‘Mardaani 2’ Portrays Rape as a Tool Men Use to Curb Women’s Potential
In Mardaani 2, Sunny (Vishal Jethwa) plays a serial rapist/contract killer who constantly breaks the fourth wall with the audience, letting us into his little secrets — as a kid, a conniving old lady had complained about his mischievous ways, so his dad broke into her house and ‘taught her a lesson,’ he recounts proudly. When a client gives him a supaari (contract to kill someone), he claims he doesn’t wait for the go-ahead, but simply gets the job done. He believes women shouldn’t try to be the hero, but stay in their aukaat (place). These absolute statements, delivered by Jethwa as he fixes the audience with a piercing gaze, serve to give viewers an insight into how he thinks, why he rapes, and what he wants out of the violence.
His character, Sunny, is constantly referred to as a rapist, but never once do filmmakers show his sexual desire. His misogyny (Sunny doesn’t hesitate to slap a woman senseless) and his sexism (he believes women are wicked, untrustworthy creatures who shouldn’t have power in society) are the driving forces behind his desire to rape and murder women and strip them of their agency, of their potential and of their future. Mardaani 2, as one of the first movies about rape to go beyond a one-note, gruesome-assault-by-monster definition, has accomplished a feat rarely witnessed in Bollywood: it has shown rape is not about sex, but about power. It has shown the rapist not as a horny, monster-man unable to control his desire, but as the product of a deeply ingrained sexism that is threatened by women’s potential and progress.
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Throughout the film, a woman’s aukaat is constantly invoked — not just by Sunny, but by members of the police force instructed to capture him. Superintendent of Police in Kota, Shivani Shivaji Roy (Rani Mukerji), returns as the self-righteous, seemingly efficient vigilante cop who busted the child sex trafficking ring in Mardaani (2014). Even as the head of law enforcement, she’s constantly being put in her place by her male peers — when she asserts her authority over a more experienced male subordinate, she’s told by her boss to be grateful society has allowed a woman like her to be successful; she’s instructed to be more deferential, to keep her head down and work with the men around her, not boss them around.
Even as a member of law enforcement entrusted with catching the rapist, Roy is constantly made to feel her prowess as a policewoman has further angered and provoked Sunny; Roy is ultimately blamed — both by Sunny and her colleagues — when he continues to rape more women, because of the sheer vice of her competence. Roy, however, remains undeterred — her faith in her own abilities no match for the misogynistic skeptics around her.
Mardaani 2 shows a movie about rape cannot just be about rape but should be willing to examine the culture of oppression against women that seeks to maintain a vicious cycle of weakness. This is apparent in Roy slapping and booking three men who catcall a woman on the street; it’s highlighted in the childish one-upmanship Roy’s male peers engage in to bring her down; it’s shown when Sunny goes after women who are outspoken, or studying, or in powerful positions in politics, using assault to render them powerless. Director and writer Gopi Puthran, in setting rape amid rape culture, shows any conversation about rape cannot occur successfully without critically examining the society that turns a blind eye to minor abuses every day.
The film is not without its flaws. The same vigilante-justice warrior in Roy, from the first Mardaani, comes to life in the sequel. She’s intent on bringing the “monster” to justice, regardless of due process. Puthran also fails to translate the insight we gain into Sunny into the actual plot — it the end, understanding Sunny is a product of the patriarchy doesn’t influence Roy’s understanding of him; she still views him as a monster deserving of the most dehumanizing punishments she can dole out. In light of the recent Hyderabad encounter killings following the horrific rape and murder there, the image of a righteous police officer taking the law into her own hands is perhaps not the best portrayal of justice, especially to an already bloodthirsty audience.
Still, Mardaani 2 exemplifies how we should be thinking about portrayals of rape. In pop culture and in real life, society and the justice system become overly concerned with the potential of the abuser and how it will be hampered by putting him away. If the survivor or victim does get justice, it’s at the hands of a male policeman with a savior complex. Mardaani 2 not only highlights the collective strength of every individual woman, it also puts women’s loss of potential as the foremost consequence of sexual assault — and rightfully paints it as one of the deeper motivations for men to enact the violation. Mardaani 2 understands painting women as objects of lust only devalues them; portraying them as powerful, growing women capable of effecting change makes them a threat, and there’s no place for victim-shaming in this narrative.