Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Mardaani - stray thoughts

I liked Pradeep Sarkar’s new film very much – thought it was tightly constructed for the most part, with a fine script by Gopi Puthran and very good performances by Rani Mukherji as a Crime Branch cop battling the sex-trafficking mafia and Tahir Bhasin as her young adversary Karan, who calls himself Walt in tribute to the protagonist of Breaking Bad. Some scattered observations (if you haven't seen the film and plan to, you might want to avoid the last 4-5 paras):
– Any Hindi film on this subject, with a resourceful woman cop as protagonist (and a title that has Jhansi ki Rani associations), automatically invites discourse on hot-button topics such as women’s empowerment, the glass ceiling and sexual violence – more so in the post-Nirbhaya India of the past two years. Those issues are addressed here to some degree or the other, but I didn’t find myself thinking too much about Shivani’s femaleness while watching this film. It isn't overemphasised or constantly drawn attention to; at the same time it isn’t self-consciously downplayed to the extent that the film drowns itself in political correctness pretending it’s a routine thing for a woman in India to be a senior inspector in the Crime Branch. The focus is on making her credible as an individual and on matter-of-factly observing other people’s responses to her in specific situations – from the male colleagues who have probably developed respect for her over time, to an antagonist who sneeringly tells her that women take everything too personally.

– This inspector is neither a female Chulbul Pandey (notwithstanding a couple of seeti-bajaao moments and a possibly overlong one-to-one fight scene at the end) nor the stereotype of the sensitive, well-behaved lady cop bringing refinement into a rough-hewn profession. She doesn’t refrain from using salty language or making the sort of gendered remark that would usually be seen as a male preserve – using words like “item” to refer to a criminal’s squeeze (or even random women on the street), or wisecracking “Sir ke biwi ko koi shopping karvao” after she gets a minor dressing down from her boss on the phone. This again is the sort of thing that could have been done in a forced, overblown way, so that one felt the film was trying too hard to present Shivani as “one of the boys”. But the writing and Mukherji’s performance make it work. Shivani may be putting on a macho act at times – as a woman in this job might occasionally feel the need to – but mostly you believe that this is the way she really is, that it comes naturally to her.

She has achieved success in the big city, has earned the right to be called “Ma’am” and speaks good English. But midway through the film we gather that she grew up in a village, presumably learnt to fend for herself at an early age, and that she occupies a hazy space between two Indias and two states of mind. There was a forest nearby, she says, and she has brought her knowledge of wild animals to the urban jungle she now works in: you need to be a rat to ferret out a rat, a tiger to stalk a tiger…and a snake to catch a snake. These are useful things to know, for the bad things happening in this story are not localised in the “other” India, the place of backwardness, illiteracy and poverty. Here, the snake in the water may be a Hindu College dropout emerging from the depths of a swimming pool during a glamorous party where rich white men are being serviced by scared girls who have been dressed up in slutty outfits and given names like Angelina. The sinister Karan switches casually between Hindi and English. Many of the girls who are sold into sex slavery are from English-medium schools, and an elderly woman involved in the trade appears to be a high-society type. There are no comforting illusions for the urban, cosmopolitan viewer that the criminals here are the mythical “them”, the rustic beasts in the backwaters, well out of sight.

– You’d think moral haziness would have little place in a story that is about a clear-cut, easily condemnable crime – the kidnapping and sexual exploitation of young girls. But the film’s very first scene – a prelude of the sort that one often sees in thrillers – sets up the tangled relationship between cops and small-time criminals, a relationship that involves give and take and often attains unexpected levels of camaraderie. Their banter can sound almost affectionate. “Nahin aaya tere encounter ka order,” Shivani sweetly tells a scared goon named Rahman before arresting him. There are some pithy one-liners – “Aajkal instant ka zamaana hai,” she tells a potential informer, indicating that he might as well come clean quickly so they can get on with their work. In recent Hindi cinema there have been other such depictions of cops and criminals who understand each other well, being from similar lower-class backgrounds, their lives having diverged at some unknowable point: recall the great chase scene in Black Friday, which ends with an unfit cop huffing and puffing after his quarry, calling out “Imtiaz, ruk jaa yaar.”

In the world shown here, everyone is constantly connected. Personal and private lives are bound up with each other, so that Shivani might have a conversation with her nemesis on the phone even as her niece and husband call out to her because dinner is getting cold. Some of the smart-alecky chatter between Shivani and "Walt" (“Kya adaa kya jalwe tere paaro,” she says wryly) belies the seriousness of what is going on. But the bigger, darker picture is always in sight. We can smile at those early scenes between cops and crooks, but this chumminess, this connectedness, is a minor-scale manifestation of something much bigger and more unsettling, something all of us are familiar with – something that Karan/Walt smiles and spells out even as he is being beaten up by Shivani in the climax: that in this country, if you have connections at the right level and in the right places, you can get away no matter what you did and no matter who knows you did it.

That imprudent remark of his leads directly to his violent end, in a scene that might make some viewers uneasy – with Shivani’s sanction, he is beaten and stomped on by a group of the girls he victimized. I haven’t read any other reviews or pieces about Mardaani (and don’t intend to, for a while anyway), but I wouldn’t be surprised if there have been accusations that the film is glorifying vigilante justice. These things certainly are worth talking or arguing about, but personally I find it a bit problematic when a scene in a film – involving well-realised characters in specific circumstances, reacting to those circumstances – is interpreted as being prescriptive in a large-canvas sense. If Karan is kicked to death by the girls he tortured and exploited, it doesn’t have to mean that the film is summarily recommending this as a means of dealing with criminals. It can be a natural, plausible response, within this particular narrative, by a group of long-suffering people who realise their tormentor is likely to get away if handed over to the law. Or it can be wish-fulfillment, the film’s way of spitting in the eye of the inadequacies and flaws of the world we live in.

– There were a couple of gaps in the screenplay that left me dissatisfied, such as the exact nature of Shivani’s relationship with the little girl Pyaari, whom she repeatedly refers to as “meri beti jaisi” (though she doesn’t seem too affected at first when she doesn’t hear from her for three days) and why this girl, though she lives in a shelter for poor children, is selling flowers at a traffic light when we first see her. This didn’t affect my overall view of the film, but I sometimes get the feeling that our current generation of writers and directors is so conscious of the “show, don’t tell” principle – and so keen to break away from the overstatement one often saw in the Hindi cinema of decades past – that they sometimes tread too far in the other direction. It happens routinely with me these days, even when watching films I mostly liked, that I get the impression a small but key scene had been left on the editing table; that it would have been nice to know just a little more about this character or that relationship.

– The scenes where the young girls are stripped, assessed, packed together and auctioned are intense and hold little back. But hope exists too: there is no idealised narrative about having to save a kidnapped girl before she has been raped (a fate that is so often shorthand, in both our society and in our cinema, for being made an “un-person”, someone who has no future). Everything here doesn’t hinge on the preservation of “honour”. The girl whom Shivani is trying to trace is brutalized, but that doesn’t mean her life is over – being rescued for a life of freedom is a huge deal, and in the end she will walk out happily with the other victims.

– It is refreshing that Shivani’s husband, even though he is very much around and she goes home to him every day, has such a small role in this narrative that the actor who plays him (Jisshu Sengupta) had to be given a “guest appearance” credit. We don’t get many details about their relationship, or learn how they met, but we see each of them emotionally vulnerable in the other’s presence and sense that there is real closeness between them. Which, for the purposes of this story, is enough. And of course, her name is first on the nameplate outside the door.

P.S. there's a good scene, just before the intermission, where a single teardrop glides down Shivani's cheek. Vastly different in effect from a similar Rani Mukherji moment (mentioned here) in Kabhi Alvida na Kehna, but between the two scenes, and others like them, there is probably enough to make auteur-theorists sit up. ("The key to the Mukherji star persona, the 'Rosebud' that explains her Kane - whether used in a family melodrama or a gritty police procedural - is the motif of the Lone Teardrop," begins the entry in the 2050 edition of the Biographical Dictionary of Hindi Cinema.)


  1. Rani's performance reminded me of Frances McDormunds's Marge from Fargo.It is a good movie tho.Loved the Breaking Bad reference as well.

  2. Dibs on writing that essay in ca. 2048.

    This hasn't opened in my "local" cinema yet - it got Singham 2 a week late instead. Fingers crossed for Mardaani this weekend because everything I read just makes me want to see it more and more.

  3. मुझे उल्टा लगा, कि फिल्म बोलकर बताने की ज़रूरत से पूरी तरह आज़ाद नहीं हुई है. जैसे 'ब्रेकिंग बैड' का संदर्भ फिल्म पहले ही दीवार पर लगे पोस्टर के माध्यम से दे देती है, लेकिन फिर खलनायक उसे बाकायदा बोलकर भी बताता है कि ये नाम उसने एक 'अंग्रेज़ी सीरियल' से देखकर रखा है.

