I swear that it was not my intention to have three movies in a row be centered around unfeminine behavior and the danger of street life, but here we are. This time, it is about a cop.
It is the evening and Crime Branch Senior Inspector Shivani Shivaji Roy gets into a car with two other cops to go make an arrest. As it takes a while to get through traffic, they spend more time just chatting than they do talking about the operation. Shivani has just gotten off the phone with the big boss, noting to her team that he was in a bad mood and taking it out on his subordinates. Jafar and Morey, both men, joke that the big boss forgot to take his wife shopping for their anniversary, and she must have screamed at him. Shivani does not exactly join in with the jokes, but notes that they handle catching criminals better than they can handle dealing with their own families. Actually, the conversation makes her remember to call her niece, Meera, to remind her to study for her exams.
With the surveillance team already in place, the three cops in plainclothes casually enter a chawl, an enclosed tenement apartment complex. As they make their way up to another level, Shivani signals to another team of plainclothes cops to meet them outside the apartment where their target, Rehman, is hiding.
They can hear that Rehman is…having sex with the woman who lives in the apartment, which causes chuckles. Shivani quiets everyone down and signals to Jafar to release the mouse that he brought with him into the gap above the door. The woman screams and runs out, allowing the cops to rush in. Jafar grabs Rehman and both he and Shivani shove guns at him. Shivani assures Rehman that they will not…um…”encounter” him, as she has orders to take him in alive. Rehman warns that Ali Bhai will ruin her, but she just tells the others to take him away. She then wraps a sheet around the still frightened tenant and warns her against harboring people like Rehman.
The big boss calls while they are on their way back to the station. He is upset that they caused a scene in the chawl and risked civilian deaths in a possible shootout instead of luring Rehman outside before arresting him. Shivani argues that he would have definitely slipped their grasp of a fifth time, but he says that they simply could have arrested him at another time, mocking her precautions. After the call is over, she groans that someone should take his wife shopping. Jafar and Morey laugh, while Rehman just looks confused.
After her colleagues assure her that they will fill out the paperwork correctly so that Rehman will not escape through a loophole, Shivani goes home to find both her niece and husband, Vikram, asleep in their chairs. And…wait… it was Shivani’s birthday? And Meera shows her the medal that she won in…something. Shivani has her show it to her parents…well, to the photographs of her parents on the bookshelf. Apparently, they had died a while back, which is why Meera is living with Vikram and Shivani. Oh, and Vikram brings out the cake.
It is the middle of the day and Shivani is kind of just loitering around with Jafar, Morey, and a sunglasses seller when they see a group of nine men destroying a restaurant, supposedly in retaliation of the establishment celebrating…Valentine’s Day? Huh…I saw a movie about this, but anyways…Shivani wants to intervene, but Morey advises against it, as they are Crime Branch and…I guess destruction of property does not fall under the branch of crime. She goes over and tells them to stop, but the ringleader tells her not to interfere with their…job? What, are they the demolition crew?
Okay, yes, I am sure that they were sent here by the right-wing Shiv Sena political party or some fictional counterpart that deems Valentine’s Day a vulgar Western threat to Indian society, but surely there must be some legal prohibition against this vandalism. Anyways, Shivani retorts that she is doing her job. When the man dismisses her and tells his men to continue smashing the windows in, she starts pointing out all of the violations that she could charge him with, slapping in the face for each violation she states. I guess that that stops the guys from doing further damage. When ringleader tarts to call his boss, Shivani voluntarily gives him her full name and job title…and then smacks him one more time. Okay, the smacks were a bit much, but yes, there were plenty of laws that those guys broke, so they should have expected legal consequences…unless cops usually tend to look the other way regarding anti-Valentine’s Day violence…hmmm…
A young girl named Pyaari is selling flowers to drivers by a traffic light when she notices her friend, Meera, further down in an autorickshaw with Shivani. They take Pyaari to a restaurant. Pyaari states that she will return the favor during the national festival next Friday, which is when she celebrates her birthday. Of course, that means that Shivani will have to get a blackberry cake for Pyaari’s pseudo-birthday. All right and…scene…oh it’s still going. For…some reason, Shivani recalls when she found Pyaari at the train station, in danger of being sold off by her uncle. Pyaari is grateful for that. That was an awkward bit of exposition, but anyways.
