The last time I checked, women’s empowerment wasn’t on sale on Flipkart. Yet, a lot of Bollywood filmmakers just refuse to recogonise that empowerment of any kind is not a commodity. Empowerment, like a lot of essential life traits, is at best a slow, personal process — of finding yourself, understanding the others and the world around. However, a lot of Bollywood filmmakers believe that women’s empowerment is a device that comes to life by one of the following: swearing (preferably in Hindi), kicking one’s oppressors in the ‘nads and excelling in various games of one-upmanship (preferably violent, and almost always anti-male). Pradeep Sarkar’s latest film, Mardani seemed, from its trailers and publicity posters, like another “woman-centric” film that was set to drown in its shallow pool of sanctimoniousness. And I must confess: I approached the film with some skepticism because Sarkar also once made Laaga Chunari Me Daag (also starring Rani Mukerji) — a film that wasn’t sure what it was trying to say. A majority of cinephiles suffer from a short-term memory — they easily discredit a filmmaker for making one particularly bad film. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been so scared of Mardaani; Sarkar once, not too long ago, also made a decent film, Parineeta (2005).
What’s refreshing about Mardaani straight off the bat is that it doesn’t seek to compartmentalise its protagonist, Shivani Shivaji Roy (Mukerji), who plays a senior, no-nonsense cop, or the other women in the film. There are no laboured attempts to etch her as a “woman” — she’s not shown grappling with her household duties (she picks up or orders food most of the time); she’s not the clichéd doting mother, and although she’s married, the film doesn’t showcase her as an “also wife” either. We understand that she’s married to her job, and that’s enough. It’s important to both the film and our understanding that Shivani being a woman is just incidental, and the film accords her that respect. Because clearly, when a film portrays the hero as a “man”, it automatically translates to machismo (another parochial gendered definition).
A film like Mardaani, centered on the grim reality of child sex trafficking, comes with its own set of trite trappings — the pimps and the prime consumers of this world are often uncouth and unlettered. As if those films seem to be telling us, “Don’t worry. These people are the others.” But Walt (Tahir Bhasin, brilliant bit of casting), Mardaani‘s antagonist wears hoodies and jeans, speaks fluent English, and exudes an urban sense of humour. Even his adoptive name, Walt, is a hat-doff to Breaking Bad‘s protagonist. Walt is not the other; he’s one of us. The film doesn’t delve into his background story, but we do get a sense that he chose to be bad. In one of the scenes, when he’s done terrorising Roy, he casually walks into the living room, and asks his mother: “Mom, lunch me kya hai (Mom, what’s for lunch)?”
The truly terrifying thing about Mardaani is that it decks up prostitution, and makes it look horrifyingly sexy. Meetings are conducted in plush hotel rooms; the lighting is always comely, and the perpetrators appear well-spoken and sharply dressed. The den of prostitution in the film is not reminiscent of the obviously sordid, pauper Kamathipura-like bylanes, but a world that could actually be respectable. By making a repulsive world seemingly attractive, Mardani points to something sinister: the depraved world is not that inaccessible, and shares space with our own. It’s these small but significant instances of attention to detail that make Mardaani stand out. However, it sometimes falters at executing a believable plot — given that the film plays out like a crime-procedural drama, a lot of its plot points come across as contrived, which allows its protagonist to smoothly sail through her investigations. These sporadic simplifications rob the film of its well-earned moments of genuine tension.
But Mardaani’s climax is such an easy escape that it’s befuddling. The last ten minutes of the film is so disconnected with the rest of the film that it appears as a juvenile short film that relies on the easy trope of vigilante justice, ironically rendering almost the whole film powerless. However, it’s also true that at its finest Mardaani stays unflinchingly true to itself.
An edited version of this review was published at The Sunday Guardian