There is a scene in Mardaani where Shivani Shivaji Roy’s husband’s office is attacked, his face is tarred, and a necklace of shoes is put around his neck. Under the tar, this grown man has the face of an abused puppy; he is clearly destroyed by this event, and rightfully so. Instead of eating his dinner that night, he throws his plate on the ground. For the first time in his life, what happened to both his space and his body was out of his control, so why would he feel a need to eat and take care of himself? What good does it do to eat if some random strangers can make up a lie and tear apart your property and stake claim over your literal self?
This scene is so poignant because this is what it feels like to just be a woman. Throughout the entire film, every man in Shivani Shivaji Roy’s life is objectifying her without even realizing it. The criminals she is after look her up and comment only how hot she is; her own boss tells her, “risks nahin lena; orders lena hai” (you aren’t supposed to take risks, you’re supposed to take orders). The film’s antagonists even attempt to straight up rape her. Men are obsessed with policing women’s bodies, and even though policing people is literally her job description, Rani Mukherjee’s character isn’t phased by any of this. And it isn’t because she is strong (literally, she works out almost compulsively) or manly (mardaani, if you will). It’s because she is a woman.
While her husband whimpers in a corner because some bullies made fun of him, Shivani Shivaji Roy isn’t phased by any of the millions of attempts to humiliate her using her body because she has literally been dealing with this her entire life. It’s what women have to go through just for being women. Yes, most of us are privileged enough not to have been abducted at age 12 and forced into giving drugs and our bodies to disgusting middle-aged politicians, but the first insult against every woman who exudes even the tiniest amount of confidence and power is always some form of body policing – sometimes a woman just leaving her house and walking down the street is all the invitation a man needs to tell her what to do with her body (i.e., in it’s mildest form: “hey baby why won’t you smile?”; “c’mon, you won’t even look at me?”).
What is amazing about Mardaani isn’t that it’s a film about sex trafficking or that it’s a film with a strong female protagonist. The best thing about this film is how it shows what it’s like to be an average, every day woman so truthfully and effectively. It uses the draw of a topic as poignant as child sex trafficking and the current desire the Indian public has to be able to feel like they are doing good in the world just by watching film/TV (thanks Aamir!) to do this, but despite the in-your-face preachy song and voice over at the end, none of this public service announcement stuff is what the film is actually about.
Yash Raj, the same production house that almost 20 years ago released DDLJ & literally joked about a woman’s ability to consent, just made a film in which we are able to feel exactly what it is like to be a 12 year old girl having a completely non-consensual sexual experience. Women have mostly all been through enough to deal with this, but if any man is able to walk out of this film completely non-traumatized, I’ll be impressed. It’s about time Bollywood made men feel as uncomfortable as women have felt walking out of theaters for the past 80 years.