Gopi Puthran is a strange talent. In 2015, he wrote Mardaani, an engaging thriller bogged down in the mire of public anger and cop clichés. With Mardaani 2, his directorial debut, this contrast is thrown into sharper focus. Like its predecessor, the film is mindful of criminal machinations and intricate procedural setbacks. It’s also a sharply-plotted script with some gasp-inducing mini twists. But the moment lead actor Rani Mukerji takes centre stage, it all feels too easy.
After the events of the first film, Mumbai crime-fighter Shivani Shivaji Roy has moved up the ranks. She’s placed as Police Superintendent in Kota, Rajasthan. The coaching centre capital has a huge floating population—young boys and girls—and is flagged for its high crime rate against women (the film drew pre-release controversy over the same). With the press beating down, Shivani gets assigned to a case: there’s a serial rapist at large, brutalising young students and dumping them in isolated ponds. She’s tasked to catch him, though that’s just half the battle. The bigger antagonist, the film underlines with a red pen, is Shivani’s workplace: a quicksand world of clashing egos and shifting priorities.
Mardaani 2 opens with a Fincheresque title sequence. Rani’s introduction is a True Detective lift-off, complete with tree, dead body, and close-looking cop. The scene immediately after is set in a morgue. As she flashes over the clues, Shivani’s expression is unfazed, like she’s checking off a list (in contrast, the doctor relaying the autopsy looks genuinely horrified).
The brutality itself is not exoticised. Except for one scene, the film is commendably un-graphic in its portrayal of rape, a mistake I was half-expecting it to make. Instead, it dials up the horror by other means.
Firstly, there’s the casting of television actor Vishal Jethwa. The newcomer fills the tall-order set by Tahir Raj Bhasin in the first part.
Tahir’s villain was a suave, Delhi-educated ringleader of human trafficking, while Vishal’s is of a different mould. Without spoiling much, he can be called the cinematic bastard child of Ashutosh Rana and Prasant Narayanan (with some crooked Nawazuddin Siddiqui genes thrown in). Moreover, the film makes the uncomfortable decision of giving him character asides—the device makes you squeamish at first, listening in on a rapist like that, but mostly works in unscrambling his twisted mind.
By comparison, Shivani’s intermittent ‘brainwaves’ are an annoyance. She solves things too fast and too soon. At one point, she chances upon a missing asthma pump. A better film would extend the mystery of such a detail, withholding its significance till the end. Shivani, on the other hand, is on top of it from the start.
Rani furrows her brow a lot, but the revelation feels rigged. Also, given the nature of this franchise, and the timing of release, Mardaani 2 can’t be a simple cat-and-mouse. It must also include commentary. It’s here that the film suffers the most, throwing up data about rape crimes and women’s safety but never once subverting its own macho universe. It speaks of gender inclusion in society, yet relishes the atmosphere of fear that’s used to deter women from the workplace. (A film like Netflix’s Soni struck a more effective balance.)
It would be nice to have future Mardaani films play to their strengths. Gopi has the ability to create pockets of suspense, like the brilliant night-time raid inside a building. His messaging, though, does not help—neither do the easy resolutions in the plot. Like Shivani unironically says, “It’s too simple… something’s not right.”
Film: Mardaani 2
Director: Gopi Puthran
Cast: Rani Mukerji, Vishal Jethwa