Have you seen Heroine? I haven’t yet, but I’ll probably go see it, just as I saw The Dirty Picture, because it was lauded as a “woman-centric” movie. But here’s the thing: Both these films are about troubled heroines—more Marilyn Monroe than Meryl Streep. As an option, let me offer Chinese martial arts movies, which are more along the lines of the movies that have made Salman Khan the highest income-tax-paying star this past year: Dabangg, Ready, Bodyguard and Ek tha Tiger.
Chinese martial arts movies aren’t all especially women-centric either. But there are enough of them in which women play pivotal roles. Take any of Zhang Yimou’s films. A personal favourite is the 2004 House of Flying Daggers, starring the stunning Zhang Ziyi, who wears a bindi-like red dot on her forehead. The New York Times called it “gorgeous entertainment, a feast of blood, passion and silk brocade.” To that, I would add beautiful action sequences.
If you are a Michelle Yeoh fan, you should watch the 2010 movie, Reign of Assassins. The movie is full of scenes from old China: pagodas, courtyard homes, tea houses, cobblestone streets and swirling kung fu practitioners. Yeoh plays a retired assassin who wants to forge a new life with her husband. She serves him tea and slices radish for soup, her serene countenance and long skirts a perfect foil for the sudden swordplay, praying mantis strikes, and Wing Chun kicks that she doles out when her assassin cohorts catch up with her. It isn’t as funny as the Korean movie, My Wife Is a Gangster, but it has it moments.
Legends about Chinese martial arts have a substantial number of women practitioners. Fang Qi-Niang, for instance, learned Wushu (martial skills) from her father, a Shaolin monk, in the cauldron of unrest that was 17th century China. According to legend, Fang was washing clothes by the river when a white crane alighted nearby. Try as she might, she could not dislodge the crane. When she hit it with a stick, the crane dodged its head and blocked with its wings. When she threw the stick, the crane caught it with its beak. Fang observed the crane and invented the Fujian White Crane style, hugely popular with women because it relies on evasion and stealth that throw the opponent off-kilter, rather than strength.
I discussed this with Farooq Chaudhry, the producer of Akram Khan Company, when they toured India as part of The Park’s New Festival. Chaudhry’s blue eyes and British accent belie his roots in Pakistan. “Western energy is about resistance. Asian energy is about absorption,” he said. He was referring to dance, but the same could be said of many other things. “The West is independent, in-your-face, full of pushbacks. The East is enduring, absorbing, integrating.”
Even within the East, countries and culture take different approaches to movies; and to martial arts. Take the navel energy centre—called “tan tien” in Chinese. This point is very important in qigong as the seat of internal energy. Martial arts students are told to focus and draw their energy from the tan tien. In India, we have a name for this point in kundalini. We call this Manipura chakra. We use this point to raise spiritual consciousness. The Chinese—in contrast—use it to kill people.
There are many reasons why China has overtaken India in all economic indicators. But one reason, I would wager, is the use of navel energy: spirituality vs ruthlessness.
Here is the question: Why are there no great martial arts movies in India—the land from which martial arts originated? Kalaripayattu was the original martial art. It was taken to China by Buddhist monks, and from there, it got transformed into karate, taekwondo, judo, aikido and the other martial art forms we know today. China has integrated women into its martial arts movies, including the hugely popular Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
India has few martial arts movies, and practically none in which women play starring roles. Is it because Chinese culture was full of strong women warriors? Or is it because of the Cultural Revolution that stripped women of their femininity? In China, martial arts dictums urge practitioners to be as “gentle as a fair lady but react like a vicious tiger”.
Which of our heroines fits this description? The obvious choices are Kareena Kapoor, Katrina Kaif, and for me, the yesteryear star, Nutan. But who could do ruthless like Angelina Jolie did in Mr. & Mrs. Smith? Who could perform an array of martial arts styles ranging from Kalaripayattu to drunken boxing? Which of our heroines could realistically perform the dim mak (death touch), a vibrating palm technique that concentrates qi energy into striking key acupuncture meridian points and cause immediate or delayed death? Black Belt magazine once wrote that Bruce Lee’s untimely death was because of a delayed reaction to a dim mak strike. The Wuxi Finger Hold demonstrated in the movie Kung Fu Panda is another example of a dim mak strike.
Hollywood took a cop-out route by using three female leads in Charlie’s Angels—an action film I enjoyed. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before India catches up. If I were a Bollywood producer now, I might want to look at casting an Indian martial arts movie. I hope Madhur Bhandarkar will look at directing an Indian martial arts movie. And I hope that he will not patronize his audience with that film. His early films were brave and unsettling. Heroine—based on reviews—doesn’t do its director, heroine, or its fan base justice. I’ll still watch it, though.
Shoba Narayan dislikes going alone to the movies, but she has gone to see Michelle Yeoh’s martial arts films all by herself…in Shanghai. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also Read | Read Shoba’s previous Lounge columns