Mardaani isn’t great but you should watch it anyway

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead

I’ve been sceptical about Bollywood’s new found interest in woman-centric films. Some of the movies come across as knock-offs. Like a good copies of a designer bag, they look right but don’t feel genuine.

Similarly, Mardaani’s message of women’s empowerment feels flawed. Shivani Shivaji Roy (Rani Mukherjee) is a cop who vows to bring unravel a child trafficking ring that abducts young girls and sells them into prostitution.

The film gives the right messages (don’t be afraid of getting muscular, don’t be afraid of karate, self-defence skills can be handy), but these lessons are applied in a way that is far-fetched, unbelievable and a bit too Bollywood, a bit too Yash Raj.

There are some interesting portrayals of gender reversal. As it goes with these stories, the villain tries to threaten Shivani into giving up the case. When Shivani refuses to back down, he arranges for her husband to be publicly humiliated. This plot point is used so often in Bollywood. Usually it is the women and children who are the Achilles Heel of the ‘hero’. It was refreshing to see the reverse. I also liked that they showed the typical thing that females get told in the workplace (‘Don’t get emotional’). I enjoyed Shivani’s response, that we should be using our emotions to help us achieve an end goal.

Eventually, the movie reduces itself to a female-version of Dabangg, where you have one ‘man-like’ cop fighting all the evil in this world. ‘But oh, look! She is a woman and has woman-like feelings, so women’s empowerment!’

Case in point, the film’s final scene where Shivani Roy ‘empowers’ the victims to bring the perpetrator to justice. Yes, it would be jhakaas if such things happened in real life but its over-simplifying the issue in a way that only Bollywood can. It implies that women should be responsible for protecting themselves against rape and exploitation, while ignoring the real pickle that women should not be exploited in the first place. It’s like saying: let’s buy guns so we can protect ourselves from people who have guns. It reminded me of this short film by Anurag Kashyap which faced a lot of flak from ‘the Indian feminists’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CvBBhI9f1k).

Hence, my scepticism. Mardaani is Yash Raj trying to make a quick buck from the trend of women’s empowerment.

However, I’ve realised that this is no bad thing. At last, producers are responding to the demands of the audience, who are bored of dishoom-dishoom clones and teenage-boy comedy films. We may have to endure films like Mardaani and Revolver Rani but we can take comfort from the fact that the tide is changing.

The only real way to make female representation count is by voting by your feet. Buy cinema tickets for women-centric films and avoid anything with an item song. Attempts at corporate social responsibility aside, filmmakers such as Yash Raj will not invest in films if they don’t expect to turn a profit.

Likewise, we should be encouraging films like Bobby Jasoos which bring women’s voices to the table. Being part-produced by Dia Mirza and written by Sanyukta Shaikh Chawla, it was a female-heavy team and it showed.

A woman-centric film doing good business should not be making the news. Exceptional biopics like Black or Mary Kom aside, let’s be in a position where women’s stories are being told regularly.

My dad tells me Bollywood has always had loads of women-centric films, Mother India being one of the popular ones. It is a common argument that people make and he is not wrong.

But I think we’re still a long way. Think of all the successful Ranbir Kapoor films (Rocket Singh, Wake up Sid, Yeh Jawaani Hain Diwani), but with women playing the central characters. We need more run-of-the-mill films showing ordinary women going about their ordinary business.

More please of English Vinglish, Queen, Bobby Jasoos, and Band Baaja Baarat. 

Related reading:

Trisha Gupta has written about all that’s good and bad about Mardaani.

Ladies Finger explains why Mardaani may leave you asking for more.

Top female actors don’t get paid as much as top male actors, although Madhuri Dixit did it in the 90s. 

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9 comments

  1. Rani Mukherji is an excellent actress (in Black…she was at her best.) I am not sure whether normal women doing normal day to day chores would really draw the public in, which is what matters most in commercial cinema. You’ve got an excellent point on the root cause of women’s safety and yet the problem is so complex and has so many different nodes that it’s almost impossible to resolve it in short-term. The entire cultural-values-system will have to be modified (boys will be boys mentality will have to be destroyed at its root, which is home.)

    1. Re movies about normal women, I do think it would draw the public in. I get that noone wants a film that is documenting day to day chores…but would you be interested in a film about the everyday woman? Eg, a college student?

      We had Wake Up Sid where the character did nothing in the movie but it still drew you in. How about showing a woman going through that existential crisis? The movie had interesting female characters but it was about Sid at the end of the day, as are most films.

      Yep any discussion about women’s safety warrants a discussion about our culture and values system. But what must women do in the present day to protect themselves? Is it ok to take justice into your hands when you know the perpetrator may escape?