A few days pass and it looks like Vikram has been purchasing cakes every day and storing them in the fridge. Shivani asks why. Meera says that they have not been able to find Pyaari after three days and did not want to serve stale cake. So Shivani says that she will go find her.
Shivani goes to the children’s home and asks the person at the front desk to bring her Pyaari. The person is not particularly cooperative and barely looks at Shivani until she pulls out her police ID. Then she asks Shivani if she had found anything. What? About Pyaari…what? Oh…she had assumed that Shivani had come because she had news about Pyaari, who has been missing for four days. She claims that kids go missing all of the time, but usually return after a couple of days. Since Pyaari had been missing for longer than that, they filed a complaint yesterday at the local police station. Shivani goes to interview children and other employees who had seen her last. The information is not particularly helpful, but one kid does mention that another kid had gone missing six months ago.
Shivani gets a cup of tea from a stall outside of the children’s home and recruits the seller to act as an informant regarding any strange people he may see.
Shivani tries to play everything as normal back home, but it has been five days and Meera is not having it. She is convinced that Pyaari has been kidnapped.
Oh…and Meera is right.
Somewhere inside that humungous truck trailer that is ostensibly transporting cars is Pyaari, along with several other young girls.
Under the guise of bring Shivani and the other cops tea, the informant tells them about a man who takes calls outside of the children’s home, and recently bought a new phone, often to take pictures. He even knows where the man is now.
Just as the informant said, the man, Kapil, is outside of a restaurant not-so-subtly taking pictures of girls. Oh, it turns out that he was one of the people whom Shivani had interviewed inside the shelter. Hmmm…Shivani calls out to him and offers to take him home. Knowing that she is a cop, Kapil tries to politely brush her off, but he eventually goes in. The cops don’t notice that one of the workers at the restaurant makes a phone call as they leave.
The cops and Kapil continue their fake friendly exchange while on the way to the station. They get stuck in traffic when Kapil gets a call from someone named Shakeel. He tries to avoid picking it up, telling the cops that it is a family member. The fake friendliness gets a little less friendly when Shivani suggests that Kapil bought his new phone with the money he got from selling girls that he took from the shelter home. Then she tells Jafar that they can start the interrogation at this traffic stop, otherwise Kapil will not be able to go home on time.
So Jafar gets much yellier. Who instructed Kapil to kidnap Pyaari? Kapil pretends that he cannot understand Jafar, so Jafar smacks him a few times. And…OH! Someone shot Kapil in the head.
Shivani notices two men on a motorcycle and runs after them…on foot. Since they have to drive on a crowded sidewalk, she manages to pull the passenger off and then tackle the rider before he gets back to the street. She pulls out her gun to interrogate him, but SOMOENE ELSE shoots him first.
Pyaari and the other girls are taken to what is to be their new home. They are roughly undressed and hosed down. A woman gives them towels to dry off, but a man tells them to remove their towels so that they can be inspected. One girl, Mrunal, tries to fight back, smashing a small dish and wielding it like a knife. If she cannot kill any of them, then she will cut her own wrist. The boss tries to call her bluff, telling her that cutting the vein in her neck would be comparatively quick and painless. He gets up close and tells her the…uh…perks of working for him, along with her lack of options. She reluctantly drops the dish and removes her towel. The boss has her sent out and moves on to the next girl.
The cops have identified the shooter…well, the dead one. He worked for someone named Hanif Hatela, a hired assassin. Also, killing Kapil did not do much to stop the cops, as they broke through whatever security that he may have had on his phone and found a lot of stuff, including pictures of him with known gang members. Shivani notices one guy in multiple photos, but no one knows who he is. In any case, she guesses that this must be a rather large organization. So someone must know something.
