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Rani Mukerji: The Shero of Bollywood

Rani Mukerji performs the title role in the film who fought with the entire system in Norway to gain custody of her kids. Sagarika was
Rani Mukerji shero of Bollywood
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The age of the Shero is upon us. The term refers to a woman who is regarded as a ‘hero’. Though we’ve started using it quite recently, the term itself has surprisingly been around since 1892, since the suffragette movement in the USA. Sheroes have started making their presence felt in mainstream Bollywood (an industry known for its muscle-flexing somewhat toxic male leads) as well and Rani Mukerji has been consistently favouring scripts with author-backed female lead roles. She says, “I want a global audience to see what we Indian women are all about which is very important because people can understand what is happening in a country through the lens of a woman staying in that particular country. So I think that is very important for me to portray each time when I am playing a character.”

Mrs. Chatterjee versus Norway is her latest venture. Directed by Ashima Chibber, it is inspired by the true story of an Indian couple, an adaptation based on Sagarika Chakraborty’s autobiography The Journey of a Mother. Sagarika’s children were taken away from them by the Norwegian Childcare system (Barnevernet) in 2011. Rani Mukerji performs the title role in the film who fought with the entire system in Norway to gain custody of her kids. Sagarika was then living with her husband Anurup Bhattacharya with two children in Norway, where they had moved for their new jobs. In 2011, their children were taken away by the Norwegian Child Welfare Services on grounds of improper treatment of children. First, they appealed in a Norwegian court but failed. Later, they appealed to the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India to intervene. Before this Sagarika got separated from her husband and custody of the children was given to their father’s brother. In 2013, after a two-year long legal battle she was granted custody by Calcutta High Court after intervention by the Indian Government. Her name in the film is Debika. 

Rani Mukerji in Black
Rani Mukerji in her career-defining role
in Black

Rani Mukerji is one of the most powerful actresses of her generation. In this film she plays a Bengali housewife bred entirely in the Bengali culture which she tries to sustain in Norway and these socio-cultural practices irk the Norwegian Child Welfare Services as they go against their practices of nurturing children. She recently said, “My heart is full that I have played a Bengali character in Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway and showcased the spirit of a fierce Bengali mother in the film. What I really love about the film is that it has tried to represent the culture of West Bengal in various endearing ways including the saris that I have worn, the way Bengalis celebrate Durga Puja, the way I have spoken Bengali and so on.” 

In cinema, “Sheroes” are female lead characters who do not need a hero to back them or romance them or lead to a happily-ever-after ending. There may or may not be men in their lives but these men are effectively marginalised in both the script and the celluloid space. The protagonist is a woman and remains strong from beginning to end. Rani Mukerji has consistently been doing similar roles in all her recent films. No One Killed Jessica was based on a true crime story that happened in Delhi. It was based on the Jessica Lal murder, which happened on April 29, 1999, and the widespread protests that helped in delivering justice several years later. The film portrays the journey of Jessica’s sister Sabrina (played by Vidya Balan) in getting justice for her sister and how she is helped by a journalist, played by Rani Mukerji. 

Mrs. Chatterjee versus Norway is her latest venture and it is scheduled for a theatrical release today. Directed by Ashima Chibber, it is inspired by the true story of an Indian couple, an adaptation based on Sagarika Chakraborty’s autobiography The Journey of a Mother. Sagarika’s children were taken away from them by the Norwegian Childcare system (Barnevernet) in 2011. Rani Mukerji performs the title role in the film who fought with the entire system in Norway to gain custody of her kids.

This story begins with four wonderful off-beat yet mainstream films in which Rani Mukerji plays the lead role. The first one is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black (2005) where she plays a deaf and blind girl. The film is said to have been inspired by the life of Helen Keller and Rani Mukerji internalised this very difficult role so well that she indeed deserved the National Award which she did not get. Strange that Amitabh Bachchan bagged the award for Best Actor though Rani Mukerji ran away with a brilliant, unforgettable and incredible performance. The original Hollywood film from which this was adapted was called The Miracle Worker with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke but Black surpassed it in terms of the script, the performances and the metamorphosis of the two major characters, though not justified by medical experts. Technically and visually Black is a treat. It boasts of fantastic sets and wonderful costumes, and the cinematography is incredibly good. All these, along with the superb background score, create a beautifully dark film.

still from No One Killed Jessica
Rani Mukherjee in the movie No One Killed Jessica

Mardaani (2014) has a larger agenda in which Shivani, a police officer, nails down the kingpin of women and girls trafficking by having him killed by his own victims, the girls he had kidnapped. In Mardaani 2 (2019) Shivani Roy is clearly the protagonist. The men around her, a subordinate who badmouths her, a few loyal juniors, a senior who alternately backs her and chastises her, all have familiar beats. Her entire focus is on nabbing a serial killer who, later, on his own admission, wants to “cut working and independent women to size and Shivani becomes his main target because she is hell bent on nabbing him for brutally killing whichever woman he teaches himself to hate enough to kill.

Hichki (2018) is not just about Naina Mathur trying to rise above her handicap of Tourette’s’ Syndrome and facing blocks every step of the way. It goes much further to cover a whole range of sociological issues turning Naina into an agency to further causes other than her own. We learn, through subtle suggestion, that her problem was the main reason why her parents separated when she was little and her mother chose to stand by her daughter, and son, come what may. This focuses on how a child’s genetic handicap, even when she is otherwise an intelligent achiever, can make a father turn away instead of standing by her and supporting his wife. Hichki is a dynamic film filled with action and movement, social, emotional, psychological and even geographical, mapping the rough and tough upward climb of its cheerful yet cheeky protagonist who, never mind her TS, does not mince words when she needs not to. The director takes us on a sometimes happy, often sad, often frustrating roller-coaster ride as we slowly, unwittingly get sucked into Naina’s struggles and begin to participate in it, albeit as an audience.

This story begins with four wonderful off-beat yet mainstream films in which Rani Mukerji plays the lead role. The first one is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black (2005) where she plays a deaf and blind girl. The film is said to have been inspired by the life of Helen Keller and Rani Mukerji internalised this very difficult role so well that she indeed deserved the National Award which she did not get. Strange that Amitabh Bachchan bagged the award for Best Actor though Rani Mukerji ran away with a brilliant, unforgettable and incredible performance.

“Success” says Rani Mukerji ”does not depend on bubbling youth, on a six abs hero with shoulders you can lean on, on generous skin shows through song-dance numbers.” In one film after another, over the past decade, Rani Mukerji has proved that she does not need a romantic angle, a romantic hero or a song-dance number to make a film stand on its own feet. Rani has mentioned, “I feel amazing to be able to play so many characters. It is always exciting to play different roles. As Rani, I play what I am but it’s always inspiring to be other people because I portray so many powerful women on screen. Some of my characters have inspired me.” 

Images courtesy: IMDB & Zee Cinema Youtube Channel

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has won the National Award twice, in 1991 and 2000. She has authored 26 published titles of which 14 are on different areas of Indian cinema. She holds two Masters Degrees and a Ph.D. in History (Indian Cinema). She has also won a few Lifetime Achievement Awards from different organizations over time.

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