In its response to the issue of women’s safety, Indian cinema lately has been a bit of superego and a whole bunch of id. Pink was a critical breakdown of the problem, and was rare for holding out the promise of justice actually being served. Few other films have been that optimistic. In the past few weeks, I’ve seen no less than three features—the latest being Ravi Udyawar’s Mom—in which a lone woman is forced into a car by a group of men. None of these films present any response to injustice except for nihilism and revenge. Playing on the public’s deep-rooted mistrust of the law and order and justice system in this country, particularly when it comes to women’s safety, and a media climate that’s more strident by the day, our films are placing a pretend gun in our hands and saying, if you had the chance, would you?

Film has always been an outlet for viewers to be more potent than they are in real life, where they’re bound by laws and systems. Mom devotes almost half its running time to show how ineffective it believes these systems are, before it allows its titular character to start bypassing them (the ease with which she does so is another indictment of their ineffectiveness). Unlike Pink, which showed the failure of the system but ultimately voted for its relevance, Mom goes the way of Maatr, a revenge thriller with a shared theme from earlier this year.

The mom in Udyawar’s film is actually “ma’am"—at least that’s what Arya insists on calling her step-mother, and her teacher at school, Devki (Sridevi). In the opening scene, Arya is sent a lewd message by a classmate. Devki takes the phone from the offending student, Mohit, and calmly drops it from the window. Though Arya is as embarrassed as Mohit, this incident is one of the triggers for the film’s horrific central event. In a series of distressingly well-choreographed scenes, Arya is abducted by Mohit, his cousin and two others from a party, and bundled into a car. She’s raped, beaten and left in a ditch.

It’s only when Arya’s assailants are identified, arrested and, after a fast-tracked trial, declared innocent that Mom reveals its true face. What was till now a wrenching family drama morphs into a revenge thriller, with Devki tracking down the four men and finding creative ways to make them suffer. She’s helped in this by a private detective named Dayashankar, played by a semi-unrecognizable Nawazuddin Siddiqui, sporting a high hairline and prominent front teeth. The pivot to genre film is signalled via an exchange between the two just before intermission. “God isn’t everywhere," Devki tells the Bholenath-invoking private eye. “That’s why he made mothers," Dayashankar replies.

Like Kahaani’s Vidya, a modern-day Durga, Devki is both mother and avenging god. This is made clear not only through choice of character name—Devaki is the mother of Krishna, and therefore not far from a god herself—but also when Dayashankar and her meet in a gallery in front of an abstract painting of a particularly grisly episode from the Mahabharata. Though Dayashankar can’t see it, Devki knows exactly what it is: Draupadi bathing her hair in the blood of Dushasana, her violator. Mythology doesn’t get much pulpier, or provide a better basis for the revenge narrative.

If you believe that rapists should be castrated or given the death penalty—not necessarily by the state—you’re the choir Mom is preaching to. If you aren’t, you’ll have a lot to wrestle with, not least the law’s approval of Devki’s actions. Either way, this is a taut thriller, with Udyawar showing a flair with for economical unbroken shots (the hard-edged cinematography is by Anay Goswamy). Sridevi delivers an appropriately strained performance, and Sajal Ali is harrowing as Arya. Akshaye Khanna is memorably (though probably not intentionally) weird as a police inspector with a faraway look on his face, while Siddiqui starts off as comic relief before creating, as only he can, a startlingly vivid character in just a handful of scenes.

Mom is a strange brew: audience-appeasing thriller, relationship drama and social commentary all rolled into one. To Udyawar’s credit, he manages to make it look cohesive, even as he struggles to contend with the moral quagmire of revenge and opts instead for the escape of pulp.

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