One thing’s for certain: the person who is handling the PR for Mumbai Police deserves many modaks (or a round of drinks, depending upon their preference). The policeman has been many things in Bollywood – clueless, helpless, corrupt, insignificant, an imbecile – but of late, it seems khaki is the new black. Cops now have swagger, guns (both literal and metaphorical) and if Singham Returns and Mardaani are any indication, the only reason Sanskrit shlokas have survived into the twentieth century is to provide a background score to cops being macho.
At a recent press conference, Rani Mukerji had said that her character in Mardaani is not a female Singham and the two films shouldn’t be considered together. While it’s true that Mardaani is a much smaller film than Singham Returns – not even a bicycle is overturned in the film, let alone a Scorpio – it does certainly seem as though both films are based upon one man’s idea of an awesome policeman. Like Singham, Shivani Shivaji Roy is a cop who is popular with her colleagues, extremely honest and can pack one helluva punch. Like Singham, she knows the law and isn’t afraid of reciting out sections and clauses when dealing with criminals. Both Shivani and Singham find themselves in situations where the system seems to fail them and so they take matters into their own hands.
There are, however, significant differences between Singham and Shivani. Shivani (Rani Mukerji) works in Mumbai’s Crime Branch, drinks a lot of tea (with ginger) and is married. This means, she oversees the food being made at home and the interrogations in the police station. This is not a problem because her husband is the sensible sort who doesn’t hold the fact that she has a demanding job against her and her colleagues are a responsible, hardworking bunch.
Things start getting hairy for Shivani when she stumbles upon a child-trafficking ring. Pyaari, an orphan that Shivani is close to, disappears and following her trail, Shivani realises there’s one person running a massive and elaborate operation that includes drugs and smuggling girls from as far away as Bangladesh. With a little help from phone-tapping and inventive torture methods like force-feeding a suspect jalebis, Shivani starts circling closer and closer to the top criminal dog.
So far, so khaki.
In all fairness, Mardaani begins well, with Mukerji looking refreshingly credible as a stylish, no-nonsense police officer. She’s a little foul-mouthed, which is one of the things that earned Mardaani an ‘A’ rating from the censors. So long as Shivani is the investigating officer and the film is focussed on the cat-and-mouse game being played between Shivani and the chief villain, Mardaani doesn’t take too many false steps.
The parts where we’re shown the girls who have been kidnapped and forced into prostitution are precisely as tacky and cringe-inducing as you’d expect from the director who made Laaga Chunari Mein Daag and it doesn’t help that the child actors have been made to overact as though they’re in a tamasha rather than a film. However, it’s easy to ignore these bits because the contest between Shivani and the kingpin is actually engaging and leaves you curious about what their final face-off will be like.
Unfortunately, Mardaani well-executed first half is actually a setup for the great reveal, which isn’t the identity of the villain but Shivani’s Miss Macho avatar. That’s the one that gets the background score of Devi stotra, in case you missed the fact that Shivani breaking arms like they’re Kit-Kats and generally beating the bejesus out of men is the cop in her shakti roop.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a women going physically ballistic and in fact, Mukerji is one of the few Bollywood actresses who does a decent job of her fight sequences. However, Mardaani unequivocally advocates violence and that of the mindless variety. At one critical point, a bad guy tells Shivani all she can do is arrest him and he’ll work the system to get out scot-free. She responds with a death threat and adds that “encounter nahin, public outrage kehte hain.”
The message that Mardaani is setting out is clear: take the law into your own hands and lynch, bobbitise, murder; do what you will to the man you think is guilty and to hell with minor details like the law.
Mardaani reflects the frustration that clearly many of us feel about a legal system that is lengthy and easily manipulated by the rich and powerful. However, well-intentioned as it may be, Mardaani is, by the end, a stunningly irresponsible film that encourages only brute strength and violence. Tellingly, we don’t find out what happened to the girls who were forced into prostitution. We’re not supposed to care because thanks to Shivani, they’ve discovered their own mardaani and they know they have the strength to kill a man. They’ve gone from victims of trafficking to rape survivors to potential murderers; all in the space of a single month. Is that traumatic? Hell no. That, apparently, is empowerment.
Contrary to what its publicity campaign would have you believe, Mardaani is not feminist in its sensibilities. The film is not about equality of the sexes but a crime drama that promotes unhinged violence. See it as the social message that it pretends to be and Mardaani is disquieting and irresponsible. Not only does it support lawlessness, but it also shows the filmmaker trying to cash in on the nation’s horrified disbelief at the crimes being committed against women and girls.
See it, on the other hand, as a ‘Lady Singham’, and it is – until it’s rather grisly and ghastly end – a decent watch, mostly thanks to Mukerji’s performance. If you really want to punish yourself though, imagine a film in which Shivani and Singham team up. There’ll be exploding cars, testosterone, Yo Yo Honey Singh’s songs along with barf bags full of melodrama, a bucket of misguided notions of feminism and lots of Sanskrit chants. I get goosebumps just imagining it.