Mardaani is just the kind of film I always wanted to see – a film with complete gender role reversals.

The hundreds of movies I’ve watched in my lifetime, I’ve always wondered how would it be if we changed the gender of the leading characters? In Mardaani, that’s exactly what I have. As a film its nothing unusual, its not something we haven’t seen before. It’s a regular cop movie, a larger than life hero whom the common man can worship because he can single-handedly save the day by kicking asses and knocking solid punches. There are the usual Bollywood elements such as the hero trying to fight the system that is not very supportive, predictable turn of events such as the case being pulled out of the hero’s hands and so the hero decides to carry on investigation alone without any support from the police department and eventually emerge as the winner. mardaani feminist film review

But, the hero is not a he, its a she.

I don’t know about the common man, but as a common woman, my joy and excitement were beyond words when I saw Shivani Shivaji Roy finally taking the villain to task, the same way I saw the countless larger than life heroes of Bollywood doing it for so many years. I wanted to cheer and clap for Shivani for being able to do what we common people are not able to do.

For hundreds of years we worshiped and cheered the male hero, we clapped when he said, Hum jahan khare hote hai, line wohin se shuru hoti hai (Kaalia, 1981); Rishtey mein to hum tumhare baap lagte hai (Shahenshah, 1988); We loved him even when he did illegal things and said, jao jaake pehele uska sign leke aao jisne mere haat pe yeh likh diya tha(Deewar, 1975) Generations after generations, films after films we the common people lived our dreams through the male hero, on screen he took the actions that never happened in real life, he took up challenges and emerged as a winner, he saved the poor and downtrodden, he saved the honour of the mothers, sisters and daughters.

Then one day, some one sat up and wondered, would it make much of a difference if I changed the gender of the hero? And the answer as we have in Mardaani is a resounding NO.

Because the gender doesn’t matter, the gender doesn’t make the hero. The hero who saves the day need not always have a penis, the vagina can be a hero too.

I applaud Yash Raj Films for the courage they showed in not casting a single bankable male actor in the film, and must I say, we didn’t miss them. Rani Mukherjee’s powerhouse performance was all encompassing, her character was so large that there was no space for anybody else. I think the Bengali actor Jisshu Dasgupta (barely known in Bollywood) was deliberately chosen to play Shivani’s husband, instead of a popular Bollywood actor, so that the focus remains on Rani and is not shifted even for a moment.

We have a tradition of male dominated action films where women are either non existent, or are inconsequential miserable victims. Mardaani maintains the tradition, but changes the gender again. Shivani’s husband, a doctor by profession is inconsequential and a victim.

“But is that what we mean by feminism? The role reversal while maintaining the imbalance? Don’t we want equality between male and female?” (Criticism #1)

Sure, we want equality and no feminism certainly don’t mean a simple role reversal maintaining inequality. But if that happens in a certain piece of fiction, why does it make the public so uncomfortable? If we have a certain film where the roles are reversed and men are objectified, victimized and patronized, why does it become so disturbing and offensive. I always wonder, why do we always expect righteousness, morality and perfection from women, while we allow all sorts of violence led by men. In a country that is corrupt to its core, where access to justice is almost impossible to achieve by women facing sexual violence, we get more agitated and disturbed by a few stray incidences of women misusing the Anti Dowry Law (Section 498A of IPC) to put a few men in trouble. Every law is misused, I mean we got AFSPA for Christ’s sake, so what is the big halla about 498A?

“Isn’t the title Mardaani self defeating? The fact that you call a strong woman ‘Mardaani’ is reinforcing the gender stereotypes meaning, a woman would have to be like a man to be strong and independent.” (Criticism #2)

Certainly, you don’t HAVE to be like a man to be a strong woman. But you COULD be or you MIGHT be. And that’s ok. Because women can be anything they want. There are many ways a woman can be strong, she can be a young widow trying to take revenge of her husband’s death posing as a pregnant woman, using her brains rather than muscle to fight the villain (Kahaani, 2012). She can be a young virgin, recently dumped by her fiancee at the alter, who decides to go for the scheduled honeymoon anyway because that is her only way to travel and explore the world and learn to live life in her own terms (Queen, 2014). Or she could be a foul mouthed expletive uttering muscle flexing sexist joke making tough cop who can slap the shit out of the goons (Mardaani, 2014).

And we must respect all these women without judgment and prejudices.

Strong Woman, Motherhood and Kitchen

I felt confused with this particular set of criticism from the feminist circle no less, because few days back when there was a half way role reversal, as in the woman was shown as her husband’s boss at work but still cooking for him at home, the feminists were outraged, including me. But now there’s a role reversal all the way, feminists are still upset. So what do we want?

Shivani Shivaji Roy working out, ignoring her husband's request to give him eye drops.
Shivani Shivaji Roy working out, ignoring her husband’s request to give him eye drops.

