“This world in which mothers and sisters are not relations but swear words, in this world I will break all the relations of morality” – Mardaani Anthem
I am not a fan of Rani Mukerji, although I respected her powerful performance in ‘Black’, but I was irresistibly drawn to this crime thriller in which she played the lead role of a cool and collected police officer, Shivani Shivaji Roy. The film follows Roy’s efforts to rescue a kidnapped girl from the clutches of the Indian underworld and the game of competing wills and wars between her and the villain of the piece: Karan, the child trafficker.
Roy’s investment in the case is not merely professional, but personal. She speaks of the abducted girl, Pyaari as her daughter. Pyaari is a poor orphan who sells flowers to customers as they wait at the traffic lights: she is a stock-type, the victim. She is so profoundly the typical victim that Roy has rescued Pyaari from the child traffickers before: her unscrupulous uncle tried to sell her when she was even younger. In the movie, then, to protect her so-called daughter, Roy moves into the role of the mother who will do anything to protect her child. The movie is part and parcel of the Indian ideology which celebrates motherhood and the ferocity of the mother. Roy reminded me in many respects of the mother goddess, the warrior mother, Durga.
Roy’s characterisation is intriguing. Rani Mukerji gives an intense and understated performance in which obvious emotion only surfaces at key points in the narrative of the film. I believe this is in keeping with the ‘feminist’ underpinnings of the film: she is not overly emotional because this is a negative stereotype attached to women. Roy is also a dedicated career woman and has no partner or children – an unusual situation for a woman in India. I believe this is also an important aspect of the portrayal: Roy, although symbolically a mother in relation to Pyaari, is meant to be an ideal of womanhood in a world in which a woman’s value is mostly conceived of in terms of her relations to men and children, as wife and mother.
The characterisation of Roy’s opponent is also revealing on a number of levels. He is a typical misogynist. At one point in the movie, he remarks that while men ascend the heights, women are left staring at the ceilings, a crude reference to the position of women in the sexual act. Cultural misogyny is by no means the exclusive preserve of India or of the East, and it is related in the film to the prostitution of girls and their rapists who range from Hong Kong to Texas. However, what is interesting is that Roy’s opponent is as cool and collected as she is, betraying obvious emotion only once in the movie. The clash of ideologies in the movie is about differing ‘rationalities’, that which supports women and the mother, and that which is misogynistic and exploits women.
Mardaani as a film is emblematic of the new Hindi cinema. It is intellectual, politically concerned and self-consciously serious, dealing with the issue of child trafficking. The film is also distinguished from the traditional film fare of India by its absence of any male heroes and the absence of any song and dance routines, more like Western cinema. In addition, the visual aesthetic of the film is distinctly western, eschewing colour in favour of darkness, and I noted that the director of photography seemed to be a non-Indian. The film is clearly intended for the adult audience too, rather than the traditional family audience: it tests the boundaries of conventional censorship: it is graphic in its depiction of sex and the exploitation of young girls and it is full of obscenities in terms of language.
The film is successful both aesthetically and intellectually. Although it deals with serious themes, it is not characterised by the preachy and worthy quality which often mars such works of the imagination. The viewer really gets behind Roy and her mission, despite the fact that she is only really representative of law and order, rather than having a unique personality of her own. My favourite part of the movie is in the ending when Roy and her adversary talk about what constitutes law in India. The villain talks about the corruption of India and the way criminals can walk free from any scandal because of the inadequacies of the criminal justice system. Roy responds: because of the very looseness of the law in India, punishment can be meted out on the streets instead of the courtroom, without troubling the courts. It is an important component of Roy’s characterisation that she interprets law in a free manner, away from the book. Roy is a good police officer not only because of her dedication, but also because of the fact that she takes a risk. This film also takes a risk by moving its Indian viewer into defamiliarised cinematic territory. And the risk paid off.