In the opening stretch of Mardaani, the camera peers at traffic from the back seat of a car, fuzzy taillights in the distance – it’s all very verité. In the front are two men we quickly recognise as cops. They stop to pick up a colleague, Shivani (Rani Mukerji), who’s dressed in a sari – she looks like your average housewife. And then we see that the cops are in mufti too. Their joshing banter tells us that they’ve done this a lot – the camaraderie is casual. But once they reach their destination, it’s business. They pull out guns and get ready to do what they’re here to do. It’s all very hush-hush – even the background score. We’re primed for a “realistic” thriller – and then we discover we’re inside a regular hero-versus-villain saga. Only, this is a heroine-versus-villain saga. Mardaani does to the masala movie what the Tamil film Goli Soda did earlier this year – it serves it up with a cool twist. There, the protagonists were children, and the fun came from seeing them do what our big action heroes regularly do. Here, the protagonist is a woman, and it’s equally fun to see her slip into the kind of film (and role) that could have easily accommodated Salman Khan. Shivani is a stickler for workouts, and, at the end, she even shrugs her shirt off.
Coming a week after the dreary Singham Returns, Mardaani is essentially a demo on how to do this kind of film with class and a certain sensibility. The larger-than-life aspects are all there. After a big win, Shivani strides towards us in slow motion. She lets loose a series of crackling lines. When hauled up by her superior, she turns to her colleagues and says, “Sir ki biwi ko koi shopping le jao yaar.” Another time, she refuses the bribe of a 35th-floor flat, explaining that life would become too difficult if the lift shut down. In a most entertaining scene that Salman Khan’s writers are going to kick themselves for not thinking up, she slaps a havoc-wreaking goon while rattling off the various IPC sections she’s going to throw at him. (And she respects her uniform. When her colleagues tell her that it’s not their job to get involved with this goon because they’re “Crime Branch,” she tells them that they’re police first.)
In addition, we get all the clichés from the masala movies. At different times, the soundtrack swells with the Hanuman Chaleesa as well as an azaan – and the “good Muslim” trope gets a surprising spin, through a character we come to identify, initially, as evil. (Shivani feeds this character, Rahman, some biriyani and he gives her the information she needs, but he then says, “Bachche ke liye kiya, khaane ke liye nahin.”) When we are taken near the villains, it is through a shot of a chameleon – nothing in our cinema insinuates evil more than a tongue-flicking reptile.
And yet, Mardaani is more than just your average masala movie – at least the ones we see these days. There’s something very human, very womanly about Shivani – and not just because we see her in the kitchen or combing her 12-year-old niece’s hair. When her enemies end up hurting her husband (Jisshu Sengupta), she doesn’t gnash her teeth in rage. She regards him sorrowfully, realising that the poor chap’s plight is entirely her doing. (And with his character, the gender reversal is taken to its logical conclusion. He’s mere arm candy to Shivani and as disposable to the proceedings as Kareena Kapoor is in Singham Returns – and he doesn’t even get a duet.) Even when Shivani issues her I-will-get-you threat to the villain (“Walt,” played by Tahir Bhasin; the name is an homage to his favourite TV show, Breaking Bad), it’s a tough moment imbued with vulnerability – a tear rolls down her cheek. Shivani knows what’s at stake.
And there is something at stake, something that makes us root for Shivani in a way we never did for Singham. The latter’s enemies were corrupt politicians and godmen, and we’ve had enough of those (and they’re too distanced from us) – but Shivani is up against a child trafficking ring that kidnaps young girls and sells them as “Julia” and “Angelina.” The very fact that Shivani is a woman makes her “emotional” about this (as Walt mockingly points out), but there’s more. She’s foster mother to her niece, and one of the kidnapped girls, a flower seller, is someone she rescued a while ago. Could a male cop be as “emotional” as Shivani, given these circumstances? Sure. But he probably couldn’t feel it from the gut, the way she does – the prospect of being raped, of being sexually abused, is never a possibility in his case (and Shivani comes dangerously close). Rani Mukerji is reliably terrific, and her stature (or lack of it) adds to the performance. A bigger actress may not have seemed this vulnerable. As for whether she’s believable as this ass-kicking cop, if we are able to believe that men fly through the air and knock down opponents fifty feet away, then there’s no reason we shouldn’t buy the scenes where Shivani pursues assassins, or goes womano a mano with Walt at the end. (Besides, at 1.60 m – thank you, Wikipedia – she stands as tall as Lucy Liu, and we all know what mayhem the latter unleashed in Kill Bill.) These films – whether Singham Returns or Mardaani – are essentially escapist fantasies that feed on our powerlessness, and here, for a change, we see a woman use not just her intelligence and her wiles (as, say, Vidya Balan did in the similarly female-oriented Kahaani and Bobby Jasoos) but also her strength. That, I think, is a step.
Strangely, it’s this evenhandedness – this attempt to strike a balance between the worlds of Shivani the heroine and Shivani the woman – that makes Mardaani a little queasy to watch. In a traditional hero-oriented masala movie, the archetypes are so brazen that we don’t take much of it seriously (other than as entertainment, of course). But here, the director Pradeep Sarkar is after shades of realism. He forces us to watch how horribly the barely pubescent kidnapped girls are treated, how they are stripped naked, how they are viewed as mere “virgin” bodies – these scenes fit into a blood-curdling drama like Nagesh Kukunoor’s Lakshmi, but they come off as exploitative in such a broad, escapist entertainment that’s not really about an issue. And yet, this is when we get an idea of Walt, his heinousness. Sarkar does something very interesting. Walt and his cohorts aren’t the usual underground dwellers, people who come off to multiplex goers as the “other,” and are therefore easier to accept as killers and kidnappers. (Again, the gruesome villains of Lakshmi come to mind.) They are the kind of people you find at the multiplex – urbane, upper-crust. They are the demons within us. And Tahir Bhasin plays Walt beautifully. His face is in the shadows at first, and as he exposes himself to Shivani, he slowly comes out into the sun. And he has his vulnerabilities too. Like Shivani, he suffers loss too, he sheds a tear too.
What a difference it makes when villains are treated like human beings rather than ogres. Another character, one of Walt’s underlings, gets a spectacularly vulnerable (that word again) moment as he’s about to be shot. The supporting cast is fantastic. Sarkar doesn’t just point and shoot – like Rohit Shetty. He shapes his material. Even the traditional montage of Shivani interrogating possible witnesses is done so that each person is framed against a different setting – they’re not just talking heads; we get glimpses of their lives. I wish the latter portions had been written better (there’s also too much exposition), and that the background score was less insistent – but Sarkar brings it all in under two hours and still leaves us with the satisfaction of having watched a full-on commercial Hindi movie. He doesn’t shy away from the grime of it all. He even goes for the expletives. Between Singham and Shivani, there’s no question who’s got the bigger balls.
* Mardaani = manly; a brave woman
* Goli Soda = see here
* slow motion = see here
* “Sir ki biwi ko koi shopping le jao yaar.” = Someone should take the boss’s wife out shopping…
* Hanuman Chaleesa = see here
* azaan = see here
* “Bachche ke liye kiya, khaane ke liye nahin.” = I did it for the kids, not for this food.
* Kill Bill = see here
* Lakshmi = see here
* bigger balls = see here
Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.