Taapsee Pannu in ‘Naam Shabana’ heralds return of Bollywood action queens

Fundamental challenges for female-centric projects remain despite high-voltage action carried off single-handedly by stray Bollywood heroines


Taapsee Pannu in a still from ‘Naam Shabana’.
Taapsee Pannu in a still from ‘Naam Shabana’.

New Delhi: In a first-of-its-kind, director Shivam Nair’s upcoming action thriller Naam Shabana is a prequel to 2015 hit Baby with lead actor Taapsee Pannu reprising her role as the brave spy. The late March release that sees Pannu generously flaunt her mixed martial art stunts is not the first or only film in recent times to mark the return of the female action star in Bollywood.

A trend that began with Fearless Nadia’s stunts in films like Hunterwali as far back as 1935 found a brief succour in potboilers like Andha Kanoon (1983) and Phool Bane Angaray (1991) that saw their respective female leads Hema Malini and Rekha play cops. More recently, movies like NH10 (2015) and Akira (2016) rode on the appeal of the high-voltage action carried off single-handedly by its heroines.

“I think most filmmakers tend to think that it (stunts by female leads) will draw in part of the male audiences so that the film doesn’t limit itself to the so-called women’s concerns,” said Navdeep Singh, director of NH10. “I think a lot of people feel it would give the film a broader appeal.”

But there may be others reasons why these films are back, like the fact that storytelling techniques may be evolving in Indian cinema.

“I think we’re at a great time in the movies. Better stories are coming out, there is a more liberal mindset in place and it’s only obvious that we’re telling the same stories irrespective of whether it’s about a male or female protagonist,” said director Sabbir Khan whose 2016 directed film Baaghi involved much high-profile action for lead actor Shraddha Kapoor. “So women doing action is probably a very organic transition to the fact that we are now making films with female actors in lead roles.”

And they don’t always have to be the stereotypically virtuous female characters.

“We’ve come to a stage where we make films on the anti-hero, an image that people like Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan have patented. So why does the female protagonist have to be the do-gooder all the time?” asked writer-editor Apurva Asrani, who is currently scripting Kangana Ranaut-starrer Simran to be directed by Hansal Mehta due for release this September. “She doesn’t necessarily have to be as perfect as we want our women to be. And I think that is true feminism. So the term that I think is picking up right now is ‘bad-ass.’”

Earlier, if the woman was wronged, Asrani added, the man took revenge for her. But today she is saying she doesn’t need him, she will break the rules if she has to but is perfectly capable of taking care of herself both physically and emotionally. The literal physical action stems from that attitude and its method of execution is also symbolic of changing times. While Rekha doing action in the 1980s was a reflection of how films themselves were made then, Kapoor’s stunts in Baaghi are all about how a modern girl would approach the same situation.

“I think there will (in the future) be films where women will be doing everything, doing action should not come as a surprise. But yes, it’s a beautiful time for all the women in our country to see their favourite female stars doing all sorts of roles, especially action, because it subconsciously gives them a push to stay physically fit, learn self-defence techniques and learn to take care of themselves in the worst possible scenario,” Khan said.

To be sure, while actors like Kangana Ranaut and Vidya Balan have broken the mould by delivering successful films like Tanu Weds Manu Returns and Kahaani that made Rs150 crore and Rs 51 crore, respectively, fundamental challenges for female-centric projects remain.

“There is a natural assumption that the audience gets limited automatically when there is just a heroine in the picture instead of a hero. I guess the masses are reluctant to go watch a heroine-centric film,” Singh said.

So there is a consequent apprehension from distributors which unfortunately does translate into box office figures and limited budgets very often, perhaps the reason that female actors like Anushka Sharma are now producing their own films.

“I think that’s the way you get author-backed roles for yourself which, by and large, the industry doesn’t seem to back. You have to pretty much generate them yourself,” Singh said.

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