'Her performance is a throwback to old-school histrionics and hysterics -- it's classic Sridevi,' says Sukanya Verma.
There are two types of stepmothers in Hindi films.
One who spends the entire duration of it torturing and plotting against her stepchildren and another who'll go to extremes to prove she's the epitome of maternal virtue.
Sridevi plays one such selfless, loving and protective step mum of a haughty teenage girl in Ravi Udyawar's directorial debut, Mom.
Before she assumes this stressful avatar that will consume most of her energy, the actress walks into the frame looking fresh and fabulous in a white suit and silver bangles bringing to mind one of the most iconic portrayals of her career.
Yash Chopra's Chandni is a big girl now, but still as sparkling.
Nostalgia peters out once she slips into the steely skin of Devki to instruct a classroom of distracted young adults and toss a wayward boy's cell phone outside the window.
The message is clear. You do not mess with Sridevi.
One of the students happens to be her afore-mentioned daughter Arya (a marvellously intense Sajal Ali) who addresses her as Ma'am even outside school revealing the strained reality of their relationship in an oddly formal household.
Devki is unfazed by her curtness. Brimming with care and caution, she's hopeful Arya will eventually come around and open up to her like she does to her father (Adnan Siddiqui is reliably understated) and half sister.
Except things go awry after two of the most contentious traditions of youth culture -- a farmhouse party and Valentine's Day -- combine to become the trigger point for a crime synonymous with Delhi today.
Without sharing a single detail of the ensuing brutality, Udyawar conveys the horror of rape by leaving the viewer to imagine the worst as the camera tracks a top-down perspective of a zooming vehicle against A R Rahman's chilling background score.
The upshot is effectively nauseous.
Having said that, there's not a hint of gore or crudity in Udyawar's tidy depiction of a premise that typically attracts cringe-worthy lines or graphic sexual violence.
As appreciable that is, his preoccupation with sophisticated visuals (DoP Anay Goswami) tends to borderline on unrealistic, inappropriate. Be it shots of an assault survivor floating in a drain around carefully strewn leaves or the perfect symmetry with which a man collapses inside a grimy Indian toilet.
Things aren't pretty on the emotional front.
With cops and courts providing little justice, Mom resorts to the problematic modus operandi of the recently released Raveena Tandon revenge vehicle, Maatr, but with lot more restraint, quirk and slickness.
Aided by Nawazuddin Siddiqui's small-time Daryaganj detective, Devki channels her rage in orchestrating a retribution that's meticulous yet questionable, enough to raise spiffy cop Akshaye Khanna's doubts and hackles.
Coloured in subdued drama and dialoguebaazi, their morality-centred face-offs are engrossing but bypass the larger debate concerning safety of/crimes against women to focus on thrilling cinematic resolutions.
Sri's transformation from affable schoolteacher to tactical avenging angel is all too comfortable, yet I enjoyed it. I bought in her contrivances. I was convinced of her capabilities and trickery.
The woman is a master of expressivity. Her face quavers in shock, her body tangles in anger, her eyes swing in pain and her voice knows no inhibition whether screaming in terror, crying in confusion, exuding warmth or demanding payback.
Her performance is a throwback to old-school histrionics and hysterics -- it's classic Sridevi.
Even when a part of me wondered about a step mother's punishing spree taking precedence over the father's perplexingly passive faith in justice, I was happy to watch her make the bad guys bite dust.
Also the prospect of a sly Sri and facetious Nawaz in a receding Peppermint Patty wig, achieving this target through clandestine meetings chuffed me no end.
Sombre as the mood is, Mom finds moments of levity in Nawaz's droll observations. 'Yeh painting toh main paan thook kar bhi bana leta,' he remarks looking at a large blob of red disguised as steeply priced modern art.
His artless presence lends a lively individuality to an otherwise stark, familiar setting.
Nawaz may be the one receiving a special appearance credit but it's Akshaye who doesn't get enough to do. It's a flimsily written part that contradicts itself to an embarrassing degree and still doesn't stumble purely because of how compelling an artist he is.
The film's predictability is not as much an issue as its messy climax that loses much of its drive and darkness to accommodate wishy-washy masala tropes, an ill-timed Rahman ditty and reckless ideas of fair play.
What it never loses sight of is its leading lady's invincibility and for that alone, Mom's the word.