If you haven’t seen the film and want to see this movie as it was intended, DON’T READ ON. Read my non-spoiler review instead. It’s one of those movies that works best if it surprises you. But if you have seen it already (or never plan to, or just hate surprises), then you can read on.
Okay, whole plot in two paragraphs so we can move on to discussing it:
Sridevi is a high school teacher and mother to two girls, a teenager who is her stepdaughter and a little girl who is her biological daughter. The teenager, Sajal Ali, is beginning to resent Sridevi and feel like she is replacing her biological mother. Sridevi reacts by loosening restrictions, including allowing her to go to a grown-up Valentine’s party far from their house. At the party, the guy from school who has a crush on Sajal points her out to his creepy older cousin and the cousin’s drug dealer. The 3 of them work together to wait until she is alone outside calling her mother to say she is on her way home, and then kidnap her. The guard at the gate spontaneously joins in. They gangrape her, try to strangle her, and dump her in a ditch. She is discovered and survives and identifies her attackers. Akshaye is assigned the case. But, in court, the case fails because her word alone is not enough evidence. This sends Sajal into even more of a depression, her father focuses on appealing and fighting the case in a higher court, and Sridevi seeks out Nawazuddin, a private eye. Nawazuddin immediately offers to help her, because he has a daughter himself. INTERVAL
Nawazuddin provides information and advice, Sridevi acts. She kidnaps the guard first (with the help of 2 hijras she is friends with), castrates him, and then sends him home where in shock at what has happened, he falls down, hits his head, and dies. The really clever thing is what she does to the guy from school and his cousin. She poisons the cousin by putting cyanide made from apple seeds in his muscle powder. Then leaves the cut up apples and materials in the apartment of the guy from school, framing him. The older cousin is paralyzed in the hospital, the school kid is in jail for murder with no bail. But Akshaye is getting suspicious and starts following her and Nawazuddin around. Nawazuddin isn’t scared off or willing to stop, even though now they are going after the drug dealer, the most dangerous. The drug dealer tracks him down and kills him, and finds information on where Sridevi and her family are staying. He follows them to their vacation home (I want to say Nepal?) and attacks. Finally, Sridevi is at his mercy, when he is shot by Akshaye Khanna who somehow got there just in time. Sridevi grabs his gun and is about to shoot him but Akshaye talks her out of it. And then hands her his gun instead, so she can easily cover up the crime. Sridevi hesitates now, because the drug dealer is begging for mercy and she has had time to recover herself. But then Sajal suddenly comes onto the scene and calls her “Mom” for the first time, and Sridevi shoots the bad guy, and then finally embraces her daughter.
(So, yes, all of these question marks are false. She trusts Nawazuddin and vice versa, loves Sajal and vice versa, and Akshaye suspects her and vice versa)
So, I want to skip ahead a little and talk about the first moment that made me sit up and take notice. Sridevi has come to the hospital, seen her daughter with tubes and stuff coming out of her, and the doctor is gently breaking the news that she wasn’t just beaten and strangled, she was also almost certainly raped. Sridevi, who has been convincingly playing an emotional mess this whole time, sort of half stands and leans over, keening in despair. But while she does it, she places one hand between her legs, and then the other over her stomach.
(Waheedaji does the same thing here, hands locked over her stomach in the funeral scene)
It’s just such a woman thing to do! Back when I was in college, in a Gender and Women’s studies class, the teacher was talking about newborns being forcibly taken from women (I don’t remember in what context, pretty much every country has experimented with this idea at some point). Anyway, as she is describing how the women lost their children, I looked down the row I was sitting in and saw this whole string of hands over stomachs, and then realized I was doing the same thing.
Sridevi, in this one little moment, is showing the two things all women do. That first instinctive protection of your sexual organs when you hear of rape. Followed immediately by her hand over her stomach. Which is a mother thing to do. After you have carried a child in your stomach, even before you have, any time there is a threat to one of your children, your first thought is still instinctively to grab at your womb, like they are somehow still in there, like you can just pull them back inside where nothing bad will ever happen again.
This plot, in its basic outlines, is the same as any rape-revenge plot. There is the slow build to the attack, then the tragic aftermath, then the failure of the justice system, and finally the decision to take matters into your own hands. But instead of some Sunny Deol/Rajnikanth/Whoever type enacting this vengeance, it is a middle-aged sophisticated woman.
And none of this is an accident. The situation is crafted so carefully. First, we learn early on that Sridevi is Sajal’s stepmother, not her biological mother. And this is a situation the family has never fully resolved. Which is kind of on Sajal’s Dad. We see Sajal talking to him about how she feels bad, like she is forgetting her original mother. And we see Sridevi saying to him that she thinks Sajal has a hard time with her. And he never really puts the two of them in a room together to talk it out.
