Yes Madam, Sir -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

Like a character out of Charles Dickens -- or perhaps one should say Salman Rushdie -- Kiran Bedi, India's first police officer, looms large as a dominating if not domineering figure in "Yes Madam, Sir," a doc about her incendiary career in that country. She is a force no one reckons with in a male-dominated society. No playbook exists for dealing with such a passionate, obsessive, scary personality. The word "scary," by the way, is supplied by her estranged husband in the movie.

Working with a camera she barely knew how to use and spending six years on and off in India while she edited feature films in her day job back home, Australian filmmaker Megan Doneman has achieved a remarkably professional, clear-eyed and non-hagiographic portrait of her subject.

The film has played at festivals and markets here and there while trying to line up North American distribution. While a natural for cable and DVD, "Yes Madam, Sir" -- a film as smart and as funny as its title -- could become a genuine discovery as a showcase presentation in art houses.

Bedi is a figure of controversy the moment she dons a New Delhi police uniform in 1972. The question the movie subtlety asks is how avidly does she court that controversy?

Her record is awesome: single-handedly dispersing 200 sword-wielding rioters when her male colleagues flee, cleaning up and bringing order and even peace to the notorious Tihar prison and re-organizing New Delhi's woeful police training school. But did she really have to tow an illegally parked car belonging to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi?

True, she is hated by bureaucrats for her anti-corruption stance. Every time they punish her by giving her an impossible, career-ending assignment, she succeeds, which only annoys them further. When she wins the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Asia Nobel Prize, they grow livid.

But in her interactions with her daughter and husband, who doesn't even live in the same city as she, you glean the cost of her single-mindedness. She ignores or neglects her family other than, at times, her mother (now dead) and father. She grows bored without challenges and seems to enjoy angering bureaucrats -- although never without reason.

But she's smart. Knowing that officials will try to tie her into any corruption or illegal activity they can dream up, she keeps a paper record of her every action. Doneman doesn't reveal this fact until near the end when, once more, officials scheme to trash her career.

This is a complex life and these are complex issues especially to foreign eyes. Yet Doneman does a terrific job of making all things clear and even making a seeming supercop all too human.

Under the circumstances of guerilla filmmaking, the film is surprisingly well produced with Helen Mirren supplying a thoughtful narration and Nathan Larson an unobtrusive score.

Venues: Toronto Film Festival (2008), EFM, Los Angeles Indian Film Festival.
Production companies: Sojourn Films
Director/screenwriter/director of photography/editor: Megan Doneman
Producers: Megan Doneman, Laraine Doneman
Narrator: Helen Mirren
Music: Nathan Larson
Sales: Sojourn, Brisbane
No rating, 95 minutes