MARDAANI. Director: Pradeep Sarkar. Players: Rani Mukerji, Tahir Raj Bhasin, Jisshu Sengupta, Anil George, Priyanka Sharma. Hindi with Eng. Sub-tit. Theatrical release (Yashraj).

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Rani Mukerji’s career-graph has spanned three decades, an unusually lengthy span in the limelight for an Indian female actor. In part because of her association with Yashraj studio but mostly because of the meaty roles Mukerji is unafraid to tackle, the former hot-pants wearing tart from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) has matured into a full-throttle gifted performer that can stand up at the head of the class. Reuniting with Pradeep Sarkar after Lagaa Chunari Mein Daag, Mardaani finds the director and the actor in a lightening-charged, no nonsense crime thriller that leaps to front of the pack.

A day’s work for inspector Shivani Roy (Mukerji) can start with tracking down an escaped jailbird, recruiting a tea-stall owner to become—surprisingly—a willing police informant and taking her niece to school. Inspector Roy’s cross-hairs make a jolt-landing on a very different target with the disappearance of Pyari (Sharma), a street urchin Inspector Roy’s family has befriended. Suspecting that Pyari could be in the hands of a notorious sex-trafficking network and sensitive to the political implications of getting wrong even one name or turncoat in a highly-connected megacity like New Delhi, Inspector Roy must use a light tread and cunning to confront a nearly-invisible foe with deadly tentacles.

Writer Gopi Puthran has scripted Inspector Shivani as a strong-armed, frequently foul-mouthed, pint size dynamo that can effectively emasculate mean men who are several times bigger, richer and better connected than her. Mukerji in a later inning, sans designer threads, mini-skirts or batting eye-lashes, is convincing as an avenging guardian angel who must remain within a make believe sandbox and yet manage to kick sand in the face of the biggest bully in that playpen for sick grownups.

There is not a shadow of fear in Inspector Shivani’s eyes, determination in her spirit or lack of compulsion to get the job done. The fact that she may have to head butt against her own chain of command while maintaining operational integrity again speaks to writer Gopi Puthran’s scripting an upstart cop who pushes the limits just at the right moment.

Supporting Mukerji is Bhasin’s Karan, the diabolical mastermind behind a gang that uses kidnapping and torture to “ship” kidnapped young South Asian women to untraceable destinations everywhere from the Far East to even the United States. Bhasin’s twisted Karan also goes by “Walt”—a self-aggrandizing name taken from the character from the American TV megahit Breaking Bad. Behind his teenage face, Karan/Walt is one truly sick puppy.

With standout entries Queen, Highway, Mary Kom and now Mardaani, the year promises to figure prominently for witnessing some of Hindi cinema’s most noteworthy female lead movies in recent memory. These gals mean business and are not afraid to get dirty and (sometimes) bloody to achieve results. Perhaps it is speculative that if the Mardaani script featured a male lead, say Akshay Kumar or Salman Khan, it would make about five times more money. But that movie would be for a different audience in an alternate dimension altogether.

The Hindi movie female law enforcement character has come a long way indeed. In Subhash Ghai’s Khalnayak (1993) Madhuri Dixit played a prison guard who went undercover to clear her boyfriend’s name and had to resort to massive hip gyrations, song and dance to get the job done. No such tactics needed in 2014. For an especially gritty role, even more so for the usually squeaky-clean Yashraj repertoire, Mardaani is a striking departure.

To her credit, Mukerji has proven viable at what her contemporaries Shilpa Shetty, Karishma Kapoor or Preity Zinta have been unable to do. Even at the height of her career Mukerji often had to settle for playing second fiddle to Kajol (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham) or Preity Zinta (Veer Zaara). With heavy roles such as Who Killed Jessica and now Mardaani, Mukerji may have the last laugh. While Sarkar and Company cannot resist turning the last 15 minutes into populist battle-cry verging on vigilantism, Mardaani still sails through.

EQ: A

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