Action films

In addition to Kangana Ranaut’s Dhaakad, Bollywood’s date with female-led action films: are we doing enough?

Is Bollywood ready to do a Kill Bill, Tomb Raider, Charlie’s Angels or Captain Marvel – a real blue actor with a woman doing the honours? When was the last time you saw an actress pick up guns and grenades and take down the enemy single-handedly? This could be a daunting task given that the gendered term reads as “one-man-army”.

It won’t be wrong to say that actors like Akshay Kumar and Salman Khan ruled this particular genre, with women largely relegated to their own boxes, with breakout roles written for them sometimes, but the action have been few and far between.

So when Kangana Ranaut says, “Heroines in Hindi movies don’t get the opportunity to do action,” she’s not wrong. She points out that actresses not only need the privileges of leading ladies, but “the privileges of a hero on set.”

Khoon Bhari Maang’s climactic streak got Rekha into some action.

Hema Malini unleashed punches in Razia Sultan (1983), Rekha also fought her enemies head-on in Khoon Bhari Maang (1988). But that’s all they could do at the time, because the handful of films did little to change the way we saw our women act on screen. All their characters did in the name of action was ride a horse or a bike, or shoot a bullet or two. ‘Cause until they’re the damsels in distress rescued by a muscle man, where taalis and to see comes from?

The 1990s were surely an era of romance and comedy. Although around the turn of the millennium, filmmakers started experimenting with female-centric subjects, but they mostly revolved around their coming-of-age or empowerment stories. There was Lajja (2001), Queen (2013) and Mary Kom (2014). But, in the end, the tough part of the action fell to the men.

“You have to watch a movie like a movie. We should not attach sexuality (gender) to it. We women have contributed so much to so many films. Since all the credit goes to the men, we suffered damage because of it,” Kangana added, while promoting his film Dhaakad recently.

action movie anushka sharma nh10 Anushka Sharma self-produced NH10 which became an important film in her career.

Dhaakad has Kangana playing an Interpol agent Avni who is an assassin, to unravel a connection to human trafficking. The trailer is loaded with ruthless bloodshed with Kangana unleashing mayhem on his nemesis amidst loud gunfire and bombs.

Dhaakad is billed as a one-of-a-kind female-led action movie. It’s also like an end product of half a dozen notable films that have gone through Bollywood history for trying to do the genre justice. There are likes of Samay, Mardaani and Jai Gangajal. However, they can be clubbed under female cop dramas. And if they’re not in uniform, they’re spy agents like Shilpa Shetty in Dus. But his portrayal was mostly lost in the mega star cast of Sanjay Dutt, Abhishek Bachchan, Suniel Shetty and others.

Interestingly, when director AR Murugadoss decided to remake the Tamil film Mouna Guru (2011) in Hindi, he made a big change. He flipped the plot and cast a woman in the lead role. Thus, Akira (2016) by Sonakshi Sinha deserves a mention here. She played an angry student who finds himself embroiled in a crime. The action was raw and real, and Sonakshi did a great job.

Murugadoss told IANS in 2019: “When most heroines are busy getting ready, jumping from set to set, singing duets with different heroes, Sonakshi was learning to fight like a man. When she was doing stunts, I asked her to imagine herself as a man, shrug like a man, kick like a man, and look like a man. The way she transformed into Akira amazed me.

Whether Sonakshi needed to act “like a man” to make sure his action scenes look convincing may be debatable, but it became an honest attempt to put a woman front and center. The film, however, had a run below expectations at the box office. This brings us back to the inherent question – are revenge and action only for men?

Priyanka Chopra had to travel to the United States for an intense action-packed role in Quantico. While she had done Don and Jai Gangaajal in India, it was really blue action. Give women a chance and they might turn the tables in their favour. Anushka Sharma was a raging force in NH10. And Taapsee Pannu’s 7-minute action sequence in Baby (2015) took him from supporting league to mainstream Bollywood, giving his character a solo spin-off in Naam Shabana (2017). Today, Taapsee has become synonymous with female-led stories.

We have filmmakers Raj and DK to thank for trusting in a female antagonist in their The Family Man 2. And we saw the great job Samantha Ruth Prabhu did in the role.

Stating how she wanted to push her boundaries and explore unknown emotions, Samantha said during her web show promotions, “Actresses tend to have one-dimensional characters and it becomes difficult to portray them because there is fear that your performance will become repetitive. With Raji, it was so different and exciting that it allowed me to explore a new dimension.

Recent examples only show that all actresses need a chance. And with superstar culture in decline, and pan-indian being the flavor of the season, the time has come to experiment with characters who challenge conventionally defined gender roles. We only hope Kangana Ranaut’s fiery avatar in Dhaakad will open more doors for our actresses.