Spy stories have witnessed a massive surge in the Indian content space in the last few years. It wouldn’t perhaps be wrong to state that such narratives have hit the point of saturation. But filmmakers, unfazed, continue to make spy dramas and thrillers galore. The latest to join the espionage bandwagon is debut director Anushree Mehta’s Mrs Undercover starring Radhika Apte in the title character. The fact that its story is laced with feel-good humour could have set it apart from the other spy films. But unfortunately, it doesn’t land quite well and fizzles out too soon.
Mrs Undercover revolves around the life of Durga. Much like a regular middle-class homemaker, she spends her days taking care of everyone in her family comprising of her sexist and unappreciative husband, mother-in-law, father-in-law and school-going son. She wakes up in the morning to prepare breakfast for the whole family, drops her son off to school, goes to the local market to pick up vegetables and fish, cooks lunch, makes sure that her in-laws are being fed and give medicines on time, brings her son back home and helps him with his homework, cooks lunch, waters the plants and is the last member in the family to go off to sleep after wrapping up everything.
But underneath this subservient homemaker is a special force agent, who had to go undercover years back and get married into a family she didn’t want to, which may remind you of Raazi. But living this life for so many years caused her to brush ‘agent 091’ under the rug. And then one day, the chief of Special Forces, Kolkata, decide to assign her to a case to find out ‘The Common Man’ who has been ruthlessly murdering strong, independent and empowered women in the city. With rusty skills and a whole lot of reluctance, she re-enters the world of an undercover spy.
What works for the film is its one-liner concept – a homemaker who turns into a spy. On the surface, this might seem similar to Manoj Bajpayee’s critically acclaimed series, The Family Man. Much like Shrikant Tiwari, Durga straddles both the worlds, that of a family and an espionage system. They not only take care of their families but are also on the run to chase down the most notorious criminals. They are unassuming and simple people and are dealing with spouses who may or may not have cheated on them. But it is the treatment of Mrs Undercover that makes it fall flat.
Homemakers are change-makers and it is no doubt that they are still looked down upon and are taken for granted. Anushree tries to reinforce the same throughout the course of the film. The word ‘homemaker’ is used so many times that most of the dialogues seem to be rehashed versions of the same line of thought. With the world being a misogynistic and sexist space to live in, conversations on feminism and women’s empowerment are pertinent and should continue to remain so unless we create a place that screams equality. And kudos to Anushree, who is also the writer and the producer of the film, for weaving a story that salutes women, who go unnoticed every single day. But she takes it too far.
She makes use of one stereotype to defy another stereotype and that defends the entire purpose of having a story of a woman told by a woman through the lens of feminism. The comparison of the protagonist Durga with the goddess Durga only makes her an aspirational being. Anushree puts her on a pedestal and deifies her to such an extent that it rids her of all the qualities that make her humane. To further make a statement on how women are indeed earthly and tangible forms of the divine, many scenes are shot in Kumartuli, a potter’s quarter tucked away in the northern part of Kolkata, against the backdrop of numerous clay idols. Yes, the Kahaani template spills over in this film as well.
In Mrs Undercover, almost all the men are demonised. That men and women are equal might have been the core intent of the story but it defies every notion pertaining to equality. Durga’s husband is ungrateful and thinks of her as ‘just a homemaker’. He doesn’t ‘allow’ her to go to work and justifies his mistakes by saying ‘I’m a man’. The Common Man, on the other hand, is obsessed with killing modern, liberal, and unyielding women but we never really come to know the reason for his hatred towards them.
Mrs Undercover might have had potential on paper but it is largely undercooked. There’s no greater joy than watching a female star engage in combat sequences and bring down bad guys with her physical prowess. But here, even the fight sequences are jerky, amateurish, and lack a seamless finish. Yes, is it truly mesmerising to watch a saree-clad woman fight a man but there’s no explanation as to how she has her saree still impeccably draped with her hair perfectly pinned and jewellery completely in place.
Mrs Undercover is also largely predictable and even unintentionally funny in parts. The story lacks the finesse that can keep you engaged. Unfortunately, the actors don’t get the chance to lift the film up with their performances because their characters are under-baked and have no arcs to play around with. An artist of the caliber and stature of Radhika doesn’t get to bring her true potential to the table. Having said that, her subdued and straight-faced humour does crack you up but those scenes are far and few in between. If you really want to watch her play out comic scenes with a rare rawness, you should instead revisit Lust Stories and Monica O My Darling.
Sumeet Vyas seems too unconvincing as a serial killer. We don’t get a glimpse into his life that has made him the villain that he is. Establishing what drives his dark psyche would have gone a long way in making ‘The Common Man’ a realistic character. Yet another actor who’s wasted is Rajesh Sharma. His character suffers because the line between comedy and frivolousness gets blurred.
Mrs Undercover is a good attempt gone wrong. Though most statements on man-woman equality go awry and are lopsided, Anushree deserves applause for redefining the quintessential undercover agent. Here, Radhika’s Durga is not made to fit into the mould of a stylish and chic spy draped in a latex black bodysuit. She’s clumsy, fearful of stepping out at night to stalk an offender, take her mother-in-law to crack a case, and prioritises her son’s unit test over an assignment. But these bits of novelty don’t really create an impact due to the writing that lacks spark and gumption. In short, Radhika deserves a better film.
Mrs Undercover is now streaming on Zee5.
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