So how do you make a female Bollywood actor play a police officer? Put her on a diet, make her mouth expletives, get her to pack a punch or two and dress her up as androgynously as possible. Rani Mukerji, who plays Crime Branch officer Shivani Shivaji Roy in adman-turned-filmmaker Pradeep Sarkar’s Mardaani, ticks on all these boxes. But Mukerji fails miserably when it comes to two important things. Throughout the film, barring the climax action sequence, Mukerji’s hair stylist makes sure that not one strand of her hair is out of place braiding it with salon-styled perfection. And, second Mukerji mostly recites her dialogues in a vain effort to ape the style of her many male counterparts, ending up sounding rather unconvincing. It is these tiny details that go into making a character real and believable, but again this is cop story from the Yash Raj stable, so why complain.
The first half of Sarkar’s crime thriller, which tells the story of a heroic woman cop chasing the kingpin of a drug and sex trafficking syndicate, is, in all fairness, quite engaging. Mukerji’s character is set up as the Lady Singham and she even gets a dialogue in which she pokes Salman Khan’s Chulbul Pandey. So she is your ideal cop–honest and hardworking. She is also your regular Indian middle-class working woman, who despite her busy schedule finds time to make her adopted niece’s favourite thaleepeeth for breakfast, help comb her hair before she gets to school and keep regular checks on her schoolwork. Roy gets pulled into the web of traffickers when a girl whom she had rescued earlier goes missing from a shelter home.
The film gets interesting at this point when we are introduced to the most casual, contemporary, hip and humanised villain to have graced Indian screens in recent times. The burger-munching, sweatshirt-clad, six-pack flaunting, Breaking Bad fan Karan Rastogi aka Walt(Tahir Bhasin) is the only character that gets full justice in Mardaani. Played to near perfection by Bhasin, Rastogi is not the stereotypical sleazy bad man of Bollywood. The fact that he can pass off as just another guy who could be sitting next to you in the multiplex watching a film sure sends a shiver down your spine. The Hindu College dropout, who speaks in Hindi switching to an accented English with ease, Walt is also given an emotional angle in the film. Bhasin, who is perfectly cast, is the biggest surprise in the film and is what keeps us glued to our seats throughout.
However, the film does not make much use of this brilliant characterisation and it sticks to a largely predictable and uneventful storyline. Although slickly edited (Sanjib Datta), there are no twists or big reveals in the second half, and the linear narrative also doesn’t add much to the film. Sarkar, whose last good film was Parineeta, resorts to a rather tacky portrayal of what were to be the most grittiest portions of Mardaani. The hostel where the trafficked girls are lodged and the parties where they are auctioned off to the big sharks come across as too sterilised and made up. To top this, Sarkar makes all his child actors go over the top when it comes to acting, especially in the climax portions.
Mukerji, who has already proven herself as a talented actor, brings nothing new to the table. She is terrific in a scene where she helplessly watches her husband (played by Bengali actor Jishu Sengupta) fall prey to one of the many traps Walt sets for her. There is too much that is said in the film, too much of articulation from all the characters that sometimes you feel that they accidentally lip-synced to a voice over playing in the background. Although, the action is largely realistic, it gets spoiled by the extra dose of drama Sarkar brings in through some tacky dialogues, thumping background music (mostly Sanskrit shlokas based around Durga) and by making Mukerji shriek after every punch.
Despite basing the whole publicity drive of Mardaani on how girls should be taught self-defence in schools, the film touches upon it briefly once when Mukerji’s niece mentions that she has been awarded the orange belt in school. However, a few minutes later, Sarkar contradicts himself in a scene where a girl, who is trafficked from a reputed school, tries to defend herself and fails miserably, being quickly threatened into toeing the villain’s line. Mardaani ends up being a classic example of a film with good intentions gone haywire trying to subscribe to the commercial diktats of Bollywood and fails to drive home any point.
Director: Pradeep Sarkar
Cast: Rani Mukerji, Tahir Bhasin, Jishu Sengupta