Films react on a delay, and so it is only now that we're getting to see films that draw from the impact of the Delhi bus gang rape in late 2012, and the resulting larger discussion about violence and harassment of women in India. It's not like discussion or backlash has ever quieted since the Delhi case and the ensuing protests. Violence against women makes headlines in India every single day, and should remain the topic of discussion, much as it should worldwide, in every country, including the one I'm writing from right now.
Prakash Sarkar's Mardaani (Fighter) enters this discussion as a grounded cop drama, centered on Shivani Shivaji Roy (Rani Mukherjee), a no-nonsense cop working in Mumbai's crime branch. When an orphaned girl Pyaari Shivani has a personal connection to goes missing, she's on the hunt for the kidnapper. As the crime syndicate head Karan (Tahir Raj Bhasin) contacts her to taunt her, a game of high stakes cat and mouse develops between them.
The story is simple as it doesn't need to be much more. Pyaari's kidnapping and disappearance reveals a brutal, disturbing business in which young girls are traded as any other illegal commodity on the market, like drugs or guns. If there are any filmi flourishes added to this side of the story, there need not be, because just the reality of it is shocking enough. Thankfully at least in the world of film, we get catharsis - Shivani is precisely the right person for the job, following up clue after clue, putting the pieces of the puzzle together, alongside her team.
Rani Mukherjee plays the role cool as a cucumber. You could accuse the character of the same exaggerated flawlessness as many a film cop, but what I'd argue is that men get these roles dime a dozen, whereas seeing this kind of badassery from a woman is pretty rare. Let us have it, for once, in all its exaggeration. Let's allow Shivani to be awesome without undercutting it one bit.
Another thing I really enjoyed is that while they allow Karan's character to get some decidedly cool villain dialogues where he gains the upper hand, and even a moment of distinct humanity and emotion, there is never a moment in which you truly feel sorry for this garbage human being. Poor child trafficker is not a trope anybody needs to see, and while newcomer Tahir Raj Bhasin puts in a good performance, there's not an ounce of me that likes the character.
The final couple of scenes pack such a punch we might as well unpack them, but to do so, I must discuss some spoilers. Feel free to take this as a full-fledged recommendation, with the caveat that if you are a sensitive viewer who cannot stomach violence or the heavy subject matter, you naturally should skip out on the movie, no matter how good or (in my view) important it is. It's fine, not all films are for everybody.
Before I get to Shivani's monologue, there is another key scene earlier on the film, in which a Delhi police boss tells her to essentially back off, and uses the red flag phrase for women in any work place, "you're getting overly emotional". It's an important scene because it demonstrates a point Shivani later demonstrates by somewhat advocating for 'encounters', Indian slang for a tactical murder of crime suspects or criminals commited by the police. The police higher up is not malicious, but his attitude speaks about a lack of interest when it comes to these cases. "What's one girl, why get so invested?" he is essentially asking, but it's the same question thousands of police officers in India ask themselves, while they fail to solve the cases of disappearance, kidnapping, rape, murder etc. Female lives barely matter in the greater scheme of things.
Shivani's veiled acceptance of encounters sits uneasily with me, but her monologue brings up an important point that beyond the questionable behaviour by the police, the next step in the judicial system - the courts - are just as disinterested in the importance of women. They may be bribed, or influenced, or simply misogynist so as to not rate the life of a woman as important as that of a man. We see this, worldwide, where rape victims are questioned on their attire and sexual history, and criminals with power and influence in society can brush aside serious crime accusations with a flick of a judicial wand.
In Mardaani, it is the victims who finally get to enact revenge on the criminal, because this is a film, after all. It's a difficult thing, because as a viewer it felt right and wrong simultaneously, because in the context of the story, I needed this ending, but in the big picture of things, one dead garbage human doesn't change the system of wrong that allowed him to successfully thrive and commit horrible acts. But that's my heavy-hearted Weltschmerz-suffering overly pensive side, perhaps. The good guys won here. And I'm really thankful for that.