By coincidence, in the span of one weekend I watched Siddharth (dir. Richie Mehta) and the latest Yash Raj production, Mardaani (dir. Pradeep Sarkar), two films both nominally concerned with India's terrible child-kidnaping and child-trafficking scourges. A title card at the end of Mardaani notes that on average, a child is abducted every eight minutes in India. This is almost too staggering to contemplate, and both films help you get your mind around this horrendous fact by personalizing it, giving name and face and voice to the children or the families. And yet the two films could not be more different. Siddharth, contemplative and meticulous, is a sad study, focused on one family's loss rather than the fate of the missing child. Mardaani takes a broader view, making explicit what in Siddharth is left to the imagination. And, it taps an emotional vein of vengeance more than pity. Mardaani, brash and unsubtle, is all about rage.
As Mardaani begins, the cop at its center, Shivani Shivaji Roy (Rani Mukherjee) Dabanggs around Mumbai, all swagger and bravado. Unlike Chulbul Pandey, though, she is incorruptible - perhaps Shivani is more like Ajay Lal, the tough cop described in Suketu Mehta's Maximum City who broke the 1993 bombings. Shivani uses interrogation techniques described in that book, like the merciless feeding of sweets without water, to wrest information from the criminals she collars. She leads a dramatic raid on a medium-time gangster, earning exasperated sighs from her by-the-book commander, and spontaneously breaks up a politico-religious mob trashing a shop, slapping around its stunned ringleader, a guy twice her size. But Shivani shows a motherly side too; she and her husband are raising a niece whose parents have died, and she serves as a surrogate aunty for an orphaned kid, Pyari, whom she rescued from the streets and and placed in a shelter. Pyari goes missing, and the investigative trail that Shivani follows to find her leads to a child trafficking ring led by an arrogant psychopath who calls himself Walt (Tahir Bhasin). Shivani's mission to break up the ring is professional, and it becomes increasingly personal too, as Walt taunts her with phone calls and worse.
Rani Mukherjee, with a good script and in capable directorial hands, is a very good actor, and she handles the challenge of Shivani Shivaji Roy with an appropriate blend of cocksure strutting and vulnerability. It is not an easy task. Shivani's Chulbul Pandey routine edges on the cartoonish, and it might have been tempting to balance the brashness of it with exaggerated squishiness in the film's more emotional scenes. For the most part, though, Rani handles both with adequate coherence, showing a consistent theory of Shivani's character. At her best, she blends them perfectly, as in a scene right before the interval where, on the phone with Walt, she keeps her voice even and confident for his benefit, while her face twists with the beginnings of tears in a display of vulnerable emotion that only the audience can see. Shivani Shivaji Roy talks a tough game and packs the punch to back it up, but in moments like these she is a human being too, and holding herself together through this chase does take some effort.
And in the end, arguably, Shivani Shivaji Roy breaks. The end of Mardaani, like the end of Mrityudand, is a sort of triumph of female will, a catastrophic bursting of the dam of oppression and suffering in a torrent of revenge. It is not clear whether one is intended to cheer at this turning of the tables, or be appalled. It is a terribly bleak idea, that the only way for a weak and oppressed class - children, or women, or both - to wrest power from merciless, violent men is to play the game on the same terms they do, with more merciless violence. The mardaani of the title may refer to the kind of masculinity that endorses and patronizes and profits from the vile treatment of Pyari and the other kidnapped girls, who are dolled up, groped, auctioned, raped, and more. Or it may refer to the kind of masculinity that Shivani works so hard to embody in her small, strong frame, the kind that speaks the language of the fist and the firearm. Indeed, it may refer to both. But it is grim and sad to think that the only way to defeat the exploitative type of masculinity is to adopt the values of the savage, bloodthirsty kind.
And yet, if the repugnant child exploitation of Mardaani is taken as a proxy for the horrendous high-profile rape incidents that have driven India's discourse about gender for the last couple of years - as I think it must be - then perhaps it reflects more than just the general statement that the only way the powerless can save themselves is to take up the weapons of the powerful and bash their heads in with them. It reflects the tremendous unanswered rage that many women must feel in the face of one outrageous rape case after another. In Mardaani, politicians patronize Walt's services, pawing and assaulting and dehumanizing the girls. In the real world, politicians and judges make outrageously demeaning statements about women who ask for it by not keeping to their place. In that world it's not entirely unreasonable to start to doubt the effectiveness of a political solution. In that world, headlines about women striking back, attacking and beating and emasculating their attackers, become increasingly common. Mardaani taps into a vengeful strain of the zeitgeist, and expresses it in a filmi form that is undoubtedly as satisfying for some as it is unsettling for others.
Unlike Mardaani, Siddharth leaves to the audience's imagination the fate endured by its titular boy. Siddharth's father, Mahendra Saini (Rajesh Tailang), sends him from their home in Delhi to work a stint at a trolley factory in Ludhiana. The boy never returns, and Mahendra sets out to find him, on a journey that takes him as much through his own heart as it does from city to city.
Mahendra, a melancholy zipper-repairer struggling to make ends meet, is at first perplexed at the notion that there is anything irresponsible in sending Siddharth off into illegal child labor. Why have a son, he asks, if not to put him to work? As the story progresses, though, Mahendra bends under a growing burden of guilt. Whatever Siddharth is enduring is left unnamed - the closest he comes to knowing that is a sort of urban legend given to him by another boy at the Ludhiana factory, that the children who vanish wind up in Dongri. Mahendra, who lived all his life in Delhi, has never heard of this Mumbai neighborhood, and neither does anyone he talks to for a good while. Dongri begins to take on a mythical quality, both the mysterious, sinister end-of-the-line for abducted kids and the mystical holy grail of Mahendra's search.
Mahendra's distress is not just for the unknown whereabouts of his son, but also the anxiety endured by his wife Suman (Tannishtha Chatterjee in a hard-eyed, tense, excellent emotional performance) and their little daughter (Khushi Mathur). And so Mahendra grows increasingly determined to find Siddharth, though following the trail to Ludhiana and eventually Mumbai imposes great financial strain on the family. At one point, Mahendra humiliates himself to an extortionate thug (Mukesh Chhabra) for the right to work the neighborhood near the Delhi rail station, hoping to find someone who knows where the mythical Dongri might be. He sells Suman's jewelry, too, and reluctantly accepts cash from relatives.
Siddharth is shot and acted in a street-level, realistic style that draws you right in to the swirl of the city. Most scenes have no background score (save a few montage sequences with oddly swelling Western strains), so that when Mahendra sits on a streetcorner the ambient sounds of Delhi are vividly present; the constant honk of horns of all sizes, the putter of tuk-tuk motors, the clatter of bikes and scooters, the squeal and rumble of buses, the shouting of people. Low camera angles put you on the ground, crouched beside Mahendra as he fixes zippers for people like him and people much wealthier, or inside the house beside Suman as dust motes swirl in lone rays of sunlight that find their way into the gali where they live.
This is enormously engaging, this Delhi presented in unstylized style. But the palpable realism of Siddharth also makes its grim and unresolved ending inevitable. And yet the movie is so absorbing that anything else would be gratingly false. Like a Shyam Benegal film, it makes mind-boggling injustice accessible by projecting it on a human scale, a close focus on a small number of people deeply affected by a something that most people are accustomed to thinking of as a "global issue," described in human-rights reports in terms of vast numbers and statistics. The result is a beautiful, harrowing film, deeply sympathetic, that exposes the raw realities left behind by a child abduction in a way that Mardaani, for all its explicit exhibition and all its fantastical acts of vengeance, cannot.