In Mardaani, Shivani also does cook. In one scene she is shown as wearing her police uniform and doing something in the kitchen and then prepares her niece for school. But I was so glad that they didn’t over do it. Unlike the Airtel Commercial, Mardaani didn’t try to show the cliche that women can do it all, she can be a tough cop/boss and yet cook for her husband. Shivani sometimes cooks, but also often brings food from outside on her way back from work at late nights. Sometimes she’s so busy working out that she doesn’t even care to give eye drops to her husband.

Shivani is not a biological mother. She doesn’t have children of her own. She has a niece whose parents are dead, Shivani and her husband are her foster parents. Shivani also takes care of Pyaari, a young orphan girl who lives in the orphanage and meets Shivani often. Now, did she deliberately not have children because she already had the responsibilities of a niece? Or did she not want children? Doesn’t the great calling of motherhood move her? Or did she fail to conceive? These are questions which were very intelligently kept unanswered, because the way we answer them would speak of our judment and prejudice. A married woman who is not a mother is always a point of curiousity. As if it’s the greatest puzzle on earth, married and not a mother, how how how? Mardaani shows, you have to stop wondering about why a woman is not a mother.

In spite of being foster mother to two daughters, there isn’t much of motherhood at display in Shivani’s character. In fact when Pyaari was kidnapped, she remained calm and focused on the investigation, so much so that her niece asked in frustration, “Mausi, how can you be so calm?” So no, Shivani is not your ideal loving caring wife, nurturing mother and tough cop all at the same time. She is mainly a tough cop. Incidentally, a wife and foster mother. That’s more important here and that’s how it should be. Women cannot and need not be everything. (Indira Nooyi, Aspen Ideas Festival, 2014)

Her nails are manicured and painted, hair is long and well kept, she even has fringes. What kind of tough cop is that? Do tough cop have the time to be pretty? (Criticism #3)

The only scene in the film where Shivani wears a saree, only because she is in disguise.
The only scene in the film where Shivani wears a saree, only because she is in disguise.

I always wonder who makes the rule on how to break rules. We are talking of a character that breaks the gender stereotypes but we want the character to follow our rules of how to break gender stereotypes. Rule no.1 she cannot have manicured nails. Rule no.2 she cannot look pretty, cannot have long hair. Really? I am as fierce and feminist as I could be but I love my lip gloss, eye liner and mascara. I won’t go out without them, even if I have to go kill someone. Does that make me less of a woman? Does that give the fellow feminists the right to judge me?

We don’t know if tough female cops look pretty or not, whether they have manicured nails or not. But question is, how many tough women cop did we see in Bollywood before this? Even when they were female cops in the narrative, they still served the purpose of glamour and victim hood in the film. From Ganga in Khalnayak, 1993 to Nandita in Gunday, 2014 women are always the under cover cop, the perfect excuse to make them glamour dolls and the male protagonist’s love interest, and then somehow they get into trouble and the male hero saves them.

Mardaani is one film that even beats Hollywood in breaking gender stereotypes. How many Hollywood films come to your mind if you search for sensible cop films with a female cop in the lead? Miss Congeniality, 2000, Silence of the Lambs, 1991 and Fargo, 1996 are the three films I remember. While I loved all the films and each of these characters were unique, I still feel Shivani Shivaji Roy is the best gender deconstruction so far.

The solutions shown in the film are problematic, it promotes vigilantism, encourages taking up law in one’s own hand. (Criticism #4)

So what? Its a Bollywood film, did we forget that? We are okay with a Sunny Deol uprooting a water pump in rage, we are okay with cars flying like saucers in the air in a Rohit Shetty film, we are okay with a Himmat Wala, Singham and Rowdy Rathore but we want logic and reason in a film that has a female action hero. Why? The point is to make an entertainer while breaking gender stereotypes and celebrating a female hero. Is that not enough?

To Conclude

Do I think Mardaani is a feminist film? Yes. But do I define feminism by it? No. Mardaani may not be a great film, but its an important film. Important not because it reveals never heard/seen before information about child trafficking. It doesn’t. Neither because it provides ground breaking solutions to prevent trafficking, again it doesn’t. The film is important because it completely changes the way we see women in a mainstream Bollywood entertainer. This is a remarkable achievement. 

I can see Rani Mukherjee taking home several Best Actor – Female awards for 2014. For the first time, here’s a film that doesn’t even have one strong male character for the Best Actor – Male Nomination. The villain would perhaps be nominated for Best Supporting Actor or Best Actor in a Negative Role. And new comer Tahir Raj Bhasin might just take it home, because he was really good.

Hopefully, Bollywood would now have a female dialogue in its list of greatest Bollywood lines, Yeh India hai, yahan 50 log kisiko maare to use encounter nahi, public outrage kahete hai