CulturePop Culture Mom: A Feminist Reading Of Sridevi’s New Blockbuster

Mom: A Feminist Reading Of Sridevi’s New Blockbuster

While Mom gets some things right in its sensitive handling of rape scenes, it reverts to some damaging tropes of rape survivor as helpless victim.

Posted by Kajol Hinduja

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

The vast reservoir of adages and proverbs is incomplete without this one, because we have heard it so much – “God couldn’t be present everywhere so he created mothers.” Since we all have different relationships with our mothers, this proverb means different things to all of us.

Being conscious of how gender operates in the parent roles, I hold this proverb to be highly unfair to mothers; it glorifies them and stops them from being fallible, ordinary people – who before being a woman or a person, is a mother – a caretaker, a nurturer, a protector (everything that puts herself in a secondary position and her children or family as the priority).

And talking about the comparison between God and mothers, while the existence of God is highly questionable, we were a part of our mothers in the beginning of our Time and I for one believe in my mother more than I ever will in God (although this sounds like glorification, I will take a moment to clarify that such isn’t the case – it is the concreteness of who I believe in and not a fanatical reverence).

mothers are glorified and stopped from being fallible, ordinary people.

That said, the reason I got into a discussion about this proverb is that the movie Mom uses it without any sense of irony or possible innovation. It revolves around an interesting choice of family – the Sabarwals with Devki (Sridevi) as the step-mother and biology teacher to Arya (Sajal Ali). The movie begins strongly, and it is broken to us slowly that Arya, Anand’s (Adnan Siddiqui) daughter is not a sullen teenager because she is a teenager but because she is coping with the concept of having a step-mother and the changing dynamics of this new setup.

Arya is gang-raped by Mohit and his posse. Mohit is a fellow classmate and “loves” Arya and thereby couldn’t stand receiving a “No” from her. Arya is critically injured and while she is in the hospital, the court adjudges her rapists not guilty because of lack of evidence and Arya’s being drunk that night, thereby negating her testimony.

Devki is frustrated and takes the law into her hands, punishing each of the 4 men one by one. The theatre boomed with claps and screams every time one of the rapists was harmed. Yes, the rapists did something heinous. However, can we condone this form of vigilante justice where the law is taken into one’s own hands?

We cannot resort to people avenging our rapes by hook or by crook. We must work within the legal system and work on strengthening it to be made accountable to women. The law must be made an approachable system for women where we can actually fight for justice. In Mom, the court proceedings are run through quickly and compulsively so that the plot can progress towards Devki’s thriller-like schemes for punishing the four rapists.

can we condone this form of vigilante justice where the law is taken into one’s own hands?

To begin with the things that were right with the movie – firstly, it brings in a step mother-daughter relationship which is a different, and usually negatively-portrayed family setup. Second, Bollywood movies in general have a tendency to show graphically strong rape and molestation scenes which are aimed at a sadistic male audience which, in my experience, hoots when rapes take place. Mom however, avoids portraying the rape scene.

Mom also depicts the issue of male entitlement. Mohit thinks of Arya’s rejection and her lack of interest in him as a giant blow to his ego. This leads to the four rapists – Mohit, Charles (his brother), Jagan, and a watchman – ganging up to avenge the blow to Mohit’s ego, and it is a frighteningly honest depiction of toxic masculinity and male bonding.

Now coming to the problematic parts, I am afraid there are many. To begin with – Mom is entirely wrongly or faultily centered. The focus of the film is Devki and her being a mom (not a step-mom). Arya has very little part to play except that of a victim and that is not done. We don’t see any discussions on Arya’s rehabilitation or talk of psychiatric counselling which she needs or any of her parents or peers initiating an actual conversation with her about the incident. The family goes for a holiday after Arya decides she is ready, implicitly to get over the incident and for a new beginning – except that holidays don’t solve the problem.

How the survivor deals with trauma or themselves post the incident should be the first problem that is addressed. In a visually strong scene, we see Arya violently scrubbing herself in the shower to rub off what happened – feeling the shame and disgust for what happened. What we need is to see is a more empowering narrative which shows a portrayal as a survivor – not a victim. This is the feminist understanding of not only rape, but many kinds of injustices which are the progenies of patriarchy.

we need a more empowering narrative which shows a portrayal as a survivor – not a victim.

