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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Leading lights

Has Bollywood finally accepted that a heroine can power a movie just as well as a hero?

After all the brouhaha that surrounded the making of Mary Kom, the movie – most of it centering around why the filmmakers couldn’t have got an ethnic Manipuri rather than the very north Indian Priyanka Chopra to play the lead role – I must confess that I was rather curious to see how the film turned out in the end. So, for once, rather than wait for the DVD to come out, I actually ventured into a cinema hall to catch the movie, first day, first show.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Yes, it was over-the-top in parts, the usual Bollywood clich├ęs were well in place, and some characters were played at the level of caricature. But what made the movie work was Priyanka Chopra. She didn’t just play Mary Kom; she was Mary Kom. And she achieved this not with prosthetics, make-up and mimicry, but by taking on the legendary boxer’s fighting spirit and making it her own.

Just a few scenes into the film, and you forget all about Chopra’s ethnicity. All you care about is her performance, remarkable in its range and nuance. She brings Mary Kom alive on the big screen: her rebellion against her father who didn’t want her to box; her slow-burning love for Onler, her devoted husband; her stormy relationship with the boxing federation; her fiery determination to make a comeback after the birth of her twins; and more.

Such was Priyanka’s dominance that you didn’t even notice the lack of a leading man in the movie (her on-screen husband is not just supportive but strictly supporting-actor material). And that’s what stayed with me after the film had ended (with an evocative playing of Jana Gana Mana, which had the entire hall standing in teary silence): the fact that this was a woman’s story, told from a woman’s point of view, without any pandering to masculine sensibilities.

Does this mean that Bollywood has finally grown up and realized that you don’t always need an over-muscled man in the lead for a movie to do well at the box-office? Is Hindi cinema finally willing to give its heroines what they have always longed for: a meaty role to sink their teeth into, and a film to carry on their own shoulders?

Well, it is early days yet, but the signs are rather encouraging. Last month saw the release of Rani Mukherji’s Mardaani, in which she plays an angry young cop, who runs down a trafficking ring with a combination of detective work, brute force and a liberal use of swear words. Yes, the kind of role that Amitabh Bachchan played in another lifetime; only this time it was a woman in the lead role. And though the movie was not a superhit, garnering only modest success at the box-office, Rani herself received good notices, proving that audiences are not entirely non-receptive to such women-centric films.

This is a change that has been a long time coming, but has become more and more evident over the last few years. Sridevi’s English Vinglish, released in 2012, was one of the first signs. A small-budget, quirky movie about a middle-aged housewife who discovers herself anew as she signs up to learn English in New York, when she arrives there to help organize her niece’s wedding, this became a surprise hit, on the basis of Sridevi’s sparkling performance (and a brilliant effort by writer-director Gauri Shinde).

The following year belonged to Kangana Ranaut’s Queen, in which she did a marvelous job of playing a West Delhi Punjabi kudi who is jilted at the mandap but decides to go off on the honeymoon of her dreams anyway, even if it is on her own. Yes, there was a hero of sorts, the man who jilts her, but this was Kangana’s show all the way. And she pulled it off with both nonchalance and elan, proving that a heroine can power a movie at the box-office just as well as a hero.

The pioneer of this trend, though, was undoubtedly Vidya Balan. She started off with Dirty Picture, playing a Silk Smitha-type character in one-size-too-tight clothes, and ooh-la-laaed her way to a superhit. She went on to make waves with Kahani, in which she played a woman who may or may not be pregnant but is indubitably in search of her missing husband. And though her latest outing as Bobby Jasoos, a wannabe detective who specializes in weird disguises, bombed at the box-office, Balan herself got rave reviews.

But while these breakout hits (peppered with the occasional flop) are all well and good, the proof of the pudding would be when big budget blockbusters like Happy New Year depend not on a hero like Shah Rukh Khan but on a heroine like Deepika Padukone to draw in the crowds. Or when a superhero is not called Krishh or Ra.One but Radha or even Sita.

Come to think of it, both Priyanka and Deepika would fill out a superhero (or should that be superheroine?) outfit admirably. Super Shakti: Rakshasa Slayer anyone?

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