One of the things I really like about Indian films/society is how they handle non-biological relatives with no difference from biological. Your mother is your mother, your sister is your sister, your brother is your brother. Saying it makes it so, just as much as it would be by blood. America is a lot more cautious about these things, everything has to be legal and cut and dried and exact.
But this also gives a very high standard to live up to. If your stepparent is your parent and that’s all, then what happens to your original parent? Do they just not exist any more? Well, they have to stop existing, because the alternative is for your stepparent to be a stepparent which, I have learned from many many films, means they are immediately evil. I mean, “stepmother” is like a character type, right? “Stepmother”, “corrupt cop”, “evil businessman”, we understand them as soon as they appear.
(“Evil stepmother”, “sexy spunky young bride”, it all goes together!)
And so in this film, with just minimal explanation, we can get a picture of this family. The younger daughter is maybe somewhere between 6 and 8. Sajal is 18. Sridevi must have been a part of her life for at least 7 or 9 years. Probably even longer. Everyone kind of overlooks Sajal’s current snippiness with Sridevi which makes me think it is a recent thing. Presumably when Sridevi first joined the family and she was an adorable little girl, she accepted Sridevi as her mother and they were a happy family. But, as is natural, as she ages she begins to feel more and more connected to her biological mother and struggles with guilt over the bond she feels with Sridevi and tries to work through that.
But none of that is important. The important part is the purity of Sridevi’s emotions. She isn’t protecting her daughter and avenging her daughter because she is getting anything from it, love or gratitude or anything in return. She is doing it entirely selflessly. She knows, from the early scenes in the hospital when her daughter clings to her father and rejects Sridevi, that even if she is ever to fully recover, part of the price of that damage might be a permanent break in their relationship. But that doesn’t matter.
It’s also not an accident that this family is so so so so rich. We expect this kind of Kali Maa vengeance from the peasant woman in the village, or even the workers wife in the city slums. We do not expect the glamorous woman in the silk scarves with the respectable job and the nice house to go this route.
And of course, we don’t expect it to be a woman. Throughout the film, partly from the script and partly from how Sridevi plays it, we are so aware that her need for vengeance is different from a man’s. It’s protective for one thing, she constantly repeats that she is doing this so that they can never hurt another girl like her daughter. And it doesn’t come from anger. At least, not a man’s anger that is about power and violence and blah blah. Sridevi never has that moment of triumphal laughter or even happiness. She plays her murders the same way a different kind of mother might wash dirty sheets or scrub up vomit. It’s messy, but it’s something she has to do for her children so she does it. Heck, we see her acting the same way early in the film, telling her kids to eat, to do homework, putting dinner on the table, in the same way she later carefully spoons poison into muscle powder. The same focused, slightly worried about doing it right, expression on her face. But no guilt, no triumph, it’s a job that has to be done and she is doing it.
(I love it that she makes poison from an apple too. Such a female thing to do! Apples, cooking, whole deal.)
What I really loved is that the movie, for once, puts a mother’s feelings above a father’s. While Sajal’s father is calling lawyers and trying to force through an appeal and putting faith in the courts, it is Sridevi who suddenly wakes in the middle of the night sensing her daughter’s distress, who handed over the bedpan in the hospital, who had to break the news of what happened to her husband while he was out of town on business. Father’s get the big showy public moments. Mother’s have the private ones, and their grief is private too, and their resolve. The police focus on the father too, everyone assumes it must be him doing these killings, especially considering that he burst out in court and punched one of the accused. While Sridevi just stood quietly in the background. And later arranged and signed for his bond. Cleaning up his mess and keeping her own feelings inside.
And then there’s our heroes. Nawazuddin and Akshaye. Who are very female kind of heroes. In the last Sridevi-vengeance movie I saw, Army, she hired a bunch of super macho guys to work for her, and sort of turned herself into one of them. Which is great, don’t get me wrong, she gets to chase a guy down on horseback with a sword. But this movie is the opposite of that, she finds two similarly quiet, slow, thoughtful, and overlooked kind of people to work with her. The “housewife” equivalent of the police department and private eyes.
(Army. Not a great movie, but the early scenes with Shahrukh are great, and the ending fight is really great)
Nawazuddin has a great introduction. He sees Sridevi arrive at the police station when her daughter is late home. Watches her try to convey to the cops that this is not a normal situation, that they have to do something. And kind of follows after and offers his card. In the moment we, like Sridevi, assume he is just trolling for business. But later we realize that he truly just wanted to help. We get a little glimpse of his non-Sridevi business, warning an anxious father away from a no good groom that he did a background check on and offering another groom instead. And we see how he follows the trial closely, and when Sridevi finally comes to see him, immediately understands what she wants and offers his help without payment. Retroactively, it changes that first scene. He wasn’t just trying to drum up business, he could tell from how she was acting and how the cops were reacting that she really did know something was wrong, and the police weren’t going to do anything. Something bad was about to happen and he could help.