And that someone is Rehman. She has him taken from his cell and gives him some lamb to eat. After some posturing, Rehman gives up the name: Sunny Katyal. Sunny started operating here three years ago. He fronts as a car showroom owner, but the real money comes from trafficking in drugs and in girls between ages 8 and 18. He has managed to stay under the radar thanks to being friendly with every major crime organization where he does business. But Rehman believes that he answers to someone else.
So, the mission to nab Sunny Katyal begins. They try getting his phone records, tracking his movements, photographing him nonstop, and putting secret video cameras wherever. Of course, he figures out that the Crime Branch are onto him, and he makes a panicked call from a phone hidden in a bathroom stall to someone he calls Mr. Vakil. When Mr. Vakil suggests bribing the man leading the operation, Sunny tells him that the leader is Shivani Shivaji Roy, who is known for not taking bribes. Mr. Vakil says that he will call her tomorrow and tells Sunny to get him her number. Phone call over. Sunny starts grumbling about Vakil treating that task as being easy.
Meanwhile, Mr. Vakil complains about Sunny blowing up the operation to…oh, the young gang boss. They talk business for a bit and then the boss looks up Shivani on his tablet thing. He says that Vakil is too old to deal with women like her, and volunteers to talk to her himself. He tells Vakil to get Sunny to get all the information he can on Shivani…hmmm…which one is in charge here, the young man or Vakil?
Well, a week of tracking Sunny has resulted in no leads for the Crime Branch, and the big boss is getting impatient. After another day of nothing, Shivani goes home, only to get a call on her cell phone. It is the young gang boss, recounting Shivani’s day. Unrattled by the implication that she is being watched, Shivani calls him Sunny’s daddy, though she says that he sounds like Sunny’s son. After he confirms that there is no point trying to trace the call, Shivani tells him to cut to the point. He tells her to tell him how much it will cost for her to stop watching his people. Shivani asks for her daughter back. The boss is confused until Shivani elaborates that the girl from the shelter was like a daughter to her. The boss says that it might have been possible had Shivani had asked earlier. Shivani replies that the surveillance will continue. Deal’s off. The hunt is on.
I admit that the main reason why I wanted to see this movie in the first place was because I loved Rani Mukerji’s aggressive and foul-mouthed Meera in No One Killed Jessica and figured that her character here would be more like that than the sexy sweet Tina from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. In a sense, yes. Shivani’s attitude is similar to Meera’s, but they toned down the foul-mouthiness and made her more physical. And that is fine. There is one extended moment of Mukerji’s acting towards the end that I particularly enjoyed, which I am guessing that Meera from No One Killed Jessica would not have done. I do wonder if the niece being named Meera was a reference to No One Killed Jessica, but it is just as likely that she was named after IPS Officer Meera Borwankar, who is speculated to have been the inspiration for Shivani.
It may be due to the specific films that I watch, but the attitude towards the police that I have seen in Indian films has been ambivalent at best. The police in this movie are supposed to be the heroes, but even then, it is implied that cops in general are bad. And Shivani is not without her…uh…police flaws. She is perfectly fine roughing up people. She is kind of blasé about the threat of “encountering” a suspect. There is a sequence during the second half of the movie where she and fellow cops do something that is…kind of xenophobic and maybe a bit racist. There are parts where she goes off and does her own thing, particularly towards the end. These may not necessarily be portrayed as good, but more like extreme measures. Like an anti-hero using the tools of what another movie would cast as villainous. She is like a cowboy cop…only she is a woman. Speaking of that…
I don’t know when in the writing process did the movie get the title Mardaani, but It apparently translates as masculine, which is an…odd title. Not because it does not fit, but because it kind of seems like it determined Shivani’s characterization. She is not merely a female cop who is assigned to handle female suspects, as seems to be the case in other Indian movies. Shivani is a cop. She is tough, she is cool, she is level-headed, she is snarky, she is logical, she is intelligent, she is kickass, she is an authority figure while still being a ground-level worker, and she is perfectly willing to risk a police brutality charge. None of these traits necessarily scream manly, but she does seem to come across as a “one of the guys” character in a man’s world. Perhaps that is how Borwankar really is. I am not sure. There are times that the dialogue does remind us that she is a (straight) woman, but it is not really treated as an important point…until it is. The first sequence has her wearing a traditional Indian woman’s dress, but it is a misdirection, both on the chawl and on the audience. It would be inaccurate to say that she only wears masculine clothes after this scene, but she never wears something like that in the movie again.
