When a woman is talented and successful, then society expects that in exchange for being allowed to go so far, she must be willing to conduct herself with humility and an unassuming demeanour,” Shivani Shivaji Roy’s boss tells her one day.
Ms Roy’s boss is not being a jerk. He is, in fact, an ally putting into words what most smart, professionally successful women face every day. This harsh reality lies at the core of writer-director Gopi Puthran’s gritty, gripping thriller Mardaani 2, a sequel to the 2014 box-office hit Mardaani. As in the first film, here too Rani Mukerji plays Shivani, a brilliant, no-nonsense policewoman who ruffles feathers with her disinterest in social niceties and indifference to the male ego.
Shivani has been assigned to Kota in Rajasthan when a local criminal hires a very young hitman called Sunny to do some work for a politician in the city. Sunny sees red when women wound his pride, and nothing wounds him more than a public takedown – either of him or of another man in his presence – by a woman. When he witnesses a girl admonishing her boyfriend for a perceived wrong one day, he rapes, tortures and murders her as punishment. This sets Shivani off on his trail. When he sees her, a female member of the police force, mocking him at a press conference, he becomes obsessed with showing her her place. Thus begins a game of thrust and parry between this murderous maniac and a sharp, tough-as-nails policewoman.
It is rare for a Hindi film to create a portrait of no-holds-barred evil without caricaturing the villain in question, at the very least giving him a weird quirk, a catchphrase or even a disability. Case in point: Riteish Deshmukh’s character in last month’s Marjaavaan. Mardaani 2 has no time for such immaturity. Sunny is cruel, his ego is fragile around women and when we discover his background, we get a clearly well-researched insight into the deep-rootedness of patriarchy in our society and the anatomy of violence.
Sunny is a frightening and extreme manifestation of the resentment that confident women face at every turn, not just in public places but also in their offices, social circles and homes, sometimes behind a mask of sophistication. In fact, when he occasionally directly addresses the audience, the device — forgotten too soon in the film — serves as an unnerving reminder of our proximity to the brutes in our midst.
As uncommon as its depiction of villainy is Mardaani 2’s portrayal of an independent woman (barring the irritating, problematic title – for more on that please click here for my review of the first Mardaani). In the past decade, as it has moved away from the cliché of the heroine as a coy, ideally home-bound virgin, Bollywood has come up with another stereotype: Hindi film writers and directors have tended to reductively equate female independence with smoking, drinking, a vocabulary packed with abuse and even obnoxiousness towards those around them, often making these the woman’s defining characteristics. Look no further than Anurag Kashyap’s Manmarziyaan in 2018 starring Taapsee Pannu. Shivani in Mardaani may or may not have habits that her doctor would object to, Gopi Puthran simply does not feel the need to point to them, and her vocabulary, while certainly not antiseptic, is not her identifying feature. What defines her is her brilliance, bravery and dedication to the job.
Although we are not left in any doubt about who is the boss in Mardaani 2, DoP Jishnu Bhatacharya does not giganticise Mukerji’s Shivani as is the norm with male superstars in action dramas. This is obviously in keeping with the director’s vision for the film. So is the sensitivity with which Bhatacharya shoots Sunny’s victims. His camera is an observer and reporter, not a voyeur, and the women are treated with utmost dignity.
Puthran – who earlier wrote Mardaani, which was directed by Pradeep Sarkar – lets Shivani and Sunny completely dominate Mardaani 2, but their characters are so detailed, the tension between them so palpable and the action so unrelenting that the plot feels never less than packed. The background is also dotted with enough characters giving us a glimpse into their respective worlds, from the hardened criminal who draws the line at the sexual abuse of random women to a supportive husband happy to be his wife’s anchor, a subordinate driven by his social conditioning and others who rise above theirs.
The use of a solitary statistic on juvenile rapists at the start of Mardaani 2 is misleading and troubling though, and the text on screen in the end is shoddily written. Another of Mardaani 2’s few faltering moments comes in a TV interview Shivani gives. While the anchor’s conservatism mirrors many real-life journalists, his silence in response to her defiance is unconvincing. Bullies do tend to be cowards, but it is just as true that when they find themselves overshadowed in a debate, chauvinists tend to camouflage a lack of substance with decibels or personal remarks, not acquiescence. For the record, like the female producer listening to their conversation, I too teared up at Shivani’s answer about the stress and scrutiny, humiliation and hurt that every woman experiences.
Aided by Monisha Baldawa’s concise editing, the tension does not let up for even a second in Mardaani 2’s economical one hour 45 minutes running time. John Stewart Eduri’s background score is perfectly compatible with the storyline and Puthran puts it to excellent use, not once raising the volume or thrusting it into crucial silences, unlike the makers of most Hindi thrillers. Sound designers Ganesh Gangadharan and Nihar Ranjan Samal too seem intent on not sensationalising the unfolding crimes.
A heroine and a bad guy unusual for Hindi cinema, cracking suspense, understated messaging that is woven into the characterisation, top-notch performances by Mukerji and Vishal Jethwa who plays Sunny, and Puthran’s no-frills storytelling style all add up to making Mardaani 2 a hugely entertaining, highly intelligent, polished thriller. In terms of cinematic quality, 2019 has been one of the worst years for Bollywood in a very long time. Mardaani 2 is a timely reminder of how good this industry can be when it chooses not to be weighed down by prejudice, market-driven compulsions and lazy formulae.