There’s a great shot early in Mardaani (subtitled as “Fighter,” literally “Manliness“). The face of Crime Branch Inspector Shivani Shivaji Roy (Rani Mukerji) is silhouetted against the lights of Mumbai traffic. Her profile takes up half the screen; she’s as much of a part of the city as the traffic itself. She exists in the light, and it’s her sworn duty to bring the criminals of the underworld into that light.
The criminal enterprise Mardaani focuses on is sex trafficking, particularly the trafficking of underage girls. Onscreen statistics at movie’s end emphasize the alarming frequency with which Indian girls are abducted and sold into prostitution.
Like all movie detectives, Shivani doesn’t play by the rules, but she’s respected by her colleagues and quick with a dirty joke. She lives with her husband, Bikram (Jisshu Sengupta), and their niece, Meera. Shivani is also a sort of foster parent to a 12-year-old street vendor named Pyari (Priyanka Sharma), whom she rescued from poverty and placed in a reputable orphanage.
(The niece, Meera, is superfluous to the story except in that she establishes Shivani as a maternal figure and provides an explanation for why Pyari doesn’t live with Shivani.)
When Pyari goes missing, Shivani stumbles onto a sophisticated ring of drug dealers and child traffickers lead by a young man named Karan (Tahir Bhasin), who prefers to be called “Walt” in homage to the Breaking Bad character Walter White. The stakes rise as Shivani gets closer to Karan, and their mutual pursuit hinges on who will slip up first.
Mukerji is believable whether she’s playing bubbly and beautiful or jaded and tough, and she’s great again in Mardaani. She handles action scenes with ease, and she’s funny during scenes in which Shivani jokes with her fellow officers, Jafar and Morey.
Director Pradeep Sarkar and writer Gopi Puthran don’t diminish Shivani’s femininity even though she’s in a typically masculine role. Shivani is a working woman with a family. She makes tea and wears her hair long. But she can chase down a criminal on a moped, and she gets to say cool lines like, “With a lot of love and patience I’ll squash you to a pulp.”
Sarkar and Puthran also deserve praise for their handling of an uncomfortable scene shortly after Pyari’s kidnapping. Pyari and the other girls are sprayed with a firehose and made to strip in front of their captors. The sequence is simply business, and the girls are treated like animals being judged on their way to auction. There’s nothing titillating in the way the scene plays out, which is an important distinction that other filmmakers have missed.
This “just business” approach to trafficking is enhanced by Bhasin’s performance as Karan. His unruffled detachment lends him an air of danger that keeps even his own underlings in line.
The movie occasionally falls into preachiness, as when Shivani explains to a police captain why rescuing girls from force prostitution is a good thing. The soundtrack is melodramatic and corny, at times, though the rock score during chase scenes fits nicely.
In Mardaani‘s climax, Shivani goads her opponents with the same kind of bravado exhibited by other notable Hindi-film cops, all played by men. However, she doesn’t position herself as the arbiter of divine justice (as opposed to a character like Singham in Singham Returns). Obviously she guides events, but Shivani remains aware of her duties as a public servant. It’s a more realistic approach to the single heroic cop story, and it’s more satisfying because of it.