And Nawazuddin has a great death scene. After a series of little one on one kind of humorous moments with Sridevi, briefly meeting and passing her information, in their final meeting he warns her that this last kill will be the hardest. And then right after, Akshaye takes him in for questioning. But I’m skipping that scene until I get to Akshaye. No, what is really amazing is the scene when the drug dealing Big Bad has tracked him down. As the scene goes on, you realize that he knows he is going to die. There is no other possible ending to this conversation, he doesn’t have a clever plan to get out of it, nothing. And yet, he never falters! He keeps talking, never gives away Sridevi, never shows fear. And doesn’t seem to be exactly hiding fear either? He has accepted his fate so quickly, it kind of makes me think he must have known all along that this might be the end of it. That first moment when he offered to help Sridevi, he know it might end in his death. And he is okay with that, because he just wants to protect his own daughter. He doesn’t need a big impressive death scene, or a fight scene, or even to be there and part of the actual murders. He just wants to help.
And then there’s Akshaye! Rewinding to that Akshaye-Nawazuddin scene for a moment, Akshaye totally stole it from him! His expressions, his delivery, it was all just fascinating and all I wanted to watch. All along in this movie he is the only one I want to watch. The way he tosses off a line or kind of moves across a room, so interesting! I was all set to give him extra credit in the Nawazuddin scene, and then I realized that actually Akshaye is Nawazuddin’s senior. He has been acting for 20 years. Of course he knows how to work a room and deliver a line! And he is finally being given roles that let him do that. Oh man, I just love Akshaye.
(I loved him all the way back in Hulchul days!)
The way he plays the character is also the only reason it works. And therefore, the only reason the film works. With a different actor, he could have become the hero instead of Sridevi. It could have been the story of the brilliant cop, brought in on a rape case, disgusted with the perpetrators, furious at the verdict, but still waiting for law to give justice. And then slowly converted to the idea of mother-justice by Sridevi, until he gives her moral authority at the end of the film when he hands her his gun. Only, Akshaye plays him as such an odd clever little guy, that he never feels like he fully takes center stage from Sridevi. He is someone who would always be the observer, never the center of the story.
The ending is the weakest part of the film. And it feels like it is left over from an earlier draft where Akshaye was more of the center of the story. There is no reason for him to suddenly pop up out of nowhere during the final fight scene. And there is really no reason for him to suddenly change his mind from “the law should have vengeance” to “oh heck, just shoot him!” But I will forgive it’s illogic, because it gave us one more Akshaye scene.
Remove the Akshaye part of it though, and that final scene is great. Sridevi is attacked, knocked out, wakes up, and her first thought is not for her husband who is shot in the cellar, but for her daughter. She chases out into the snow not looking for vengeance, but looking for her daughter, wanting to keep her safe.
And the two moments she has a gun are perfect. The first one, Akshaye is holding a gun on the bad guy, when they both turn and realize Sridevi has grabbed the other gun and is really ready to shoot. Both men immediately focus on her as the imminent threat. And Sridevi plays this just right, she is SO ANGRY. In the way a mother gets angry. Not because her pride or her family honor has been damaged or anything stupid like that, but because he DARED to hurt her daughter, and there is no crime greater than that in the world for her.
And then Akshaye talks her out of it, in the moment, by reminding her that she has to stay around for her children, she can’t risk going to jail. And then, a moment later, hands her the other gun, his police gun, so she can shoot with that and make it look like an accident. And now Sridevi hesitates. Which also feels real. She doesn’t really enjoy killing these people. She makes herself do it because mothers always have to do the unpleasant jobs no one else wants, but she gets no pleasure from it. And now the Bad Guy is begging forgiveness, saying he is a changed man, making her lose focus.
It’s a little contrived to give us both moments, the insane fury of a protective mother, followed by the hesitation of a sensitive woman. But I will allow it for the way it let’s the movie end. Sajal is revealed during this scene, listening from hiding, having heard that it was her mother, not her father, who killed all those men and did all those things for her. And who is shaking with anger on her behalf now. And she finally breaks out of her shock and comes running out, calling out “Ma!” for the first time. And Sridevi hears her, glances at her, and then turns back and quickly empties the entire gun, before tossing it aside and turning to her daughter. Because her daughter needs her, so she has to take care of this little chore real quick so she can go to her.