Director: Gopi Puthran
Cast: Rani Mukerji, Rajesh Sharma, Shruti Bapna
Mardaani 2 opens with rape statistics. It ends with rape statistics. However, there is nothing in between that suggests the film actually knows what those numbers mean. Sometimes, it doesn't even care much for them. Like most of us sitting in front of our laptop screens denouncing the Unnao and Hyderabad incidents with sharp tweets and theatrical angst, Mardaani 2 (too) brandishes a painfully privileged gaze so detached from ground reality that it amplifies the visual volume of the crime to justify its reckless mob-triggering tone. That the protagonist is a policewoman amounts to nothing – she is just a Bollywood hero wearing a uniform.
This isn't the first Hindi film to do so. Given the country's inherently patriarchal culture, most Indians are so desensitized to the concept of crimes against women that (male) filmmakers have always felt a moral obligation to play up – and exploit – the physical horrors of the act. Extreme close-ups, blood-curdling screams, roaring monsters, flashes of naked flesh…we know the drill. It started with retro Hindi cinema's trivialization of rape under the garb of masala storytelling and colourful villains. Now they want your rage, and they will stop at nothing to get it. I still get this misguided anger, and the desperation of commercial artists to express themselves – mostly irresponsibly – through the only medium at their disposal.
But I don't understand movies like Mardaani 2. Contrary to what the makers would like to have you believe, the film mercilessly uses rape as a keyword. The crime is a morbid sideshow here – a trending device employed to inform an unoriginal detective drama and fetishize a cat-and-mouse game between a deranged demon and a butt-kicking lady cop. It opens with a funfair in Rajasthan's Kota, a famous student town that could pass off as an open buffet for cinematic serial killers. A light-eyed boy (Vishal Jethwa) gives his plate of chaat to a beggar, breaks the fourth wall, looks us in the eye and compares hunger to incurable lust. He is scouting for his next victim. He takes off his Hanuman mask and zeroes in on a girl. Religious Hindu symbolism is used as a subversive running motif across the narrative – he later acts as a mute tea-seller named Bajrang, then as a bald saffron-clad pandit (he's from Meerut), and at one point gets doused in blue paint while hero Shivani 'Shivaji' Rao rests on the steps of a Durga temple on Diwali. For now though, the boy wants to – to paraphrase the cackles of his Bollywood ancestors – "douse the fire of his loins".
Shivani, the new DSP of Kota, five years after busting the child-trafficking mastermind of Mardaani, arrives at the crime scene and invokes her inner Sherlock. Here's where the film's problems begin – and never end. She concludes, in that typical Rani-on-the-go clipped tone and urgent stride, that the rapist can't be the boyfriend because he's a right-handed club cricketer and the knots seem to have been tied by a left-hander. And the camera, for no good reason, focuses on the mutilated corpse of the girl. The score soars. She schools a bearded subordinate on misogyny and small-town sexism. I expect to see a ruler in her hand, but I don't. As she decodes her version of the events, we see flashes of the previous night – a lion's roar floods the screen whenever we see the boy's possessed face. It's deafening, dastardly, unnecessary. She screams, he bashes. A female doctor announces the extent of the victim's injuries, and Shivani sheds a lone tear. She means business.
All this over-the-top gimmickry might have made sense if the rest of the film was about Shivani in pursuit of a sick and shadowy rapist. But what we get instead is a tired chess-game thriller between an egoistic criminal who wants to prove how clever he is because he seems to know he is in a movie, and a supercop who thinks nothing of parading the case on national television and social media to get his goat. The chase is everything. Worse, it is convoluted, as if to suggest that sexual violence alone cannot possibly be enough. The film momentarily forgets about its theme and puts the boy at the center of a hired-hitman plot involving politicians and slain journalists. He starts using his penchant for young girls as a carrot to taunt Shivani, who in turn keeps eating those carrots – even managing to deliver the pensive feminist version of a Kartik Aaryan rant to a sexist news anchor on prime-time TV. Cue women professionals across India dabbing their wet eyes.
Mukerji overplays Shivani, interpreting her as more of a Dhoom franchise character (one upright hero, multiple villains) than a complex cop with the license to confront the detractors of Indian womanhood.
The acting is in sync with the material. Vishal Jethwa, a young television actor saddled with a high-risk movie debut, is occasionally chilling as a monster who must provide a face to feed the current mood of the nation. But he is limited to broad strokes and piece-to-camera grins that put him in the 'self-aware psychopath' category – easy to play up, difficult to inhabit. Mukerji overplays Shivani, interpreting her as more of a Dhoom franchise character (one upright hero, multiple villains) than a complex cop with the license to confront the detractors of Indian womanhood. At one point, we are made to hear Shivani's mind-faster-than-computer thoughts so that we know she is always one step ahead of the kid. This arch-nemesis syndrome somewhat worked in Mardaani, largely due to newbie Tahir Raj Bhasin's high-tech coolness and a murky urban environment that worked as a smokescreen to hide its devious underground network. But the language of Mardaani 2 is too direct, and too timely, to afford the vain hero-v/s-monster treatment. It isn't honest enough to merit anything more than a viewer's primal emotional investment.
What Mardaani 2 does do is make me further appreciate films like Article 15 and shows like Delhi Crime. Sexual violence is tricky ground for artists to translate into anything more than "hard-hitting" content, but by virtue of having privileged upper-class protagonists who are visibly shaken by the crimes they investigate, such stories achieve a rare balance between voice and vanity. The only thing Mardaani 2 has in common with Article 15 is a scene where the twisted antagonist is shown to be a dog lover. Fortunately, between all the "I see you" phone calls, the fiend falls just short of calling his rival a "junglee billi". Or maybe he did, and I'm too conditioned to tell the difference.