Has a major studio film ever kicked off its opening credits while a rape is in progress? Mardaani 2 begins with statistics of sexual assault by underage perpetrators in India, then shows us a meticulous abduction by an ordinary-looking young man. As the camera pans away from a parked car, screams emanating from within, the Yash Raj and Rani Mukerji credits flash onscreen in red.
I wonder if I was alone in finding this moment particularly discomfiting. Opening credits are a safe space, a chance to cheer a star or get acquainted with the people responsible for the next two or three hours of your life. By invading this space, Gopi Puthran’s film is warning viewers that it cares little for their comfort, and will use the issue of sexual assault in as direct a manner as possible to suit its purposes. This is reiterated when superintendent of police Shivani Roy (Mukerji) arrives on the scene the next day. She sweeps the area, issues orders and leaves, but the camera lingers, making a lurid swoop and zooming in on the mutilated body of the girl.
At the heart of Mardaani (2014) was the cat-and-mouse dynamic between Tahir Raj Bhasin’s child trafficker and Mukerji’s blunt, brilliant cop. There’s an attempt to replicate that here, with Vishal Jethwa playing an even younger antagonist. His serial rapist and killer-for-hire, Sunny, is scarily efficient but almost unwatchably monstrous. But we have to watch – Sunny gets almost as much screen-time as Shivani. It’s Raman Raghav 2.0 all over again, only set in a moral universe and with a message attached.
Puthran, who wrote Mardaani and has written and directed the sequel, uses another device to unsettle viewers. At several points in the film, Sunny winks at the audience and even addresses the camera. It’s a baldly effective strategy, establishing a direct connection between the madman on screen and us. But it makes no sense: there’s nothing else that aligns with Sunny’s breaking of the fourth wall. The film isn’t formally inventive or playful or trying to make the audience question its expectations, like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. The only purpose is to creep you out, which it does successfully, though it’s ironic that a film about assault gets its point across by invading the viewer’s space.
Through the film, we see a variety of men talk down to Shivani, from her superior officer to a local politician. Towards the end, she gives an impassioned speech on TV about the plight of women (it leaves one character in tears). The hollowness of this scene becomes clearer when you compare it to Soni, Ivan Ayr’s 2018 film about two female cops trying to do their job in an alternately patronizing and violent patriarchal setup. The protagonists of Soni are competent but also fallible and stretched to the limit; they fail, recover and battle on. Mukerji, faced with far bigger problems, is calm, inspiring, authoritative, serene smile on her face at all times: less woman, more message.
A poster for Mardaani 2 had asked “Why does the age of a rapist matter?" The film, though, stops just before any serious consideration of the question becomes necessary. This is par for the course: Hindi cinema has no appetite for complexity when it comes to sexual assault, opting time and again for vigilante retribution. Shivani ended Mardaani looking on as Bhasin’s antagonist is beaten to death by a group of women. In this slick, gruesome sequel, Shivani again steps aside and allows victims to exact revenge, in full view of the public. You can’t pick and choose your lynchings.