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

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.