Mardaani is not a perfect film, but it’s better than many of the blockbusters Bollywood churns out regularly. It’s a well-made commercial Hindi film – reasonably short and minus songs – that’s trying to say something. For that I’m going with three out of five. Whatever else, you won’t be bored.
As movie cops go, Mardaani’s Shivani Shivaji Roy, played by Rani Mukerji, feels closer in spirit to Aamir Khan’s straight-talking Ajay Rathod from Sarfarosh over larger-than-life supermen Chulbul Pandey or Bajirao Singham. This mostly gritty thriller directed by Pradeep Sarkar opens nicely and coasts along smoothly until it threatens to come undone in its final act.
When we’re introduced to our protagonist, a senior Mumbai Crime Branch officer, she’s on her way to nab an elusive criminal. As the police jeep navigates the streets, Shivani makes a quick call to her niece to remind her to finish her homework. It’s throwaway moments like these that give the film a believable texture, and Sarkar creates a fully authentic flesh-and-blood character in Shivani, who comfortably balances her job with her home like most working Indian women.
The real plot kicks in when Shivani starts probing into the disappearance of a poor girl from a homeless shelter…an investigation that leads her to uncover an organized sex trafficking racket. Soon she’s involved in a cat-and-mouse chase with a mysterious drugs-and-prostitution kingpin (Tahir Bhasin), but to reach him she must get through a maze of accomplices.
There is much to admire in Sarkar’s film, from its crisp pacing to the performances of its supporting cast. Anil George (from Miss Lovely) is suitably creepy as the villain’s main man Vakil, but Bhasin is the real find. He’s perfectly cast as the English-speaking, videogame-addicted Breaking Bad fan Karan, who addresses Shivani as “Ma’am” when he speaks to her on the phone. This is not your typical Hindi-movie pimp, and Bhasin plays the part with sly menace.
The camaraderie and the banter between Shivani and the officers in her team ring true, and her lingo – peppered liberally with cusswords – never feels out of step. The film doesn’t linger too much on her marriage, but in one devastating scene we watch as her husband, a doctor (Bengali actor Jisshu Sengupta) becomes a pawn in her clash with the villain.
But Sarkar opts for an entirely different tone in the second half, when Mardaani adopts many of the typical clichés of Bollywood films. There is an exploitative, voyeuristic quality to the scenes in which the kidnapped girls are initiated into the flesh trade. And Shivani has emerged into a one-woman crime-fighter by the time we reach the overblown clunky climax. She’s pretty much Lady Singham at this point. Surprisingly, despite these problems, the film is consistently watchable, and keeps you glued to your seat. Much credit for that must go to Rani Mukerji, who is in terrific form. Investing Shivani with both physical strength and emotional courage, she gives us a hero that’s hard not to root for.