Mardaani: A Bollywood Film In Which A Girl Gets Raped & It’s Not A Joke

2014-09-01 06.48.15 pm

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.

2014-09-01 06.46.12 pm

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.

2014-09-01 06.45.18 pm

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.

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10 responses to “Mardaani: A Bollywood Film In Which A Girl Gets Raped & It’s Not A Joke

  1. Interesting points you bring up how most (if not all) women have to, as the Daily Show said, “navigate a daily maze of sexual menace” just to stay safe. It’s one of the reasons women are inherently cautious and fearful around any unknown male they meet, even in relatively “safe” or “progressive” communities where sexual harassment is not as openly accepted. You can imagine how much preaching they do here in American campuses where supposedly 1 out of every 5 female college students is sexually assaulted during their time as an undergraduate. If I ever have a daughter, I’m not sending her to college without pepper spray, a taser, and a healthy course on Krav Maga.

    However, I would like to comment on another you point you brought up about the protagonist’s husband “whimpering in the corner because some bullies made fun of him.” I haven’t seen this film so I’m not entirely sure what the context of this issue is, but as a male I’ve found that few women really understand the intrasexual pressures and openly violent competition men go through throughout out their childhood and even well into adulthood. Just like few men fully comprehend the suffocating weight of sexual policing and violence that women face, women rarely face intrasexual violence from their peers growing up and physical confrontations the way men do. Part of the inherent problem with sexual assault, power-plays and asserting dominance is that both men and women are obsessed with social status and asserting their authority, but the difference is that men often go to extreme PHYSICAL and VIOLENT means to do so. I’m not simply talking about murderers and rapists here, I’m implicating most men in general — that as part of being a man you have to assert yourself physically and sometimes violently over other males to be even taken seriously, to gain invaluable social status, and yes, to procure mates that are always watching (and subconsciously judging) those confrontations. It’s a violent world out there, even in the “civilized” parts, and often what prompts men to act out is being sexually humiliated or having their masculinity challenged.

    In other words, I feel like feminist critiques of the male condition like that juxtaposition you made between the “strong female character” and her wussy husband are part of the problem of intersexual violence. Part of the inherent male backlash against feminism is the fact that much feminist literature and rhetoric involves generalizing males as demasculinated, loser beta males that couldn’t make it a day in a women’s shoes. That may be true (that most men probably couldn’t walk a mile in a women’s high heels, not that they’re losers) but I think few women, particularly feminists, understand the masculine condition nearly as well as they think they do.

    I’m almost sure you and I have had this discussion before, and I think you’re response was that, “well, men have been humiliating women for a long time, so it’s OK if women return the favor so that men learn a lesson.” I’m really not sure that’s the best route to convincing males to take up the feminist banner if they have to be sexually humiliated or demasculinated in order to first do so. Empathy can be taught through other means. It’s one of the reasons why I, although I believe women should be treated equally before the law like men, that they should have access to affordable birth control and contraception, and that they deserve suffrage and equal pay for equal work — that’s why you’ll never see me openly proclaim myself a “fem”-anything, unlike good ole Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But then again, maybe I’m just not a real man like wonderboy JGL 😛

    With that said, an interesting, thought-provoking post deserves an overly long, ranting comment. Welcome back Kayfil, I missed ya 😀

    • Yes, it’s been a while! Work sucked away everything I liked from my life for the past year, but I’m working on that 😉

      What’s really interesting about Mardaani with regards to your comment is actually that it has this ongoing theme (that most people missed, I think) about how, especially because in India everything is so terribly organized in the core of the government, people have to stand up for justice and take the law into their own hands. And, the way that everyone in this film was doing that was through physical violence. When she finally gets the bad guy in the end, he makes the point that she can’t turn him in because most of the people in the government are clients of his drug/sex trafficking business so they would be on his side, and she can’t murder him for the same reasons. Her response is that yes, I can’t personally murder you, but if we fight for a bit and then these 50 12yr old girls actually join together and do the killing, then it’s considered a public outrage and that’s okay. It’s all stuff that doesn’t really make sense outside of the Indian context, but is exactly how things do work over there, so it’s important that they included this (even though the scene where they have this conversation and then the 50 girls gang up and kill him is definitely the weak point of the film as a whole). Also, it’s relevant that the bad guys attacked her husband because 1) they were trying to intimidate her and 2) they started a rumor that he had sexually assaulted a female client and this was “society’s revenge” for that “act”. So this was all done through an attempt to control women’s bodies, despite it being an attack on a man.

