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‘Mardaani’ – A Lesson In Portraying A Badass Female Lead And Breaking Stereotypes

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In the four decades of my life, I must have watched at least a thousand movies. A majority of them had male heroes hitting punches, cars in the air (much like flying saucers) or the hero breaking a courtroom table out of rage.

As a little girl, I appreciated all these movies. However, things became different when I grew up. I questioned myself why I should watch all those male-centric movies with doltish dialogues from testosterone-filled heroes when there were certain movies that tried out things that were completely different. “Mardaani” was one such movie.

Directed by Pradeep Sarkar for Yash Raj Films, this movie was released in 2014. The story revolves around a dedicated and courageous female cop, Shivani Shivaji Roy, who busts the crime cartel of child trafficking and drugs run by a Delhi-based kingpin, Karan Rastogi. Sarkar does a brilliant job by showcasing the female protagonist Shivani throughout the movie, unlike many other Bollywood movies which are more inclined to portray a woman as a damsel in distress. Shivani is depicted as a powerhouse here. Not only she is a police officer, she also has to deal with her other roles – where she is a foster mother to her niece and a housewife to her doctor husband.

In my opinion, the usual Bollywood stereotypes focus on a hero fighting the pitfalls of a particular system. And when the corrupt system throws them out of power, they take the matter in their own hands and decides to carry on the job to ultimately emerge as a winner. “Mardaani” is also a typical Bollywood-style crime thriller. Only the gender roles have been reversed. In place of a he, it’s a she who calls the shots.

In a very interesting article, Sanjukta mentions that since times immemorial, we have worshipped and cheered the male hero when he belts out dialogues like “Hum jahan khare hote hai, line wohin se shuru hoti hai” (“Kaalia”, 1981), and “Rishtey mein to tumhare baap lagte hai” (“Shahenshah”, 1988) – the list is endless. She also says that in films across generations, the common masses have clapped when the male protagonists took up the challenges of saving the downtrodden and protecting the honor of their spouse, mother, sister and daughter.

And then she delivers the masterstroke by saying that one fine day, someone sat up and pondered on the question of whether it make a lot of difference if one changes the gender of the protagonist. The answer after watching “Mardaani” is a squeaky-clean ‘no’. The gender doesn’t decide the hero. Nor does it decide that the hero who saves the day should not necessarily have a penis, because the vagina can be a hero too.

In movies, we often witness a woman being victimised, but in the case of “Mardaani”, I must applaud Yash Raj Films. Here, it’s Shivani’s husband, Dr Bikram Roy, who is at the receiving end of his wife’s ‘ruthlessness’ (when it comes to her profession). Indeed, as I had said earlier, the film makers simply changed the gender roles.

“Mardaani” is a feminist movie and Shivani is at the epicentre of its portrayal and claims for equality. “Mardaani” did fetch in a criticism for showing the vulnerable side of a man (Shivani’s husband). But I would like to say that feminism is not about putting men down. Therefore, as a work of fiction, “Mardaani” deserves some respect, especially when one considers the fact that many of our Bollywood blockbusters have resorted to victimising women. Why is it that we find that we find it completely normal to see films where a man is shown flying from mountains, parasailing without a life jacket and a lot of these silly stunts, but get so disturbed when we see a woman playing the role of a top cop?

As the excellent Sanjukta says (in response to the question if the title Mardaani itself is self-defeating): “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).”

The criticism notwithstanding, this movie also breaks the stereotype that a woman has to be a mother. Shivani and her husband were foster parents to Shivani’s niece – and the director gives us no chance to ponder on the fact why she isn’t a mother. In real life too, we come across cases where a woman is tormented for not being a mother. To such people, I would say: “Get lost! It is none of your fucking business to decide if a woman wants to be a mother or not. It is completely her choice.”

The movie also addresses the ‘to cook or not to cook’ stereotype. The movie shows Shivani tending to kitchen duties, household chores while also catering to the need of her husband and ‘daughter’. But she also orders food from outside, when she doesn’t have time after her grueling work schedule. Here, I found a similarity with me. I too dread kitchen chores – and I would not like anyone to criticise me for it. It’s my life – and it is my choice to cook only when I feel like it. Otherwise, I won’t. And I believe most women will agree with me, here.

The movie also broke another stereotype by presenting Shivani as a tough cop with manicured nails, long hair and eye liners. So what? It’s fucking cool for a woman to wear whatever she likes. For me, it’s about the lipstick. I am a single mother, but I wear sindoor whenever I feel like it. Furthermore, I do not even step out of the house without applying some lipstick. And the misogynist society has no business pointing fingers at us! Indeed, the movie packs off the glamour quotient to one side, so that Shivani, despite being a beautiful and fashionable woman, can stay true to her character of a ruthless cop without flinching.

To conclude, I would say it’s time for people to watch this movie as it has broken the stereotype of a typical Bollywood entertainer. As a feminist film, it can be a source of inspiration to all women. Please go watch it. Besides winning several awards and accolades, the movie’s great achievement is the brilliant portrayal of a super-cop, who happens to be a woman.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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