      We speak from a position of privilege as people who have not suffered.

  2. As a sort of social misfit, I prefer movies about normal people facing the regular everyday challenges. However, I’ve noticed that the movies that touch me, fail on the box-office. Stuff that irritates me, clearly does exceedingly well. The consumption pattern for entertainment is usually an indication of the societal mindset and expectations.

    I don’t know if discussions truly lead us anywhere. Those who speak against dowry in public privately accept it; those who speak against corruption wouldn’t think twice before pushing their own undeserving son into a merit list, should they have the authority to do so. This is precisely why changes will occur only through the right kind of education, and over a long period of time.

    About making women safe…it’s a vicious circle. When one says women should be careful, the counter-argument that why shouldn’t the society be safer for a woman instead, comes into play. On the other hand, the societal changes are slow. We must go through the painfully slow grind of education rural moms and dads, who through all their actions end up making the boys feel that they have the right to look down upon girls who go out alone, do not wear traditional clothes. These moms do it because this is the way they were treated as children, and they never had the opportunity to learn otherwise.

    As I said earlier, I laud your post – especially as you don’t reside in India. However, I must also say that there are men in India who think of women as their equals. Such men too have had to fight for protecting the honor of the women in their families – and so while they have not suffered as individuals, but they have suffered for a loved one.

  3. You know, this critique of yours would be the same for any other random action film from Bollywood. The ratio in which Bollywood makes sensible realistic films is like 1:1000. So Mardaani’s criticism is the same as Dabangg’s or Himmat Wala’s or Singham’s criticism. But here’s the thing, shouldn’t we be applauding a female Singham? An action film solely on the shoulders of a woman, not a single bankable male star, not even a single strong male character. This is a remarkable achievement in Bollywood. Happened for the first time in 100 years or so. Is it not important to mark this moment? why couldn’t you think differently while writing about a female hero, and just made the regular arguments which you could have made for any other film?

    Female action hero and yet its not one of your Zakhmi Aurat. Its a regular female cop, doing her regular business. You said more “run of the mill women going about doing regular things…” What does that mean? What is the problem with extra ordinary unique women characters? Then why should we have a film on Mary Kom? She’s not run of the mill, is she?

    I at least tried to see the important achievements in Mardaani, the absence of motherhood, the unapologetic cop who doesn’t even care to give eye drops to her husband, the unemotional woman who can remain calm even when her foster daughter is kidnapped…these I thought were important moments in history of Bollywood. I tried to argue my case on my Feminist film review of Mardaani, please do read and let me know what you think. Would love to hear from you because it seems we are the only two people in India doing feminist film reviews.

    http://sanjukta.wordpress.com/2014/09/07/feminist-film-review-mardaani-an-important-film-because-it-changes-the-way-we-see-women/

    1. I agree with you that we should be supporting women-centric films (hence my point about voting with our feet).

      My gripe with it was the people-pleasing, feel-good solution offered to child trafficking and also rape. Yes it is a solution and I too cheered on Shivani when she was beating up the gundas but as a plot point, I felt it was too simplistic.

      I see your point though- Mardaani far surpasses its male equivalents (Dabangg) and its a fresh new role for a woman- so if the audience wants more films like this, then all the power to them!

      Re run of the mill films…wouldn’t it be nice to see Shivani Shivaji Roy in Mardaani 2, fighting for causes other than women’s empowerment? Or perhaps we can have a female actor going through similar coming-of-age problems like Ranbir Kapoor in Wake Up Sid?

      I will make my point again: There’s nothing wrong with extraordinary unique women characters but why do we have only that? For every extraordinary unique woman character, there are 20 ordinary male characters!

      I think this video makes the point as well: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=BXtUMcz-RCI

  4. In the name of female cops we so far had under cover cops posing as bar dancers or damsel in distress (Khalnayak, Gunday), Mardaani is by far the most sensible logical female cop film, even in Hollywood (Fargo, Miss Congeniality and Silence of the Lambs come close but not quiet) and yet feminists can’t appreciate that. I liked Bobby Jasoos, but you know what, I didn’t clap in the climax of Bobby Jasoos, the way I clapped for Shivani when she beat she shit of the politician and said, “saala rape karega.” I mean WOW! The woman in me was so thrilled. For the first time I realized I didn’t need a male hero to clap and cheer for at the climax. The larger than life hero who single handedly saves the day, saves the world, that super hero, need not always have a penis. A vagina can do that job equally well. Makes me think, may be, just may be, we still could have had a Sholay or a Deewar even if we had changed the gender of Jai, Veeru and Vijay. Case in point, Shivani Shivaji Roy!

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