      So, all of this being said, I agree that it’s important to consider society’s pressures of masculinity just as well, but I don’t think this film in particular was addressing masculinity at all (ehhh….it wasn’t for me personally, but someone named it “mardaani” which means something along the lines of masculinity, but I’m ignoring that). I phrased that section as I did in order to be controversial and get an outrage, of course :P, but I don’t think the husband was in any way portrayed as a wuss. It was totally understandable that he reacted that way, and the way it was done in the film made you really empathize with his character at that moment. But, narrative-wise, this scene happens in the place where normally the male protagonist’s sister would be raped and this would incite an internal conflict for the protagonist as to whether to keep fighting and put his family in danger but also get revenge, or to give in and stop so that he can better fulfill his role as a protector of his household. And it’s interesting that what they chose to substitute for rape wasn’t a physical fight or a murder or anything, but a simple rumor + public humiliation, and that it was put in sharp contrast with a scene depicting the graphic rape of a 12 year old girl. If women reacted the way this guy did to public humiliation and rumors, we would never see JLaw in another film after last night, and most females would just get off the internet completely, but men’s bodies are so seldom controlled in this way that it was really jarring for him – in the same way that it’s really jarring for a 10 year old girl to experience her first instance of someone shouting demeaning insults at her while following her home. And the protagonist’s own reaction of empathizing with her husband but also sort of blowing it off was in pretty sharp contrast to a male protagonists’ typical reaction to this plot point of feeling terrible about not protecting his family well enough. She knew her husband could take care of himself as well as she could take care of herself, so that intimidation tactic wasn’t going to work on her.

      Anyway, I didn’t feel like it was demasculinating, but maybe I just still don’t understand what men go through in terms of conforming to standards of masculinity and just totally missed that point because of it. I thought it was just portraying the difference in the way that men’s and women’s bodies are typically controlled and how, in this case, men don’t deal as well with the same shit they dish out to women because they aren’t used to being on the receiving end of it; but women wouldn’t deal well with being controlled in the same way that men typically are, either. The latter point just wasn’t even relevant in this movie because it didn’t occur to the antagonists to control her in any way BUT through the typical ways that women’s bodies are controlled until the very end when it was too late. Which I thought was super interesting – honestly, if they had just tried anything other than belittling her sexuality and trying to rape her (so, if they had just fought her like she was a man instead of like she was a woman), they would have gotten away and probably even killed her in the process.

      • OK, perhaps I should’ve looked up the movie before commentating, 😛

        Wow, this thing looks incredibly creepy and twisted and bleak. Not your standard Bollywood fare from what I can see. Interesting that I mentioned Krav Maga and it turns out Rani Mukerji learned it for the film, ironic 😀

        The trailer looks cool, although I have doubts whether Mukerji’s stocky ass could race, catch, and beat up up Mafia dons like I’m watching her do. Now THIS girl…(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJCzFe46PRg) probably could 😀

        This looks to me to be very similar to Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’ — a sort of stylized revenge fantasy about a rather serious humanitarian crisis. Have you seen DU, is that an accurate analogy?

        In any case, perhaps I jumped the gun on my assessments. I feel like I’m surrounded by these sorts of feminist analysis in college constantly (I guess that’s a good thing), so I’m used to retorting to my female colleagues that guys aren’t all that bad. Still, I think my point about trading one gender’s masculinity for another is worth pondering, as I feel that’s part of what feminism is trying to do despite the term’s inherent claim to the contrary. If that’s a big misinterpretation, perhaps that’s why so many guys aren’t sure what to do about it (e.g. me), are openly against (e.g. misogynists), or just don’t take it seriously (most everybody else).

