Tuesday, March 24, 2015

MARDAANI (2014): "This is India!"

Female empowerment, Indian style. Here's a 2014 release that has a Seventiesish vibe in its pulp action and righteous indignation. Rani Mukerji stars as a Mumbai supercop for whom the war against human trafficking gets personal when a street urchin she'd befriended gets swept into the vile trade. Officer Shivani plows through official inertia to wage war on "Walt" (Tahir Raj Bhasin), the trafficking kingpin. With Shivani Indian heroines catch up to their western counterparts. She can outrun a motorcycle, though admittedly it's going slow on a sidewalk. She can get out of seemingly unbreakable bonds. Her adventures remind me of American pulp fiction or "golden age" comics. Some of the plot devices are so old that even within the film characters comment on how unlikely it is in the 21st century for a street criminal to have all his clothes hand-tailored, so that Shivani can track him by checking the tag on his shirt. There's even a climactic fight scene in which she throws her gun away so she can prove a point to Walt's erstwhile captives by beating the crap out of him with her bare hands. It's all quite corny and the plight of Shivani's involuntarily tarted up little protege (Priyanka Sharma) is milked for all its melodramatic pathos, but director Pradeep Sarkar plows ahead with such guileless enthusiasm that much can be forgiven. You can't help enjoying an early scene in which Shivani bitch-slaps some jerk whom I take to be a Hindu nationalist for vandalizing a shop that dared hold a Valentine's Day sale. He's India's answer to the Klan or the Daesh, though only a vandal, and he deserves what he gets from our heroine.

While bigots get beaten down for comedy relief, Mardaani taps something darker in Indian society at its climax. Shivani has defeated Walt and in the process has exposed a powerful politician whose kink is raping prostitutes. She has challenged Walt to hand-to-hand combat, as mentioned above, and humiliated him. But he doesn't care and isn't worried. "This is India," he reminds her, and that means his political and business connections will see to it that he serves little if any time. Her answer? Yes, this is India, but that means she doesn't necessarily have to arrest him to get him off the streets. Is she going to murder him, then? No, but they are: the girls he's tortured and exploited. Technically it won't be murder. Since this is India, the law there says it isn't murder is someone is killed in a demonstration involving a certain number of people or more. There just happens to be a quorum present, so as Shivani discreetly walks away the film's upbeat girl-power theme song plays over a lynching, the death of a thousand kicks from high-heeled shoes.

Mardaani's over-the-top final act alone makes the film worth seeing for fans of global pop cinema. Mukerji brings badass authority to her lead performance, and that's all the film really needs. I haven't watched as much Indian cinema as I probably should have by now, so I don't know how extraordinary or transgressive such a female role would be there. But it certainly can't hurt anywhere for people to see women kicking ass on the big screen. Just maybe it might make some men think twice before acting out their fantasies.

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