So whats new? I ask Rani Mukherji. Mardaani 2 and the fact that my daughter is going to be four years old, she shoots back. Almost two years after the last interview with her, we are sitting across the table again in one of the many make-up rooms at Yash Raj Studio, picking up the thread from where we last had left off. In a relaxed and self assured manner she continues to get back at the clich about motherhood spelling the end of the career for a woman, an actor in particular. Being with Adira, is too much fun but Mardaani 2 is also as much an important part of her life. Motherhood and making movies go parallel. Its all the Ms for me right now, she says. She is focussed about Mardaani 2 and the film is the topic du jour of our short conversation.
For several years now, Mukherji has been choosy, doing one film in a year, most of them start-to-finish projects, with her at the centre and no cast of big stars. She rarely meets the press these days, except before a films release. Although, you could bump into her on navmi day, serving mishti at the bhog at the North Bombay Sarbojanin Durga Pooja Pandal, managed by her extended family. Youd still find her looking the same, untouched by the march of time, radiant and all smiles.
Mission to protect
In a flowy, flowery dress, with a flowery scarf round her neck and huge yellow shades covering her eyes, she quickly gets down to the business of explaining the Mardaani franchise in that characteristic throaty voice, It is [about] a woman fighting against crimes that are happening to women. She talks about the trigger for the film, Mardaani began with that ethos in the light of what happened in the 2012 Nirbhaya case. The nation was shattered and in disbelief that something horrific like this, such demonic events can happen to a girl. Mardaani was born from that anger, that fire, she emphasises.
For her the film, about a vigilante cop Shivani Shivaji Roy on a mission to bust a child and sex trafficking racket, was also a cautionary tale, to make people, women in particular, conscious of the fact that such criminals are not confined to any one distinct and defined place but could be lurking around among us as regular folks. That crime can and does fester in supposedly safe space like the family and the neighbourhood. They are everywhere and we need to protect ourselves from them and the only way we can do it is by being aware, she says.
The focus on crimes against women continues in the new film. As women we want to feel empowered. As a franchise Mardaani 1 and 2 give that feeling that you are capable of standing against something that is wrong, declares Mukherji.
But a few things have changed in the sequel. There is a new young villain, played by TV actor Vishal Jethwa. The scene of crime shifts from Delhi to Kota, the coaching capital for competitive exams in India. Kota is one of [India's most prominent] student cities [which is the backdrop of the film]. It also hasnt been shown [a lot] in films, says Mukherji who shot there for a month.
Most significantly, there is a new director. Gopi Puthran, the writer of the previous film, takes over the direction baton from Pradeep Dada Sarkar. I know him since then, hanging around the sets with Dada. There was a lot of interaction with him during the making of the first one and now that we are working together its easy. His transition from being a writer to director happened quite seamlessly, says Mukherji.
Between the two Mardaanis there has been a change on the personal front as well. When she did the first one, she wasnt even married. But as a single woman I had a lot of anger. Any crime done to a girl makes your blood boil. You cant understand how can the person do it. Its beyond your imagination to think its possible, she says. Now, as a mother, there is an added vulnerability when it comes to the young one. We cant protect them all our lives specially if we want to make our children independent, she says. And so it all comes back to being aware and fostering that awareness in children, specially the girl child.
Tapping into rage
What has stayed the same for her is that she feels just as strongly about Mardaani 2 as she did for the 2014 film: Its a story that needs to be told. I believe in it. Stories about strong women should always be part of our industry.
The cop played by Mukherji means business yet again, bringing to the accused what he deserves. Anti-social elements need to be told whats going to happen to them if they continue such acts. There has to be some punishment deserving of the crime they are doing, she says. The blood, gore and mob justice solution of the former may have been problematic. And the trailer of the new film appears to be tapping into the same, but Mukherji claims to have got an overwhelming response for it, It shows that somewhere that anger still exists. When we see something like this it touches a chord, she states.
The interesting bit about the first film was the casual, no-nonsense and hardnosed way Mukherji played the cop. The fact that she is a woman was not screamed aloud. The same approach continues in the sequel. Normally the gender question should not happen. Today, whether you are a man or a woman there is no difference about what time your work is getting over. Its like if somebody flies, be it a man or a woman, they have to basically follow the same diktat. Be it a female or a male doctor, when they operate, they follow the same procedure. In a police academy they are not taught that you are a male officer and you are a female. The officers are reminded of the gender when they reach the field of activity, by the people around them. Its what we perceive them as, stresses Mukherji.
Two down now, are there many more Mardaanis to go in the future? Mukherji thinks Shivani Shivaji Roy has created a nice space for herself in peoples hearts and is a loved character. But it all boils down to the next story, whether its impactful and relevant enough. It took Gopi five years to come up with this now. It was only when the script took shape into something they believed in that they decided to go ahead and make it, she says. For her the franchise is not a business proposition alone but is about leveraging entertainment to send out a message and start conversations. If we do it then we have hit the bulls eye, she states firmly.