Last updateFri, 13 Mar 2015 4pm

#Mardaani: 'If I ever meet Mr Narendra Modi, I would tell him..." - Rani Mukherji

To say that Rani Mukherjee's senior inspector Shivani Shivaji Rao in 'Mardaani' is no-nonsense would be a terrific understatement. 

The extent to which the line between Mukherji the actress and her tough-talking on-screen persona in Pradeep Sarkar's hard-hitting child trafficking drama is blurred becomes immediately apparent when I catch up with the 36-year-old beauty the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi bemoans the treatment of women in the country he was recently charged with running.

"If I ever meet Mr Modi, I'm going to insist that martial arts and self-defence be made a compulsory part of school curriculums in India, at least for girls.  The time for debates and discussions and demonstrations is over.  We need to bring about a sea-change in attitudes.  As women, we need to take charge of our destinies.  If society is unwilling or unable to protect us, let's do it ourselves.  Let's protect ourselves", Mukherji says.

And she's not half-serious. 

Whilst Sarkar may have helmed the film, 'Mardaani' belongs to Mukherji, to the extent that one of Bollywood's leading, leading ladies has chosen to don a Khaki police uniform and hunt down a vile child trafficker in a movie  with an Adult certificate, made by a Bollywood studio renowned for its' wholesome and syrupy romances.

Months after she married the studio chairman.

Notwithstanding the large hazel-coloured eyes, the diminutive stature and her unforgettable on-screen romantic lead roles, Mukherji is a tough cookie and freely admits to being possessed of a bit of the warrior spirit.

The title of the film is said to be inspired by a line in the poem 'Jhansi Ki Rani' by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, which evokes the memory of Rani Lakshmibai, the fearless and fearsome Maratha warrior princess who caused a not-inconsiderable amount of consternation for India's British colonizers in the middle of the 19th century.

"Inspector Shivani Shivaji Rao definitely has some of the spirit of Rani Lakshmibai.  The title is very appropriate given.  I was really inspired and moved by all the women cops who I met before and during filming.  Rani Lakshmibai was taught archery and sword-fighting skills as a youngster and the women cops on our streets have the same skills.  What they do day-in and day-out is a huge source of inspiration.  And they work in really difficult conditions as well. 

"And they are a great example of what I always say: that all of us women have a 'Mardaani' in us.  It's just about finding the strength to fight the injustices that we face.  And the film sends out that message", Mukherji says.

Inspector Shivani Shivaiji Rao's skills extend to more than just self-defence.  She's got a whole plethora of offensive skills as well, including an interrogation technique that wouldn't be out of place at Guantanamo Bay. 

While some may find Ms Rao's exploits a bit over the top, they are appropriate for a mainstream Bollywood film, arguably the highest-profile of a recent spate of films that have shed light on the scourge of child trafficking in India where tens of thousands of young girls are kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery every year.

It's an issue that left Mukherji near-breathless with indignation.

"As a woman I reacted to Gopi's (screenwriter Gopi Puthran) script as every woman would.  I actually felt like a young girl.  Not just about the victims but the countless women who fight for the sake of those victims on a daily basis. 

"Child trafficking is probably the worst truth of our time.  At some point, the film stopped being a film per se.  It became a movement.  As the shoot went on, all our emotions kind of coalesced.  All the anger that all of us feel, as Indians, began to crystallize.  It was amazing to see how we wanted to make a difference with the film".

How successful that 'movement' will be remains to be seen.

In the time that it's taken for me to write this piece, nearly two dozen girls have been abducted and that's the official figure.  But at least it's heartening to see that one of Bollywood's biggest and most enduring stars has taken on the responsibility of taking the issue into previously un-encroached territories.

"When we hear of these horrific rapes and kidnappings taking place all round us, we as citizens are sometimes hamstrung about what we should do", Mukherji continues.

"But as an actress and an artist this is something that we can do and we have done.  We all felt a great responsibility to show it and take it to the public, to motivate people out there".

Motivating and educating India's masses, Mukherji believes, is just one part of the solution.

The actress insists that it is vital to place power in the hands of India's women and that begins with India's men, or the boys who become men.

"When you're raising a son, it's imperative that you teach your son how important it is to respect women.  If that is inculcated in a boy when he's three years old, then that same boy will know the value of women when he grows up.

"But if you're going to constantly treat your daughter differently or as an inferior being in front of your son, then that's going to have the opposite impact. 

"Ultimately, we need to empower ourselves.  Women need to make the decision for themselves.  We need to start learning martial arts, we need to make ourselves empowered so that we should not hold any fears about walking down any road in India, or fear speaking up or standing up for what we believe in. 

"Gone is the time for debate.   We will go and die and come back as ghosts before the debate ends.  We need a solution.  We need to empower ourselves."


'Mardaani' is in UK cinemas now.



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