Sunday, November 26, 2017

MOM—Of Revenge and the Mahabharata

Ravi Udyawar's MOM is a revenge-themed drama based in Delhi. It is the story of Devki (Sridevi), who is a teacher and the second wife of a businessman named Anand (Adnan Siddiqui). One night, her stepdaughter Arya (Sajal Ali) is sexually assaulted by a gang of four men, one of whom was Arya's classmate in school. The men are apprehended but the prosecution is unable to convict them in court, which leads to the four of them walking away free. Devki plans to inflict punishment on the men with the help of a detective Dayashankar Kapoor, also known as DK (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). Matthew Francis (Akshaye Khanna) is the police inspector who is assigned to Arya's case.

Devki teaches biology in the same class and at the same school where Arya also studies. She is the kind of teacher who uses pictures of Salman Khan's abs in her lectures, and asks her patrons to watch science-fiction movies. The relationship between Arya and Devki is a frosted one. Arya has not been able to accept Devki as her mother and calls her Ma'am. For Arya, her mother is her birth mom and not the second wife of his father. She tells her father that it is a daughter who comes in a mother's life, and not the other way round, thus, she will never be able to accept Devki. The film, then, becomes a story that depicts how and why Arya moves away from calling Devki as Ma'am to calling her as Mom.
There is a point in the film when Devki meets DK at an art exhibition. The exposition is titled Yada Yada and is shown that it is by an artist named Ravi Udyawar, who, not surprisingly, is also the director of MOM. The modern-art exhibition is based on the theme of the Mahabharata. The exhibition poster states that all of Ravi's exhibitions have hidden mythological themes in them and 'Nothing lives longer than mythology.' The poster also has the full shloka of Yada Yada from the Mahabharata written on it

Yada yada hi dharmasya glanirbhavati bharata,
Abhythanamadharmasya tadatmanam srijamyaham.

Whenever there is decay of righteousness, O Bharata,
And there is an exaltation of unrighteousness, then, I Myself come forth.

The description on the poster holds true for the film MOM as well. Like the exhibition, the film is directed by Ravi Udyawar. There is a hidden mythological theme in the film's story. Additionally, the verse of Yada Yada describes the motivations of the characters in MOM, too. Yada Yada was given as a sermon to Arjun by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna explained to him that whenever there is a rise of injustice and unfairness in the world, God reincarnates to make things right. This is what happens in the film. Devki and her family lose the court case which leads to the acquittal of the criminals who assaulted Arya. Losing her trust in the institutional methods, Devki decides to get justice on her own. She visits DK who tells her, "Court se galti nahi hui, bahut bada paap hua hai." The court has not committed a mistake, rather it has sinned. Later, Devki tells DK that God cannot be present everywhere, and he replies to her that it is why he created mothers. He is calling a mother as a reincarnation or an equivalent of God who fights for justice. It is also noteworthy that he usually addresses Devki as Devi Ji. Devki is, thus, like a Goddess reincarnated, fighting against the evil for the dispensation of justice.
Then, in the exhibition, Devki stands in front of a red Mahabharata-inspired painting which symbolized the washing of Draupadi's hair in Dushasana's blood. Draupadi was disrobed by Dushasana after Yudhishthira bet her in a game of dice which he, subsequently, lost. Draupadi vowed that she will not tie her hair until she washed it in Dushasana's blood. It is again discernible to observe the parallels between the story of Draupadi and Arya. Both are victims of men harassing and assaulting them. Krishna comes to the rescue of Draupadi in the Mahabharata; here, Devki (Krishna's mother) comes to get justice for Arya. It is also no coincidence that Arya is named similar to the Aryans. The Pandavas were often addressed as Arya Putras, as was also seen in B.R. Chopra's Mahabharat series. As Devki says, the Mahabharata is the world's oldest story of revenge. The film, too, is a story of revenge. Like the painting, there is also a running theme of red color in MOM. The film's title is written in red. Devki's glasses are red. She drives a red car. When she goes and meets her transgender students, she walks among a bunch of red drapes. Red apples play another important role in the film. Red is the color of love, but it is also the color of blood. The color of passion. The color of revenge. As Draupadi washes her hair in Dushasana's blood in the painting, Devki has the blood of her daughter's assaulters on her hands. Draupadi tied her hair back after the death of Dushasana; Arya is shown to be fully healed after the death of her assaulters. 
The exhibition was my favorite part of the film. I will definitely want to view the Mahabharata represented in contemporary art. In the film, there are other related exhibits that can be seen. There are structures at the exhibition's entrance that represented the game of dice, which became the turning point in the life of the Pandavas. There are also sculptures of Eklavya's thumb, and of the fish whose eye Arjun aimed to shoot with his bow at Draupadi's swayamwara. There is the painting of Bhishma lying on a bed of arrows, and another one of a red dot surrounded by Cs, which represented Abhimanyu trapped in the Chakravyuha. The only painting I could not be absolutely sure of what it represented was one that has five diagonal divisions, which is probably referring to the five Pandavas. As MOM underscores the subtext of Mahabharata quite prominently, the transgender Niranjana, who was Devki's student, was, perhaps, a representation of Shikhandi, who was responsible for Bhishma's death. Sujoy Ghosh's Kahaani (2012) had a similar overarching theme as MOM in the sense that a vulnerable woman whom no one suspects of anything goes on to surprise everyone by her vengeance. Even that film had a connection with the Mahabharata. There is a point in the film when Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan) asks Rana (Parambrata Chatterjee) the meaning of his formal name Satyoki. He tells her that Satyoki was Krishna's saarthi (charioteer).
There is a little subversive element in the film where, maybe, for the first time in a Hindi film, a stepmother is named Devki, after Krishna's real-mother who gave birth to him. It has been a common trope in films to name the nurturing mother after Yashoda, Krishna's foster-mother who brought him up. However, MOM does not adhere to this convention and names the stepmother's character after Devki. A mother is after all a mother, notwithstanding the route of nature or nurture. Devki did not differentiate at all between her birth daughter and her stepdaughter. She has a stature equivalent to a birth mom. It is often said that blood is thicker than water, but for Devki, both water and blood are equivalent. She is both Devki and Yashoda. 

