August 22, 2014
Rani Mukerji, Tahir Bhasin, Priyanka Sharma, Anil George, Jisshu Sengupta
It’s been a long long time since I’ve watched a Hindi film in a hall where all the women in the audience clapped – several times. They did this today not for a bizarre, unrealistic gang of rape victims on a rampage, castrating rapists as Dimple Kapadia & Co did in 1988’s Zakhmi Aurat. Today they applauded a believable woman police officer whose fisticuffs are a far cry from the fantastical dishum-dishum of Bajirao Singham in Singham Returns; a woman who looks like she may well exist in a police station near our homes.
Rani Mukerji plays Mumbai Crime Branch Senior Inspector Shivani Shivaji Roy in Pradeep Sarkar’s Mardaani. Hate the title, but let’s discuss that later. When a street kid she’s fond of is netted in a sex trafficking racket, Shivani goes after the gang and its intriguing kingpin. This is a sociological crime thriller atypical of Bollywood: shorn of frills, straight-laced, to the point.
Shivani doesn’t fit any social or Bollywood stereotypes, unless you count the film’s awful name. She’s smart, assertive, pretty, has an unconventional family, is friendly with her juniors yet very much in charge, committed to her work yet not obsessive to the exclusion of all else. She’s fun, she’s sexy, she doesn’t hesitate to bash up bad guys, and she’s not exactly a saint when it comes to the law. I kept waiting for a lazy and trite bow to commercial compulsions with a suddenly glammed-up Shivani in a nightclub, under the pretext of an undercover operation, while an ‘item song’ with a scantily clad female dancer played in the background. No such scene came up.
So the film is consistent in tone until that last scene in which Shivani delivers an unnecessary sermon to the central villain and offers that dreadful, completely superfluous statement to us as a solution to sexual violence: “Apne andar chhupee mardaani har aurat, har bachchi ko dhoondna hai (Every woman, every girl must find the man/manliness/masculinity hidden within her).”
The unmistakable reference is to this line in Subhadrakumari Chauhan’s Hindi poem on Rani Laxmibai: “…Khoob ladi mardaani / woh toh Jhansi waali Rani thhi (She who fought like a man, she was the Queen of Jhansi).” That verse could perhaps be forgiven for equating valour with manliness, since it was written in the early 1900s. Decades later, sycophantic, sexist Indian netas were still adjectivising “man” as a synonym for “decisive” and “brave”. Indira Gandhi was “the only man in her Cabinet”, they said. Israel’s Golda Meir and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher had already earned similar epithets. What a shame that Indian language is still so regressive and gender insensitive, that a film on a gutsy woman police officer is titled Mardaani.
Sarkar’s gender politics is confusing. His Lalita in Parineeta (2005) defied norms. Pinky in Lafangey Parindey (2010) was fiercely independent. In between came Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (LCMD) bearing the absurd lesson that a woman alone in the big bad city has no choice but to turn to prostitution to earn a living. Everything except the title of Mardaani and that last sentence from Shivani are a complete departure from LCMD’s inexplicable medievalism.
That’s the only daag on this otherwise excellent film, which provides a well-deserved platform to one of Bollywood’s best actresses. Rani is pitch perfect as Shivani. She also looks sweet with barely any makeup on. She gets the physicality just right, looking fit, like a fit woman would be, and is delightful in those thoroughly un-Singham-like action and fight scenes. Good job, girl!
Backing her are wonderfully natural supporting actors in well-written roles. The most unusual character of the lot is the trafficking boss who possesses neither the complexion nor the looks, language or demeanour typically associated with Bollywood gangsters. This Hindi-English-speaking Hindu College dropout is the kind of chap who could be your neighbour or mine. He’s played by the lovely Tahir Bhasin who was noticeable even in Abhay Deol’s dismal production One By Two earlier this year, so you can imagine how he shines in this sparkling film.
Mardaani’s clean writing by Gopi Puthran is complemented by cinematographer Artur Zurawski and editor Sanjib Datta’s no-fuss work. Together with Sarkar, they manage to portray the sexual exploitation of girls without being exploitative themselves. Except for that final song, the use of music is minimal, which is well suited to the tenor of the film. The sharp dialogues are rarely melodramatic. There’s some interesting referencing of religion (a muezzin’s call at an interesting point) and popular culture (watch out, Breaking Bad fans). Also neat is the way Delhi NCR has been woven into the scenario, with a Gurgaon multiplex, the Metro, the Hanuman statue at Jhandewalan and our newest landmark, that striking gigantic Tiranga in CP set up by industrialist Naveen Jindal’s Flag Foundation, distinguishing the Capital from Mumbai where the story first takes off. No cliched shots of India Gate and Rajpath as is the wont of most Hindi films.
Let’s pretend we didn’t hear that last line and that they called the film something else. After Kangna Ranaut’s Queen, here comes Rani The Action Queen. This has been a good year for proving that women-centric films can be fun. “Kadam milaake dekho toh / Main saath mein tere chal doongi / Par chhed ke dekho tum mujhko / Main tumko nahi chhodoongi,” goes the song playing in the background in the final scene. It’s more dramatic than the rest of the film, but after years of watching Salman, Ajay & Co mindlessly bashing up baddies in an often enjoyable but always unrealistic fashion, I confess I had a rollicking good time seeing a woman grind her foot into a creep’s groin in a far more probable fashion. Mardaani strikes that delicate and hard-to-achieve balance between realism and entertainment. Very very nice, Mr Sarkar.
Rating (out of five stars): ***1/2
CBFC Rating (India):
Photograph and videos courtesy: Yash Raj Films
Mardaani anthem “Main tumko nahin chhodoongee”: