Discovering Bollywood movies was, for me, like stumbling through a wardrobe into Narnia; my eyes got big in wonder at this land of music, dancing, colors and action-packed movies. I mean, I can only watch so many American superhero movies before I want to see something different. (Although I do love superhero movies.)
Mardaani, from 2014, isn’t your average Bollywood movie. There are no choreographed dance numbers, no bright costumes, and no male protagonist. Mardaani does have some notable issues, but is overall a step in the right direction for women in Bollywood.
To add a disclaimer, I am by no means an expert in Indian cinema and don’t have the same cultural context most viewers do, so my opinions can be taken with a grain of salt.
Anyone who’s familiar with Bollywood movies knows that they have some serious problems, particularly with how they treat and view women (This is certainly not to say that American cinema doesn’t.).
In typical Bollywood film, the main role for most actresses tends to be the love interest, arm-candy, and/or sexy background dancer. There are some exceptions, and more movies are being made recently with women as the protagonists. For the most part, though, it’s a man’s world. This recent Buzzfeed post did a good job showing some of the biggest problems. Consent is unimportant, violence is fine, and objectification is the norm.
Mardaani, starring Rani Mukerji, is focused on Shivani Shivaji Roy, a cop in the Mumbai crime unit. The plot centers on the abduction of an orphan girl, Pyaari, that Shivani loves like a daughter. She finds that Pyari has been taken by sex-traffickers to be sold into the sex trade. Shivani tracks down the syndicate responsible and finds herself playing a game of cat and mouse with their young mastermind, Karan. She eventually finds where he lives, allows herself to be captured, and is taken to where the girls, including Pyaari, are kept. The end gets a little messy and implausible, but the cops storm in and the girls are freed. We’ll talk about what happens to Karan in a bit.
Trailer – Trigger Warning for depictions of violence against women and girls
Let’s start with what’s good about this movie. The protagonist is a professional woman supervising others. Shivani isn’t traditionally thin, but is strong, muscled and in peak physical condition. There is no love interest or romantic arc for her, and she is free to focus entirely on her mission. She is married to a doctor and cares for a young niece, both of whom are supportive of her job. So far, she is set up like many male protagonists in police dramas. Rani Mukerji’s acting makes the character believable.
The film itself is subdued for a Bollywood movie; there are no out of place songs or over-the-top action sequences. For the most part it’s pretty realistic. The subject it tackles is, unfortunately, also realistic. The kidnapping and selling of young women into the sex trade is a very real and serious problem in India. I was honestly glad not to see any Bollywood pomp, since it would have cheapened the message. Mardaani shows the horrors of what these women endure, even if the portrayals of it are sometimes gratuitous. The fact that a mainstream movie is drawing attention to the problem is important and definitely needs to be done.
The movie does have some serious problems worth examining, though. Shivani and her men have no qualms with torturing suspects to get answers. That was the first point where I cringed. Toward the end of the movie the plot becomes unrealistic, and our heroine suddenly gets very violent. While, on one hand, I appreciate that she is strong enough to snap someone’s arm, she probably didn’t need to. She definitely didn’t need to shoot a potential witness in the head.
Karan’s final fate is the biggest problem. He taunts Shivani, telling her that with his powerful connections he’ll easily buy his way out of jail and manipulate the justice system. This is a valid critique of the Indian justice system, which does have a problem with corruption. Instead of vowing to fight in court and see that he’s put away, Shivani proceeds to just straight-up kick his ass. The ass-kicking is brutal and violent. I thought at first that maybe she was just doing this before turning him over to the law.
Not exactly. She gives a speech about the failure of the courts to provide justice for women (yay), but then says that women should take justice into their own hands (yikes). Shivani looks meaningfully at the girls, and then turns her back and walks out of the room. The girls circle Karan and beat him to death. Mob rule and vigilante justice win the day. So, there’s that. Violence begets more violence. Ideally she would call for reform to the political and judicial systems so the crimes against women can be handled fairly and legally. After what I thought was a good step forward for the representation of women in Bollywood, Mardaani took a jump back.
Overall I think Maardani still does more good than harm, though. Sure, the ending is terrible and violent. But before that we get to see a competent woman in charge. Shivani breaks the stereotypes of what a woman in a Bollywood movie should be. We never see her flirt, wear revealing clothing or defer to a man. Mardaani could have been better, but hopefully its success will inspire the creation of other woman-centred movies and balance the representation of women in Bollywood.