Interview: Rani Mukerji on playing “Mardaani” roles in Bollywood films
In 1997, when the top-grossing Bollywood films were a mix of fluffy romantic comedies and maudlin love triangles, a barely 20-year-old Rani Mukerji made her Hindi film debut playing a rape victim who is asked to marry her tormentor and faces innumerable challenges in her quest for dignity.
Remembering that and the other films where she played a strong female character, a newly married Mukerji told India Insight she likes to strike a balance between what she calls substantial roles and those written only for entertaining fans. Her latest film “Mardaani,” (“Masculine”) produced by her producer husband, sees Mukerji in the role of a tough police officer out to bust a child-trafficking ring.
“I have always tried to portray strong women in all the films that I have done because I do feel that when people see movies they get very moved and they do feel inspired,” she said about the roles that she prefers.
That said, Mukerji does not agree that Bollywood or films in general should take responsibility for what messages people take from films.
“In the creative field you will make different kinds of movies. So with this film we are expecting that women will get motivated to probably bring out the mardaani in them. At the same when somebody is making an out-and-out comedy, an out-and-out masala film, you don’t know what a person might take from it. So how can you be responsible for each and every citizen who comes and watches a film?” she said in response to criticism of the film industry after recent cases of violence against women.
Rushing from one TV studio to the other to promote “Mardaani,” Mukerji told India Insight in a telephone interview how she hopes audiences will appreciate that a female police officer does exactly what her male counterparts are expected to do, and how she learnt gangsters are caught.
Q. How do you like playing outright bold, female characters like you do in this movie and in No One Killed Jessica?
A. I have always tried to portray strong women in all the films that I have done because I do feel that when people see movies they get moved and they do feel inspired.
Q. What’s the inherent challenge that you face playing such roles?
A. I think the inherent challenge with such roles is to actually do the roles with a lot of conviction and make the roles look very believable and real. Sometimes what happens in films is that, because it’s an escapist medium, there are certain roles that get defined very differently and it can get to the area of looking a bit too over the top. You have to find the right balance and the right balance in the script as well because at the end of the day we are characters and we are mouthing lines from the script.
A. There are many women officers who are as brave and as courageous and as fearless as the male officers. There is nothing that they don’t do. The job of the police officer is the same, irrespective of the gender. That’s what as a woman I have tried to portray through this role. I hope people get the message loud and clear that there are innumerable Kiran Bedis that we have in the world and in the country.
Q. How and why did you say yes to this film, given your earlier romantic heroine roles?
A. I don’t think I am only most remembered for my romantic roles. I think I am also most remembered for the film that I did with Mr Sanjay Leela Bhansali called “Black.” I don’t think I have ever been kept in an image where people have only accepted me in one kind of a film. So in a way I will not agree with your question but, of course, it’s your opinion. I don’t think my fans out there expect me to deliver similar roles to them.
A. I went to the crime branch office in Mumbai. You need to get special permission as they work under cover. They agreed to give us time because they knew that the cause of this film is much bigger than just being a film and it is also a very real portrayal. They gave us the information which helped with our further research work. They took me through mock drills of how they nab gangsters, how they interrogate criminals so I went through a lot of those sessions with them.
Q. What did you learn about the police – especially the female officers – and their job; something that the people at large should know about?
A. I think all they should know is that when a female pilot flies a plane, does she fly it any differently than a male pilot? Women cops do their duty exactly the way male cops do. And they are always known for their performance and their designation and not for being female or male.
Q. Why do you think we have so many movies based on the police being made now – is that a reaction to how things are in the society currently?
A. No, I wouldn’t say that. I would say that there are people who are suffering at times. But by and large we need to see the positive side and there are a lot of cops who do a lot for us. I am very proud of the way the Mumbai Police functions. There could be problems in different states in India but I think Mumbai Police really rock. They have probably always got things and the law and order situation (under control) very, very quickly.
Q. Do you think the film industry needs to respond to criticism that films also have a role in fanning attitudes and violence against women in India?
A. No, because films are an entertainment medium and nobody can take responsibility of how a person will react to a film. So if a person is getting emotionally charged with a movie you can’t take responsibility of that. In the creative field you will make different kinds of movies. So with this film we are expecting that women will get motivated to probably bring out the mardaani in them. At the same when somebody is making an out-and-out comedy, an out-and-out masala film, you don’t know what a person might take from it. So how can you be responsible for each and every citizen who comes and watches a film?