollywood.

But the problem is that the storylines seem to have either stayed the same as in the 1980s, or they’ve regressed slightly, if possible. Although the bloodlust of the audience seems to have stayed the same. I couldn’t sit through more than 20 minutes of Maatr, in which both Tandon and her daughter are raped and Tandon is treated horribly by the cops, only to decide to take the law into her own hands and kill the rapists. In Mom, Sridevi’s step-daughter is raped. In both films, the avenging mothers are school teachers by day, vigilante and murderer by night.

Sridevi’s step-daughter doesn’t care much for her father’s second wife, Sridevi, and holds her responsible in a manner for her rape. Since the rapists are let off by the courts, Sridevi—who is a schoolteacher and not a cop like Kapadia was—and wants to win her daughter’s affections starts knocking off each off the rapists. She’s better than the supari killers you can hire in Gurgaon, it seems. And dresses and has a better bedside manner to boot. Of course, she castrates one of the rapists, but a Hindi film-castration. How is she so good at killing off people? Should her husband be scared of her murdering skills? (I would be, because I’d wonder what she’d do to me if I pissed her off.) And is this the only way to win the love of your grumpy step-daughter? By leaving a trail of dead bodies in your wake? Did all four men who she maims and kills and frames, rape her daughter? Does everyone deserve equal punishment? None of this matters in the world of producer Boney Kapoor, Sridevi and it seems the audience. The film is worrying and illogical on so many levels, that it’s difficult to list all of them.

What was more disconcerting was that the audience in a multiplex, filled with seemingly educated, upwardly mobile, law-abiding citizens who jumped to their feet as the national anthem was played, clapped loudly and cheered each time Sridevi killed. They whooped with joy, together, when she played vigilante and broke the law, murdering and maiming multiple times. This film will be a hit purely because it seems to have filled some deep-seated bloodlust of the audience, going by the reaction of the packed theatre we watched the film in.

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While the film was one of the most irrational ones I’ve seen in a while, which unlike in Zakhmi Aurat actually makes you cringe at Sridevi’s actions, I must say it did take me back to simpler times. When audiences became part of the film they were watching. Emoting with the characters. I felt as if I’d been transported back to a single-screen theatre with the mob hooting and whistling when the villain is killed. But maybe it’s time someone sat our returning actresses down and told them that while it’s good to act in a woman-centric film, it’s even better when the film is rational and is written by someone who isn’t stuck in the 1980s. Otherwise, they should branch out and start making films in that other wonderful genre of the Eighties, the avenging ghost in a translucent white saree. If we are making tripe, let’s go the whole hog while doing so.

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