Mardaani 2 — the sequel to the 2014 crime drama Mardaani — opens in Kota, where the cop Shivani Roy (Rani Mukerji) has been recently transferred. The new city has a new villain: Shivani finds out about the horrific rape and murder of a young girl. Directed by Gopi Puthran, the writer and assistant director of the prequel, Mardaani 2 dives into the investigation straight away. As Shivani is inspecting the crime scene, a constable and a cop comment on her gender and caste. The implication is clear: Shivani has been merely transferred from one jungle to another.
Then there are multiple close-ups of the victim. Shivani meets a forensic expert who details the nature of the crime. Cut to: a quick flashback of the murder. Before Shivani leaves, the doctor hesitates and then slips a line. In a movie like this, that dialogue isn’t hard to guess: “Get the bastard.”
Scenes like these — involving multiple recounts of a ghastly crime and its end-result (both aural and visual) — look like an attempt on the filmmaker’s part to speak to the audience. Because in such movies, the stories and themes aren’t enough; they rely on the audience’s anger, which allows the film a free pass later.
So it does seem fitting when, a few scenes later, the perpetrator, Sunny (Vishal Jethwa), (presumably) an adolescent from Meerut who has come to Kota to murder a politician, breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience. He doesn’t do it once or twice, but repeatedly, looking at us in the eye, saluting us, making us complicit.
Like Mardaani, Mardaani 2 unfolds like a cat-and-mouse game. By identifying the perpetrator early (who we know will ultimately get caught), Mardaani 2 revels in the chase, in unravelling the true depravity of the villain. That strand materialised with a lot of intrigue in Mardaani where the antagonist (Tahir Raj Bhasin), an affluent Delhi boy, represented misogyny’s ubiquitous nature. In the sequel, however, we don’t get any layered social commentary. On the contrary, the film takes a step back. Sunny is evidently lower-class, crass, and hence his misogyny and violence feed into the stereotype of the ‘Other’.
Once that Other has been established, then the rest of the game — unfolding in two distinct parts — makes for a comforting viewing. Because, then, his actions don’t worry us as much, as it’s something that ‘they’ do. Second, his punishment should be as harsh as possible — it should be brutal, and it should be public.
Mardaani 2’s timing — coming on the heels of the police encounter of four convicted men in the recent Telangana rape case — is both the best and the worst part about the film. The former suits the makers who will benefit from a righteous public rage; the latter makes sense to the audiences, especially those who want to “hang the rapists”.
None of this is Jethwa’s fault, who plays Sunny with a lot of conviction and credible menace. Even his breaking the fourth wall isn’t an attempt to make us empathise with him; he looks consciously remorseless. He has a very Joker-like anarchist vibe to him (in one scene he even colours his lips red), going out of his way to bait Shivani. As the film progresses, though, and Sunny moves from one setting to the other, he increasingly reminds us of Ashutosh Rana’s character in Sangharsh (1999), a predator who wants to punish not just the innocents but the law itself.
But these facets, by themselves, can’t sustain this tense action thriller (clocking in at only 96 minutes). A film like Mardaani 2 has to earn its chase, show us the intricacies of police investigation and the villain’s vicious mindset. Puthran, who has also written the screenplay, does a middling job of that; in several instances, the movie leaps over logic, turning its Tom-and-Jerry conceit slightly contrived.
Besides, everything is amped up here — the editing is feverish; the background score is overwhelming — and, perhaps why, the movie is devoid of quiet moments that interrogate misogyny in fine detail. In fact, only one scene — where the daughter of a sexist cop watches Shivani’s rousing speech on TV, as her father is in the same room — sticks out.
It’s not very surprising. Mardaani 2, above all, is fixated on punishment, marked by strains of vigilante justice. It’s the kind of movie that some Bollywood filmmakers, especially in recent years, have come to love. You can’t blame them entirely; a plethora of Facebook and Twitter posts, over the last few weeks, would give you an indication of what the public wants. When Shivani is belting Sunny in a crucial scene, a temple stands in the background. Ironically, in that brief, disturbing moment, everything made sense.