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You realize the worth of an actor when, in a moment of suspense, you’re inhaling and exhaling in complete sync with the character on screen. That is how Mom plays to the senses. And it envelopes all six senses in its embrace. It is a story built on the troubled relationship between a woman and her teenage daughter but it uses that complexity as the premise for a larger purpose: crimes against women especially in India, injustice of the legal system and how easy it is for the rich and powerful to muscle the law to their advantage.

It is an extremely predictable story, with very little left to the imagination and almost no element of surprise. But then it’s a film built on characters and nuances. One gets to see Sridevi, flawless in her performance, albeit a bit overwhelming in her screen presence. She is in almost every frame, unnecessarily so. One gets to admire Nawazuddin Siddiqui, yet again, for playing DK the private detective. He is the welcome comic relief in this otherwise chilling and disturbing emotional drama; he is also the most riveting character in the plot, it wouldn’t be wrong to say. Akshaye Khanna brings his charm back to the screen and Adnan Siddiqui fulfills his purpose of playing the loving, law abiding father who cannot bend the rules, no matter what the situation.

The fact that Sajal Aly, a young television actress from Pakistan, could hold her own alongside the experienced and iconic Sridevi is what makes Mom so essential to watch this side of the border; it brings around an element of pride. She’s brilliant in the heels of a troubled 18-year-old who is unable to replace her own mother with her father’s second wife. She is a spoilt brat, who even at a time of utter devastation, lying lifeless in a hospital bed, draws the curtain screen to put distance between herself and her step mother. And she’s completely vulnerable when she’s locked in her shower, sobbing while trying to wash away memories of her abuse. But she is so convincing in every scene. One inhales and exhales with her.

One does believe that it’s Sajal’s personal life and the fact that she recently lost her mother to cancer, that contributes to the ease of her performance. One cannot even take away the merits of Pakistan’s television dramas that do provide grounds for our actors to survive. One has to credit dramas that have bred stars like Fawad Khan, Saba Qamar, Sajal Aly, Mahira Khan, Madiha Imam and Adnan Siddiqui amongst others who have served as cultural ambassadors on the other side of the border. Our dramas have prepared them for the bigger screen, where they are shining brighter than ever. Now they must shine brighter in film.

This has been an especially game-changing year for the great Pakistani actress in Bollywood, because starting with Mahira Khan in Raees and followed by Saba Qamar (Hindi Medium), Madiha Imam (Dear Maya) and now Sajal Aly (Mom), the corrosive impression of the Lollywood starlet in Bollywood is officially over. There was a time when our film actresses were popularized because of the scandals they carried on their sleeves: Meera’s kiss in Nazar, Veena’s tattoo on the cover on FHM India or her appearance on Big Boss, Mathira’s crass item song in a Bollywood Punjabi flick…Pakistani actresses had always served as controversial items in Bollywood films until this year. This year, finally, Bollywood has acted as ideal breeding ground for our talent. This short love affair with Bollywood may be over, thanks to turbulent relations between the two countries, but it has unleashed a desperate need for better films in Pakistan. How else will this grand pool of talent be served and nurtured fairly?

Back to the movie, it’s the spectacular camera work that makes Mom so riveting, despite being a traumatic (and somewhat hackneyed) tale of rape and revenge. There are nuances like water filling empty glass bottles that make you think about the perspective of what is considered good and bad in life. The recurrence of the colour red – in apples, dupattas hanging out to dry, a painting in an art gallery – is reflective of emotions at play. There is rage and revenge and passion and fury. Sridevi, of course, is made to appear flawless while a similar level of precision is taken to create Nawazuddin’s intriguing persona. One cannot also underplay the importance and impact of dialogue.

“Kya kaha tha, ‘bula ab apni maa ko?’ Lo, aagayi uss ki maa,” is just one moment that has the power to send shivers down the spine.

We constantly complain about Pakistan’s dramas being tear jerkers and one wants to clarify that while Mom is also a heart wrenching, emotional tear fest (not a single dry eye in the audience), there is reason and purpose behind the sorrow. There is anger and emancipation, there is courage and bravado.

One has to understand the difference in the trauma of a mother fighting the system and her daughter’s rapists (in this case) and the tears of a shrinking violet voluntarily subservient to the inequalities of a misogynist system (as is the case in most TV dramas). As Mom ends, one is left with thoughts of Asim Raza’s tele-film Behadd, which introduced most of us to the wonder that Sajal Aly is. Though she had done many serials before and after, nothing was quite as stirring, until Mom. One hopes that stories and scripts and films in general can improve this side of the border so that we can see and enjoy more of our pool of talent and it does not go waste.


This article was originally published in Instep on Sunday, 9th July 2017.