Desp­ite my grave problems with the film, I could not help rooting for Rani.

Starring: Rani Mukherji, Tahir Bhasin, Anil George, Jisshu Sengupta
Directed by Pradeep Sarkar
Rating: ***

Mardaani didn’t come with any great hopes riding on it. A director with a disaster of a last film called Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, sho­ddy promos and an indecorous title that seemed to suggest at a heroine trying to ‘bec­ome’ a hero/man to prove herself than just be confident in her own skin.

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The film then comes as a pleasant surprise in the way it breaks away from, while still remaining squarely within, the conventions of mainstream Hindi cinema. Yes, the background score grates, the Hanuman chalisa irritates, the slo-mo walks towards the camera make you cringe and yes, the climax is intens­ely gory and problematic in the mob just­ice solution it offers. But most of the film itself, thankfully, stays on course.

On the surface it may seem that Rani, as vigilante cop Shivani Shivaji Roy, on a mission to crack a child and sex trafficking racket, has taken over from where last week’s Singham Returns left. But Sarkar’s references are more the foreign TV cop dramas and films like Taken and the narrative is tight and pacey. The casual, no-nonsense and hardnosed way Rani plays the cop is far remo­ved from Ajay Devgan’s allegedly crowd-­pleasing, puffed up turn. For her it’s a job and she does it with an even-­handed ease. The fact that she is a ‘woman’ is not screamed aloud. She is as good with chases, fights and fisticuffs as she is in a duel of words with her deadly young adversary while telling him that her ‘khana’ is going ‘thanda’. Yes, she may serve thalipeeth to the family for breakfast with equal ease, but never lapses into YRF Films’ customary ‘song-n-dance in a chiffon sari’ routine. The gender role reversal is interesting nonetheless, with the man in her life, Jisshu Sengupta, fading into the backdrop much like  wall­­flower women in macho-male films. Rani goes full throttle without bothering to hide her freckles under makeup, nor disguising her petite frame. She delivers a emotional wallop in the scene of her family’s humiliation. The cat and mouse game bet­w­een her and the villain, who she calls “Under 19 ki team ka 12th man”, makes the film extremely engaging. The English-speaking, Breaking Bad-watching, Ipad-carrying, hoo­die-wearing, Hindu college graduate, boy-next-door—well, he is a suave, hip, new face of evil in Hindi cinema. Tahir Bhasin, who plays the role with relish, leaves the strongest imp­ression. Anil George is his slithery, reptilian, chameleon like sidekick, as concer­ned about the onions in his biriyani as he is about the next delivery of drugs. Through them the film shows how crime can fester in unobtrusive family spaces, that our seemingly normal neighbourhoods can be covert crime dens. Indeed, many a trafficking racket has emerged from these ordinary colonies. Desp­ite my grave problems with the film, I could not help rooting for Rani. If you can whistle for Bajirao Singhams and Chulbul Pandeys, you may as well make way for Shivani Shivaji Roy.

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