The basic plot of Mardaani goes something like this: a heretofore unknown sex trafficking ring makes a fatal error when they kidnap the adopted daughter of an uncompromising Mumbai cop. As a result, the cop relentlessly pursues the sex traffickers, eventually following them to Delhi. There, at the climax of the film, the cop beats up the head of the trafficking ring and frees all the girls. Sounds like a fairly pedestrian police thriller – and it would be – except the cop is a woman, Shivani Shivaji Roy (played by an at-the-top-of-her-game Rani Mukerji).
And what a woman – smart, strong, respected by her co-workers, unflappable in the face of danger. Shivani lives with her doctor husband and their orphaned niece (I must admit here that I spent the movie thinking she was living with her widowed brother and his daughter, and I liked that version better, but the Internet has informed me I was wrong). Anyway, this was one of my favourite aspects of the movie, that it shows that a woman can be a hardass at work and still be tender at home.
But what I liked best about the movie was the vicarious thrill it gave me. I got a similar feeling from the scene in Chak De India where the girls beat up the guys who had been sexually harassing them in McDonalds. Mardaani is like that scene made feature-length. Early in the movie Shivani slaps around a Shiv Sena-type and then pops her collar – I had to resist the urge to cheer. And the final fight scene between Shivani and head sex trafficker Karan (excellent newcomer Tahir Raj Bhasin) is also deeply satisfying – especially when she lets the trafficked girls finish the job. I was also quite moved by the image of the girls walking away from their place of captivity with their heads held high.
Now, I do have to say – one of the first posts I wrote for this blog pointed out how often “heroine-centric” Indian films focus on rape as the ultimate injustice – leaving issues like politics and business in the male sphere and positioning sexual gatekeeping as the most important issue for women. Mardaani does fall into this trap, unfortunately. But the movie has so much else going for it that I’m happy to consider this a minor quibble. However, I would love to see Shivani Shivaji Roy become a recurring character – I’d love to go to the movies once a year to see her take on a new social injustice. But every movie would have to end with short and curvy Rani Mukerji kicking the stuffing out of some guy.