Talking about water, there is an interesting motif of water associated with Devki in the film. She is often seen near water. When Arya angrily leaves the dinner table after speaking rudely with her father, Devki offers him water to drink. Devki is often seen filling the water bottles from the water filter in the kitchen. The night when Arya does not come back from the party, Devki checks on her while she is filling water bottles. When Devki visits the police station, the woman constable brings her a glass of water. After the assault, when Arya regains consciousness in the hospital, the first thing Devki asks her was if she needed water. Later, in a moment of rage, Devki follows Mohit in her car and has a small accident. When she comes back home, she drinks a glass of water. Finally, when the prosecution team loses the case and the accused go scot-free, Devki is again seen filling water bottles. She is lost in deep thought about the state of affairs, which leads to the overflowing and the spilling of water from the bottles. The water symbolized her patience, which now seems to have run out. Thereafter, she decides to take matters into her own hands. There is a saying in Hindi that eventually the paap ka ghada (the pot of sins) will overflow and burst. The evil has risen too much, thus, Goddess will reincarnate as Krishna said in Yada Yada sermon in the Mahabharata
I was intrigued by the presence of water near other characters as well. Unlike in the case of Devki, in their case, it is primarily situational, but still quite a noteworthy presence, especially, in the case of the four accused. When Baburam is picked up from his house, he spills a water drum. Later, death comes to him in the toilet near a water tap. Charles Diwan gets paralyzed before he picks up a glass of water. Mohit is trapped at the moment when he is sitting on a toilet seat and smoking pot. Devki puts apple seeds submerged in water in his kitchen sink. Jagan dies on snow, which is nothing but frozen water. It is said that revenge is a dish best served cold. Death comes to Jagan in a cold place over the snow. 
Water, Water, Everywhere
There is the presence of water in Arya's life, too. After she is sexually assaulted, she is dumped in a gutter, from which she barely makes out alive. She has recurring nightmares of the assault, and she sits under the flowing water of the shower to cleanse the memories of the incident. When they all go to Kufri, Arya feels calm in the gorgeous mountainous landscape. She is enthralled by the beauty of nature. And, then, it rains, and a resplendent rainbow appears. She gets drenched in the rain, finally, feeling clean. Her healing is complete, and she has been blessed by the angels. Her healing process was also represented by the curtains in her room. When she is initially assaulted, her room is dark with the curtains closed. When she first hears the news of Baburam's death, she walks towards the window, opens the curtains slightly letting the light come in the room, and then, watches the birds fly in the sky. After Charles' death, she again walks towards the window curtains, and then, sends a message to her father that she wants to go to the hill station. 
MOM is a well-made film and it is quite visible that there is a lot of deep thought that has gone into building its screenplay. It is some kind of an inexplicable dark statement that Baburam, a man, gets death by castration where his sexual organ is presumably cut by a transgender woman as if she is making him lose his gender, too. In the scene, where a drunk Baburam sees the mysterious woman, the background lights of the Vishwakarma board are specifically lit showing Karma as if giving us an indication of what is to happen to him. One can escape but karma will catch up sooner or later. When the news of his death is shown on the television, Devki is cutting carrots on a chopping board, suggesting the act of castration. Later, Mohit is sent to prison, and it is suggested that he, too, gets raped by the prison bully. There is Devki's revenge but also his own karma. In another visually thoughtful scene in the film, Devki gets an idea to kill Charles when she takes a bite out of an apple while she is herself working on an Apple laptop, that has its own 'bite in an apple' logo prominently displayed. In another scene, when Matthew visits Charles in the hospital, the television in the room is playing a show that has a leopard looking to hunt its prey, as if mirroring the events of the film. Finally, in the ending moments of the film, Arya is seen reading The Day of the Storm by Rosamunde Pilcher, again foreshadowing not just the literal storm outside, but the metaphorical storm as well, that will soon hit her and change everyone's life forever.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui, like always, brings certain quirks to his character DK. He plays the role of a matchmaker when he is not solving criminal cases. He is a Shiv Bhakt, his name had Shankar in it, which is why, like Shiva, he had a hidden third eye, that recorded everything in his sunglasses. There is a hilarious moment when he is singing Duniya Me Logon Ko and tells Devki that he also wanted to be a singer, like his mother. Devki asks him if his mother was a singer, and then, he replies that his mother was not but she also wanted to be one. I laughed the most here. He flirts with his wife, and even after so many years of their marriage, he can still make her blush. DK empathized with Devki as he also had a daughter similar to Arya's age, and was able to convince Devki to hire him. A little bit of empathy can go a long way. In another beautiful moment in the film, we see that Akshaye Khanna's character Matthew comes to the place where DK is found dead. When Matthew sees DK's dead body, he does a sign of the cross prayer. Here is a cop, who deals with death and violent crimes on a daily basis, and still has not lost belief in his God.
There are quite a few things in the film that made me a little uncomfortable. There is this whole sequence where Devki tells her husband that there could be nothing worse for Arya than living life with an incident such as this. This is the conventional societal view that silos and pities the victim, ignoring the aspect that life could be rebuilt and pain can be healed, even without revenge. At another point in the film, Matthew tells Devki that he does not like it when someone else does his work for him. Everyone is equal before the law. But, then, in the end, he is the one who hands over the gun to Devki to shoot Jagan. It is understood that he was frustrated with the bureaucratic red tape that let criminals walk away free. It would still be understood if he only shot Jagan, but an officer entrusted with protecting law asks a civilian to break law made it quite unconvincing. I did not find vigilantism in the film as problematic because Devki knew what she was doing was wrong. Galat aur bahut galat main se chunana ho, toh aap kya chunenge. She and her family bear some consequences of her (wrong) actions. But I can see how the vigilantism in the film, and its similarity with the political events under the current Indian dispensation can cause discomfort to a large section of the audience.
Regardless, I enjoyed watching MOM. Sridevi, who stars in her three-hundredth film in MOM, is splendid as always. There is a deep emotional connection and empathy that she brings to Devki. She made us wait nearly five years after her last film English Vinglish. After Shashi and Devki, let's see how she surprises us in her next adventure. 

