Cast: Rani Mukerji, Tahir Raj Bhasin, Jisshu Sengupta, Priyanka Sharma, Mona Ambegaonkar, Anil George
Director: Pradeep Sarkar
Rating: *** (Three stars)
Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, a freedom fighter who wrote poems in Veer Ras, would never have imagined how much that one word in her otherwise stirring poem, Jhansi Ki Rani, would rile feminists. And now it’s back, that word — mardaani — as if valour is still the reserve of men, as if nothing has changed since 1848, when Laxmibai galloped to the battlefield with little Damodar Rao clinging to her.
Apart from this one big irritation, I liked Pradeep Sarkar’s M — I hate that word and refuse to use it.
Set in Mumbai and Delhi, Pradeep Sarkar’s film, which is “partly” inspired by a real-life cop as imagined by journalist and writer Hussain Zaidi, is mostly a taut, focused film that sets out to tell two stories — the story of child trafficking in India, and the story of a cop who makes it her mission to free one girl forced into sex trade, and thereby unravels a sex-trafficking ring.
Shivani Shivaji Rao (Rani Mukerji) is a senior inspector in Mumbai’s Crime Branch who doesn’t get frazzled or hassled easily — not when two-bit political goons threaten her, not when her senior reprimands her for being flexible with rules, and not when a senior wants to close a case she’s pursuing. She’s of a calm temperament, but also quick-witted and tenacious. She is also, as the film’s annoying title suggests, gutsy and hardy.
Shivani lives in a flat with her husband, Dr Bikram Roy (Jisshu Sengupta), and her niece. Pyari (Priyanka Sharma) is an orphan Shivani rescued and made a part of her extended family. Shivani’s family gets meagre bits of her time and attention after the city of Mumbai and Crime Branch have claimed their generous share. On duty she’s either catching slippery dons, or restoring order by slapping around a few Bharatiya sanskriti bullies.
This daily routine gets upset when Pyari doesn’t turn up to cut her birthday cake. Shivani goes looking for her — the trail from the orphanage first leads to a car dealer in Mumbai, and then to Delhi, to a man known as Vakil (Anil George) and the chief pimp, Karan (Tahir Raj Bhasin).
Shivani makes it her mission to find Pyari. But while she is chasing them, she doesn’t know what’s happened to Pyari. We do. Pyari has been kidnapped by Karan’s gang and is now in the “market”. Karan, smart, savvy and ruthless, runs an organised prostitution and drugs business whose clients are spread across the world, and whose use of technology is impressive. A scene where the girls who have just been brought in are washed, sized up, categorised and sent off according to the price they’ll command is searing because of impassive barbarity. It’s riveting drama.
Nagesh Kukunoor’s Lakshmi, released earlier this year, was a much more brutal look at young girls pushed into prostitution. M, despite its Adults Only certification, doesn’t spend much time in dingy bedrooms, or with the girls. Though it lectures and breathes heavy sometimes, it’s more interested in the men who run these rackets — men you may see hanging out at a coffee shop, or jogging in your colony park.
And therein lies the power of Pradeep Sarkar’s M. Here the deviant mind doesn’t dwell behind a grotesque face, malevolent men don’t live in hideous farmhouses. The way evil has been conceived and created — to look downright normal, like one of us — is very interesting and scary. That M’s screenplay and characters are inspired by the American TV miniseries Human Trafficking (2005), is obvious.
But that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s Sarkar’s intelligent direction and the able assistance of production designer Madhu Sarkar and cinematographer Artur Zurawski that they are together able to compose rather common personal and public spaces where evil resides and operates in perfect harmony.
At the centre of this universe sits Rani Mukerji. It takes Rani a while to take charge of the role and persona of Shivani Shivaji Roy. Initially her character is overloaded with filmy ishtyle and needless dialogue-baazi — she bows to Chulbul Pandey, say howdy to John Abraham (I still don’t get that). But once all that is done and over with, Rani is in the zone, a zone that’s of her own making.
Mukerji slowly fills in Shivani with her own strokes and creates a cop who has a sexy bedroom voice, a naughty smile, but also one who is quick to kick and jump into the sort of body combat we don’t see A-grade heroines engage in often. She is at once charming and electrifying.
Though in the end, her Shivani taps into a sentiment that’s still raw, she manages to give her character cult dimensions. We may just see another M2.
Though her character’s name is a nod to Maratha pride, it was a relief to see that not all of Big Bollywood (read Rohit Shetty & Co.) genuflects to the threat of nuisance that Shiv Sena and MNS hold.
Tahir Raj Bhasin, who leads the ensemble of evil-oh-so-unconventional, is very effective and impressive.
Mona Ambegaonkar has a brief but interesting role, and plays it with delightful confidence. Anil George, whom we first met in Miss Lovely, is a sparkling gem who needs a role that’s longer, more fleshed-out.
Yash Raj Films is trying out new things, new actors. Along with Shuddh Desi Romance and Dhoom 3 last year they gave us the fabulous Aurangzeb. And this year, after much bewakoofiyan, they’ve given us M. Rani Mukerji marrying Aditya Chopra may actually add a new chapter to the story of the House of Chopras. Fingers crossed.