    1. "फिल्म बोलकर बताने की ज़रूरत से पूरी तरह आज़ाद नहीं हुई है"

      मिहिर: इस से मैं भी सहमत हूँ - मैं यह नहीं कहना चाहता था कि film हर scene में बताने की ज़रुरत से आज़ाद है. ( लेकिन यह भी बता दूँ कि मैंने दीवार पर लगे Breaking Bad poster को शुरू में देखा ही नहीं था! उस को मैंने एक बाद के scene में ही देखा. )

      गोपी पुथरन ने कल मुझे email पे बताया कि शुरू का एक scene कट गया था, जिस में प्यारी अपने दोस्त से कहती है कि वह सरकार या किसी और पर निर्भर नहीं होना चाहती और इसी लिये फूल बेच कर पैसे कमाने की कोशिश कर रही है - ताके वह और अच्छे स्कूल में जा सके. मेरी राय में उस scene के होने से हम प्यारी को बेहतर समझ पाते और film में थोड़ी और स्पष्ट्ता आती.

    2. अच्छा, ठीक बात. इस एक संदर्भ में मैं भी मानता हूँ कि अगर यह सीन नहीं कटा होता तो शायद कहानी अौर बेहतर तरीके से सामने अाती. इस उदाहरण से यह भी पता चलता है कि कैसे फिल्म की कई गड़बड़ियाँ जिन्हें हम पटकथा के मत्थे डालते हैं, वे दरअसल पटकथा की गड़बड़ियाँ नहीं होतीं अौर अाजकल तेज़ी से उभरी दो घंटे में फिल्म किसी भी तरह पूरी करने के व्यावसायिक दबाव से उपजी गड़बड़ियाँ होती हैं.

      मुझे लेकिन यह अच्छा लगा कि फ़िल्म रानी के परिवार की असहज संरचना के लिए कोई स्पष्टीकरण देने की कोशिश नहीं करती. मुझे ऐसे असहज संरचना वाले परिवार पसन्द हैं. अौर ख़ास तौर पर तब जब कथा उनके होने के लिए किसी किस्म का स्पष्टीकरण देने की कोशिश ना करे. इससे लगता है कि कथा लेखक भी इसे मेरी तरह किसी 'विशेष' की श्रेणी में नहीं, अन्य परिवारों जैसे सामान्य की श्रेणी में ही रखता है.

  4. Just translating part of the above comment for non-Hindi readers: further to the "too much show don't tell" thing...the writer Gopi Puthran told me yesterday on email that there had originally been a scene where we see the girl Pyaari telling a friend about her desire for autonomy and not wanting to be dependent on anyone, least of all the government. Which is why she was selling flowers, hoping to collect enough money to go to a better school. I think that scene, if it had been retained (without being full of heavy-handed, underline-the-point dialogue) would have added a layer to the film, and to our understanding of Pyaari.

  5. Yes, that would have added a little more meaning to the film.
    I like your take on the vigilante scene. Truly, what was the alternative???

    1. Dipali: think I'm at liberty to say this - Gopi told me he wasn't keen to end the film on that vigilante-justice note, but the producer suggested they do it in such a way that it seemed more like an act of individual revenge and (to quote) "gets narrowed down to the world of the movie". Which resulted in their focussing a lot on Pyaari's expressions, to emphasise the personal element. I'm reasonably satisfied with that explanation.

  6. Loved your Hindi, dude. particularly with words like 'सहमत, स्पष्ट, निर्भरता...' छा गए बंधू!
    If I were to compare Rani's performance, I wouldn't go as far as the pregnant Marge and look closer home at Ab Tak Chhappan's Sadhu Agashe (Marathi names have a flavourful character for a cop, I guess). Both cops are matter of fact, cocksure about themselves, switching familial and professional roles with ease and believe in end over means.

  7. The climax of the film, which is strangely being called melodramatic, came from Deewar’s iconic scene at the docks. The ‘chaabi from the jeb’ scene. That scene gave us the Angry Young Man, an anti-hero.

    This one, I think, gives us the Angry Young Woman, an anti-heroine.

    Sarkar’s biggest achievement seems to be the fact that he has been able to root an essentially escapist fantasy in a very specific context! That really is the film’s biggest victory for me.

    As far as the film is concerned, I think it’s as tightly constructed as a thriller as Kahaani was. In our mainstream, that’s no small feat.

  8. Hi Jai, saw the film yesterday... In fact posted a comment here last night, but perhaps it didn't register. Have you watched Taken starring Liam Neeson? Parts of Mardaani are clearly inspired from that film. I like Rani's performance, understated and hard-hitting at the same time. I found the beating up of Karan cathartic... There is a bit of "telling" in the film when Shivani Shivaji Roy tells how she goes about confirming the house of the villain. I felt that could have been done differently. Good to read this post of yours after watching the film and I agree about the moral dilemma of calling the film Mardaani... In fact when the first trailers came I immediately thought about the discussion the title would throw up. Also, at that time itself it reminded me of Subhadra Kumari Chauhan's poem. They could have chosen another title, but I like the film nevertheless. Glad, you liked it too.

    Regards, Anjali

  9. I liked the pool scene when villian comes out shirtless shoeing six pack abs