I do appreciate that, while she may get gender-related pushback from others, there is no backstory where, say, she told her parents that she wanted to be a cop and her superstitious mother begged her to reconsider and the wise, always right patriarch told her mother to shut up and let her follow her own path, as I have observed is a trope in many supposedly feminist Indian movies. Not naming names. Nor does she fall in love with the antagonist in order to add romance to the movie. One could have possibly made an argument that the movie simply gender-flipped its main character had the title not given away the game immediately. So, now, what is it trying to say?
Shivani’s marriage to Vikram is a stable one, with the movie not really focusing on any romantic aspects. He is not particularly important to the movie until the movie makes him important, for reasons that I was not all that happy about. It is an odd choice for Meera to be their niece as opposed to biological daughter, but maybe that is meant to suggest that Shivani and Vikram were not able to have kids on their own. Or it was meant to give a reason why Shivani’s parental behavior was not overbearing. The bit where we learn of Pyaari’s history with Shivani seems to have been edited in a way that it could have been cut from the movie, making Pyaari just one of Meera’s poorer classmates whom Shivani is cordial with…which is kind of how she is with Pyaari.
What was I saying? Right.
As you can tell, the movie addresses the subject of child trafficking, which is apparently a huge thing in India. There are enough disturbing scenes of Pyaari and other girls suffering under the hands of the gang and clients to be off-putting. Sometimes very off-putting. If you are wonder if there is that kind of scene, be warned that the answer is yes. But this is not like Lilya 4-ever or even other Indian movies that focus on the constant suffering of their main characters. This movie is more interested in the fun cat-and-mouse game between a rugged cop and a single trafficking gang, with Pyaari representing the stakes more than anything else. It is not goofy by any means; it does try to strike a serious tone for the most part. It is just occasionally idiosyncratic. I am not sure if the movie really strikes the balance well enough to make the trafficking storyline feel like something other than highly unpleasant window-dressing. Still, it delves more into it than other, perhaps more exploitative Indian movies, and the messaging was enough for the movie to get tax-free status for a while in at least two Indian states.
I would say that Rani Mukerji (who married the movie’s director Aditya Chopra a few months before the movie’s release) really carries the film, though Tamir Raj Bhasin as the gang boss plays well off her as the main antagonist. Together, they can help me overlook some of the issues that I alluded to before, along to one detective story-esque flashback sequence towards the end that really could have been included in the main chronology of the story. I…uh…hmmm…this seems like I have been harder on this movie than others, including those that were objectively worse, brazenly offensive, or also dealt with disturbing subject matter. To be clear, I enjoy this movie quite a bit. It is a fun action crime thriller with an important message that kind of risks getting undermined by the fun action crime thriller element. That makes for an unsettling watch, but in a way that I am guessing was unintended. In any case, the tension of the two sides kind of adds to the experience. Mukerji as Shivani holds it together for me, though that may not be the case for other viewers.
This movie made ₹56.7 crore (around $7.7 million) on a ₹21 crore budget. While hardly a blockbuster by any means (the biggest Indian movie that year, PK, made ₹854 crore on a ₹84 crore budget), it was still deemed successful enough to get a sequel in 2019. I recently caught that on Amazon and…I liked it for the same reasons that I liked this one, but it made a few even more…interesting decisions regarding its narrative and disturbing subject matter. It also went a little further in addressing Shivani being a woman in a male-dominated society, particularly in one rather bizarre tangent of a sequence. That one made ₹67 crore on a ₹20 crore budget, so it was announced shortly after its release that there would be a third installment. I don’t know if COVID has put a hold on any plans for that, but if it does get made, you bet I will track it down.
WTF ASIA 181: Paskal (Malaysia: 2018, approx. 115 minutes)
WTF ASIA 182: The Third Party (The Philippines: 2016, approx. 118 minutes)