There was a moment, sitting in the theatre watching Mardaani, when I knew that I was going to be swimming upstream against opinion in my view of the film. I’ve walked out of precisely one film in my long film-watching life, and quite honestly, if it hadn’t been for three things, I might well have walked out of Mardaani as well.
First, we’d driven a long way to this theatre, and I wasn’t alone. If I walked out, I would have had to leave Mr. Totally Filmi behind, and since he was the one with the car keys, I figured I should just sit it out (aside: Mr. T.F. liked the film, and I think he was a little surprised at my reaction to it).
Second, the themes the film deals with – specifically the issue of the human sex trafficking trade, but also the idea hinted at in the title, that “manliness: what does it mean to be manly, not only for the women in this film, but for the men themselves? I have very little respect for men who think it’s “manly” to bed little girls, or for men who think it’s quite all right to kidnap them and force them into those beds. I’m also quite sure that I don’t think female empowerment has much to do with being “manly” – behaving like men (to be fair, I saw that clip where Rani explained the title as translating more to “warriorlike”, and I won’t disagree that sometimes women need to learn to stand up for themselves and take care of themselves, if that’s how we’re going to define “warriorlike”). But those are interesting ideas to think about, and I wanted to see how they played out in the film.
Thirdly, Rani Mukherjee. I have to say, the key thing that kept me in my seat was Rani Mukeherjee’s fine, fine performance. Rani truly gets into the skin of her character, Shivani Shivaji Roy. Roy is a sub-inspector with the crime branch in Mumbai. She’s also a wife and a surrogate mother to both her niece, and to Pyaari, an adolescent whom she has rescued from the railway station and on whom she keeps a watchful eye. When Pyaari goes missing, Shivani begins to investigate her disappearance, and what she finds is the tip of a very deep iceberg of trade in young girls. When Shivani is contacted by Karan Rastogi (AKA “Walt”, in a hat tip to the very popular television series Breaking Bad), his intention is to offer her a bribe to get her to drop the investigation. He offers her a penthouse apartment. She refuses, asking him how she’ll get to it when the elevator is, inevitably, out of service. What Shivani demands is the return of Pyaari. When Karan refuses – Pyaari has seen too much of his operation, making her a threat to it – Shivani lets him know that she plans to hunt him down and take Pyaari back.
There is, actually, a lot – quite a lot -- that I like about Mardaani. I love Shivani Shivaji Roy – love that she’s a tough cop, that she’s respected by the other cops she works with. She’s smart, she’s knowledgeable (the scene where she delivers a tight slap for every infraction she cites serves cleverly to underline this). She’s also a typical working woman, bringing home take-away when she’s arriving home too late to cook, combing her niece’s hair before setting off to work – thankfully, Mardaani gives us a central female character who feels real, and Rani Mukherjee takes her and makes us want to cheer for her at every step of the way.
There are a lot of smartly written scenes and clever dialogues, as well as a few really fine supporting performances. I love Shivani’s coworkers and her relationship with them – they treat her as an equal, as evidenced by the banter they share as well as their well orchestrated work relationship. Shivani is a tough, honest cop, but she also knows that some methods work better than others at getting information. One of the film’s fine moments involves her trying to get information out of Rehman, who she and her team recently busted. He knows she’s trying to bribe information out of him by offering up some biryani. She knows he knows it. He offers her what she needs, not because of that bribe, but only because, as he tells her, of the children involved.
So it’s an enormous frustration for me that a film that can get these kinds of details right – that has characters that step beyond a stereotype, that has scenes and dialogues so deftly and delicately written – can also get so much wrong. There are just as many performances here that strike a wrong note as those that soar. Shivani’s husband is nothing more than a blip in the film – frankly, it felt as if he was only there as a kind of convenient vehicle for a bit of payback/warning for Shivani when she gets too close to Karan’s operation (irony: the husband is treated just like a heroine in a typical hero-centred film might be). Karan himself is kind of an interesting character, and played beautifully and with restraint by relative newcomer Tahir Bhasin. But most of the villains in this film, those involved in the illegal drug and sex trades, well, they’re stereotypes and cyphers, too. I suspect, too, that for me, Mardaani suffered in comparison to the 2013 Malayalam language film Thira. Directed by Vineeth Srineevasan, Thira explored a similar subject matter in a similar style, but did so with much greater delicatesse.
The scene that had me contemplating walking out of the film is also the scene that made me feel incredibly physically ill – it’s the rape of Pyaari by the client who purchases her. This came on the heels of several scenes in which Pyaari and the other girls who have been kidnapped are forceably stripped, foreceably showered, and forced to remove the thin blankets they’ve been given so that they may be “sorted” into appropriate bits of the trade, some as higher end prostitutes, some merely as mules for the drug trade. I understand the need to create some kind of response in the audience, that these are issues that are difficult to think about, difficult to face. But they have to be faced if anything is to be done about this horrible, horrible trade in young girls. There is, however, a line between forcing the audience to face these horrors and contemplate them with an eye to making them think about the issues, and maybe act on that when they leave the theatre; there is a line between that and a kind of voyeurism, and I think, for me, that Mardaani crossed that line at some point. Maybe it was one too many scenes of girls being degraded; maybe it was the soft, artful lighting used to imply delicacy in dealing with Pyaari’s rape. It’s one of those terrible conundrums, too – how do you know when the line between decency and voyeurism has been crossed? How do you even know where it is? Possibly it’s different for every viewer, but for me, it was just too much, and I was never able to enjoy what was truly good in this film after that.
The film is at its best when it focusses on the cat and mouse game happening between Shivani and Karan, but it also manages to dissipate much of the tension that game should generate. And in the film’s final scenes – when I suppose the appropriate response would have been to cheer for Shivani and the girls as they apply a balm of vigilante justice to make up for the injustice dealt to them – well, mostly I was just glad it was over.
And those final scenes bring me back to the film’s title – what does it mean to be “manly” – or even, what does it mean to be warriorlike, if I go with the translation preferred by the film’s makers? Is being empowered, for a woman, merely to behave just like a man? To behave just as badly as men, in the case of the woman who works “taking care” of the girls, or in the case of Karan’s mother? Is this how we want to right wrongs, by taking justice into our own hands and beating the crap out of those who treat us unjustly? It’s not how I view empowerment. And it’s not how I view justice – I’d prefer to see us work towards fixing systems that allow this kind of criminal activity to go unpunished or to be ignored; systems that treat victims as if they have something to be ashamed of. And I’d even take an imperfect system over the kind of popular vigilantism suggested by Shivani in the film’s climax.
But please, whatever happens – give me another film with a role like this one for Rani Mukerjee. Give me Shivani Shivaji Roy in an investigation worthy of her talents.