Trivia:
Spacebound film that Devki told her students to watch. 
The film's music is by A.R. Rahman and Irshad Kamil. There is a self-reference when at one point, Arya is listening to the songs from Highway
Foo Fighters
Vincent van Gogh's Still Life: Vase with Irises Against a Yellow Background
Casting director of the film Mukesh Chhabra gets a guest appearance.
Books In Movies:
Books by Greg Dyke and John Grisham
Mortal Prey by John Sandford
A book by Bill Bryson
Why Do I Say These Things? by Johnathan Ross

The Day of the Storm by Rosamunde Pilcher
Change Beings With Me
Book Recommendation:
A friend on Twitter suggested to add book recommendations that have similar theme as in the movies. So, I will try to do add that based on what I have read or what others recommend. Since the Mahabharata is a theme in the movie, there is The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, which tells the story of the Mahabharata from Draupadi's perspective. At one point, we read that Draupadi wished to marry Karna. It is a really interesting book with a new outlook.

Other Reading:
1. Rahul Desai on the recklessness of revenge cinemaLink
2. Jai Arjun Singh on mothers and vigilantesLink

Dialogue of the Day:
"Galat aur bahut galat main se chunana ho, toh aap kya chunenge."
—Devki, MOM

4 comments:

  1. wonderful post! If you find more about that draupadi's painting shown in exhibition, please do share. I think there has to be some deep meaning behind that picture as well

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  2. As always pleasure reading your "Devil in details" well crafted piece.

    The only correction I would like to suggest will be, as you mentioned above -
    "There is a point in the film when Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan) asks Rana (Parambrata Chatterjee) the meaning of his formal name Satyoki. He tells her that Satyoki was Krishna's saarthi (charioteer).”

    On the contrary , Vidya in her own lost thoughts ,in wonderment about people and their dual identity due to two names, blurt out the meaning of Satyoki as Arjuna's charioteer ie- Krishana.

    Thanks again .
    Great work about all the lovely movies you magnify for us.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's an excellent point, Shivangi. Thanks so much for enlightening.

      Delete

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