The movie resorts to grave conventionality when Arya calls Devki “Mom” for the first time, when she comes to know how she avenged her. The dynamics of step-relationships are complicated, and this bit seems like a compulsive and easier recourse to conventionality. The film that begins as what seems like a strong departure from the usual portrayal of the “wicked stepmother”, ends up becoming melodramatic and falls back on the argument that we should only call people by the roles they occupy. Devki then, is seen as aspiring only to be seen as Arya’s biological mother, again succumbing to the glorification of mothers. Why is being a step-mother not okay?

The movie catapults from Arya’s resistance to her step-mother to extreme love and affection for Devki when she showers kisses on her after calling her Mom. What effectively happens is that step-relationships become more a tool and less a space for exploration or personal voice – which Arya did exercise in the beginning but lost in the end at the cost of the conventional ideology of the script.

The collective ideology of the movie is in fact traditionalist. When Devki goes to the police station to report a missing Arya, one of the female officers says something which roughly paraphrases to – “Today is Valentine’s Day, your daughter must be out having fun with her friends” to which Devki replies vehemently – my daughter is not “one of those girls.” By “one of those girls” she means the girl who stays out late with boys or “has fun” on Valentine’s Day. It is actually appalling that the script would make provisions for such a stereotypically gendered judgment which makes distinctions within women based on their so-called “character.”

One common problem seen in many intended feminist works or movies is how they conveniently leave out or misrepresent the LQBTQIA+ community, which further reinforces feminism as only for heterosexual cis women, which is problematic to the core. Devki seeks help of her students, two transgender NGO workers to castrate the watchman. They are shown to seduce the watchman by beckoning him inside an auto by flashing cleavage and bare legs, and finally drugging and castrating him.

Why are trans women relegated to the ostensibly “immoral” task of seduction, and eventually the violence of castration?

Out of anyone who could have been appointed to do this, Devki asks her trans women students to carry out this specific part of her scheme of justice. Why are trans women relegated to the ostensibly “immoral” task of seduction, and eventually the violence of castration? While Devki embarks on more “respectable” punishments such as poisoning and shooting the other rapists, the more perverse punishment of castration is left to the trans women to do – something that we cannot dream of the conventional upper-caste, upper-class cis heterosexual heroine Devki doing herself. This falls back on tired stereotypes of trans women as sex workers, and reinforces damaging notions of the transgender community as immoral or perverse.

Music is by AR Rehman, and O Sona Tere Liye is the musical highlight of the film and will probably be the point where you will give up that unconvincing self-control of yours and cry. All the lead characters did a stellar job, but Akshay Khanna as the cop is refreshing (although a little too stereotypical as the cool-dude-I-know-my-shit-well-cop) and Sajal as Arya stands out the most.

Kajol is a Lit Major, often speechless, she finds written expression more comfortable than the spoken one. An intersectional Feminist, she aims at working on the narratives of women of colour and gender as it operates in her part of the world. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Featured Image Credit: The Indian Express


  1. Kimmie Ann says:

    Really interesting read. When I first started watching Bollywood movies ( think Sridevi, Madhuri, Rani, Ash, Rekha) I was bothered by a lot of things, but mostly by those rape scenes. There’s one with Madhuri the 90’s, that was so upsetting, I turned it off. Since everything is from the male perspective, as you said, I can kind of see why it’s made that way. I can’t imagine what it feels like to hear the hoots after a rape scene ???
    I was waiting to read how this was going to be a fresh take, an evolved conversation onscreen, a new opportunity for inclusion, but this really doesn’t sound like that at all.
    I think you’re right about the box we put mothers in, & I imagine the same as LGBTQIA parts in movies, BC the Trans group are always sex workers, the Gay men are whiny, fashionable, bitchy, & slutty; lesbians are almost always ‘butch’ or ‘lipstick lesbian,” but almost all these boxes dont allow them to be actually human, too. It’s only about looks & their sexual experiences.
    Laverne Cox (OITNB) had a new show recently, though I think it’s canceled, where she played a lawyer that happened to be Trans. That was our first Trans lead, first Trans black woman, & first where the character’s entire story wasn’t based on their sexual history.

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