        I mean think about it. Most any normal guy would claim that women should be treated the same legally (again, most millenials were raised by ex-hippies or women who fought the 60’s-70’s sexual revolution), but at the same time why do men recoil from “feminist” subjects or ignore them altogether? My Mom is an uber-fem/Hippie sexual revolutionary/60’s girl, and even I had nitpicks with your argument. I dunno, maybe guys ARE jerks (shrugs) 😛

        And then of course, like you mentioned, the situation is probably far, far worse in most cases in places like India and much of South Asia. My guess is that feminism by any means necessary (Malcom X :D) is probably far more appropriate. Again, that’s not to dismiss those entire cultures as “below” mine, but I think most would agree that most South Asian cultures are pretty conservative with regards to women’s rights and sexual equality. My former girlfriend from Nepal (generally a more progressive Hindu culture than India) complained about being harassed all the time.

        Case in point: My favorite article of yours, “Sexism in 3 of Bollywood’s Most Popular Films.”
        — Here’s one girl singing about how much she loves Aamir! And here’s a white girl who’s in love with him! (hahaha)
        — Here’s Kajol before intermission (glares daggers at SRK). Now here’s Kajol after intermission (I’m a guy, so I recognize those DO-ME eyes anywhere 😉 )

        *DIES* 😀

      • Hahahaha thanks! Yeah, it’s really a lot to think about – and thanks for bringing up the points about masculinity because it really was something I hadn’t thought about with regards to this film yet.

        I haven’t seen Django, but I’m really curious about if there are similarities; the trailers and stuff I’ve seen make it seem like there could be, so I’m gonna look into this more. It’s supposedly a “remake” of Taken? Which I also haven’t seen but from talking to people it doesn’t really feel like a remake but more of a “plot was partially inspired by” thing.

  2. Wow! You are a great writer! Totally agree on your views about the daily reality women face everyday of their life. This film does a stand up job of portraying this issue without the extra bollywood fluff, aka, super strength, over the top action sequences etc, like they have done in other police based films.

      • Oh hell yes! Gulaab Gang was a sham. I’m not trying to promote my blog post, but if you wish, you can read my review on GG. I was very disappointed and I’d love to know your thoughts.

  3. Thinking back to the scenes where the abducted girls were forced into prostitution…I agree that those were the most powerful scenes of the film.

    Good spot with comparing the way in which they show a man’s humiliation vs a woman’s. It really shows how pathetic and lazy Bollywood has been in resorting to the rape of women as a plot point.

  4. So `Mardaani` is exactly a remake of `Taken`. The story, plot, some characters, and even certain sequence of events are very similar. The obvious changes like female protagonist and Indian setting influence the other changes as a domino effect for the rest of the movie.

    This is obvious as Liam Neeson wasn`t almost raped in the climax of `Taken`. (How interesting would it have been if he was though. Imagine this conversation on mainstream Hollywood movie sites.) I was initially surprised by the amazing phone conversations between Mukherji and the antagonist, until I realize that it`s an attempt to re-create the, now meme-worthy, scene of Neeson threatening his daugther`s captors. But the plot of daughter (figure) getting abducted, then groomed, drugged and moulder into being an play thing as part of a sophisticated sex trafficking ring for influencial clientelle is pretty much bang on.

    I`m glad you liked this movie, as a lot of people complained that Mukherji`s role is just that of a man, with a women stepping into it. While I kind of agree, I don`t think that`s necessarily a bad thing. The thing that makes me wary of this feminism debate, is that sometimes I find that the rare instances that some progressive things do happen, are overshadowed as being `not enough`. But isn`t any change or forward movement a good thing? Similarly, while you find Mukherji`s depiction as a woman in this role to be reflective of how all women have to shrug off emotional attacks and function in their daliy lives, I see the opposite, but in a complimenting way. The fact that the supporting actors (not counting the antagonists, because they have to be assholes) don`t reference or acknowledge that fact that she`s a woman police officer in charge, etc, to me is awesome. And to the point, even the villain didn`t talk down to her simply because she`s a woman, but spoke to her with the same level of respect + hero/villain dynamic that would be extended to a male protagonist.

    In certain situations, we can`t achieve equality if the differences are always being distinguished to the point of paralysis. And this holds true a lot more in occupations such as law enforcement. You can accomodate between a man and woman till you win elections, but if that accomodation gets someone killed, then what`s the point? So Mukherji being completely masculine (while not becoming a joke) in the sense that she`s doing things that are usually associated with men in Bollywood movies as action `heroes`, and no one in the movie is drawing attention to that, is commendable.

    My 2 cents anyways.

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