Mardaani 2, a film about rape and justice, has the chance to steer national narrative, instead it chooses to sensationalise crime and punishment

Sonali Kokra

Dec 10, 2019 20:17:12 IST

A few days from now, Rani Mukerji’s Mardaani 2 will make its way to the theatres. It’s about a brutal serial rapist, who, ostensibly, is a minor. It’s a fraught subject at the best of times, but even more so right now, given that the country’s politically charged environment after six violent rapes made headlines in different parts of the country in a matter of two to three days. The national debate about rape started when the grisly, stomach-turning details of the rape and murder of a 26-year-old veterinary doctor from Hyderabad became public. According to some news reports, one of her four rapists was a minor.

It was impossible not to be immediately reminded of the barbaric 2012 Delhi gang rape incident that rocked the country and became the inflection point for some much-needed changes to laws pertaining to sexual violence in the country. Then too, one of the six rapists — believed to be the most savage one, who inflicted the wounds that ultimately resulted in the death of the victim — was a minor. He received a three-year sentence, the maximum under the law pertaining to underage offenders at the time of his conviction. The law was swiftly amended after the incident, following public uproar, and the Juvenile Justice Bill of 2015 made it possible for minors between 16 to 18 to be tried as adults in the case of heinous crimes such as rape and murder. Despite overwhelming public support for the provision on the political front, it has been a hotly debated topic from the legal standpoint. But the law is what it is.

With a topic so explosive, Mardaani 2 was always going to raise and ruffle a few feathers. It’s churlish to think that a movie on such a deeply divisive subject — what is the right degree and form of punishment for a crime like rape? — ever had any hope of appeasing all competing arguments and rationales on the topic. But releasing it at such a sensitive time, when its very subject is the country’s exposed raw nerve right this moment, quadruples the responsibility on its makers’ shoulders.

 Mardaani 2, a film about rape and justice, has the chance to steer national narrative, instead it chooses to sensationalise crime and punishment

Rani Mukerji in Mardaani 2.

They had the unique opportunity to steer a national conversation in a constructive direction while it was unfolding. How many artists and works of art get that honour? All they needed to show was a little restraint and some responsibility. Disappointingly, although not surprisingly, the minds behind Mardaani 2 opted, instead, to go for the cheap and easy payoff. Among the many publicity posters of the film, asking pointed questions about society’s attitude towards rape and fondness for victim-blaming, one stood out: “Does the age of the rapist matter at all?”

It’s not an easy question to answer. When a minor just a few months shy of 18 walks out of jail just three years after violating a woman’s body in the most vicious way imaginable, it’s tough to defend the position that yes, age matters, even when every instinct yells that it mustn’t, sometimes. But minus the understandable cloud of emotions, logically, civilised societies depend on certain allowances while determining what punishment befits a crime, and age must always be one of them.

It would be premature and unfair to be decide, already, what Mardaani 2’s position and treatment of the topic of underage rapist-murderers will be, even though the film’s trailer is a pretty strong indicator of the direction it will go in.

Maybe it will surprise us with an unexpected show of empathy and introspection; Bollywood, does, after all, love a good change-of-heart ending monologue that ties all the loose ends neatly before everyone goes home wiser and bathed in goodness. In a few days from now, we’ll find out what the movie will eventually turn out to be, but when its poster asks us if the age of the rapist matters at all, Mardaani 2 is not actually asking us a question, it’s telling us that no, it doesn’t, it shouldn’t.

Being aired by an actress — even if its in a fictional setting — who bizarrely claimed, not one year ago, that women and young girls should learn self defence to stay safe from sexual harassment, it smells a lot like opportunism. Tell the public exactly what they want to hear, market it aggressively and with provocation, and go home with a fat paycheque; society and the effect you leave on it be damned.

Am I being too harsh on Mardaani 2 based on one measly poster? Maybe.

One of the posters of Mardaani 2. Image from Twitter

But if there’s one thing this year has shown us, again and again, it is that films have the power to kindle and inspire ideological debate at a scale, with a ferocity, and in a manner that few things can.

From director Sandeep Vanga Reddy’s appalling definition of true love to justify deeply problematic films like Arjun Reddy and Kabir Singh, to Article 15’s savarna saviour complex; from Gully Boy, Super 30, and Bala’s brownface problem to Thackeray and PM Narendra Modi’s whitewashing hagiographical one, even the usually disengaged and politically ambivalent among us have found themselves inevitably sucked into heated arguments, thanks to the universality of the experience.

The beautiful thing about cinema is its inclusiveness — it is a relatively accessible form of art, and its experience doesn’t vary among its consumers. Maybe that’s why most of us feel comfortable airing opinions we otherwise wouldn’t have the confidence to claim, when they’re moored in movies. Films are comfortable, they’re safe. There’s a thrill in watching our own opinions and experiences being mirrored on celluloid. It’s relieving to have our worldview confirmed by people more important than us. And there’s no mistaking the importance of Bollywood’s biggest, as misplaced as that importance often is.

But this universality of experience is also what makes the art of filmmaking society’s sharpest double-edged sword. In the hands of the right people, who truly understand its potency, films can make us introspect, heal, even aspire to a higher standard. But when used callously, it can fuel our worst impulses, and flame our collective fury. Now tell me, which one did Mardaani 2 just do?

Watch the trailer here:

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Updated Date: Dec 10, 2019 20:18:59 IST