Ms.Representation: When women aren't the weaker sex
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week is a tribute to the many leading ladies who’ve fought baddies with their bare hands in our cinema
For a while now it has been my habit to watch some television or streaming video before hitting the sack. Recently, I finished watching a delightful Netflix special Korean drama called Strong Girl Do Bong Soon. The basic gist: Bong Soon (the delightful Park Bo-young) is extraordinarily strong (as are all the women in her family, it’s a trait passed down to women only) and she beats up bad guys like she is crushing chalk. What more does a series need to make me fall for it you ask? There’s even a lovely romance angle. Of course, what’s K-drama without some romance that sets the bar way too high for the men in our lives? The show creates the perfect balance of a powerful woman and a terrific rom-com angle with the dreamy Park Hyung-sik. There’s even a love triangle, a comedy track involving a doppelganger… and all of this got me thinking how cool it would be, if this got made in Tamil or Telugu or Hindi.
There’s something ridiculously cathartic about watching a female stuntwoman, take the bad guys to town. I found a lot of feminism couched wonderfully within the script. It spoke to me, moved me and was subversively fun. It led me to think about looking at the birth of a female child as the birth of someone strong, about what ‘strength’ can give to a woman in a patriarchal set up – the freedom to roam the streets at night happily, the ability to fix the way a man spoke to a driving woman, or just the way men spoke to/dealt with women, trying to render them powerless by sexually assaulting them or reducing them to sexual innuendos…
That’s why this week’s column is a tribute to the many leading ladies who’ve fought baddies with their bare hands in our cinema. Let us begin at the beginning of course, with the great Fearless Nadia. The caped, masked crusader, star of Hunterwali. In the posters of the 1935 flick, stuntwoman/heroine Mary Ann Evans (nicknamed Fearless Nadia) is seen cracking a mean whip, and striking a graceful pose, oozing power and looking ever-so-nonchalant. There can, of course, be no doubt that Kangana Rananut’s Julia in this year’s Rangoon was inspired by Fearless Nadia. From the stunts to the look.
Vijayalalitha in Tamil and Telugu cinema earned for herself the moniker ‘action heroine’ and ‘female James Bond’ (this is still not a thing in the west!) and starred in delightfully titled films such as Gun Fight Kanchana, Revolver Rita, Rowdy Rani, Revolver Rani. She was almost always a staple in the other South Indian James Bond – Jai Shankar’s movies.
Vijayashanti, of course, ruled the screens in Tollywood and Kollywood during the 90s as an action star with films such as Karthavyam/ Vijayashanti IPS, Police Lockup, Rowdy Inspector, Sahasa Baludu Vichitra Kothi and Street Fighter to name only a few. Her ‘mass appeal’ helped mainstream the heroine-stuntwoman-love-story formula through the 90s and it’s a pity she doesn’t have an heir today in south Indian cinema. A woman who can do it all.
Although that doesn’t mean there haven't been attempts. From Priyanka Chopra’s Jai Gangaajal to Sonakshi Sinha’s Akira and Rani Mukherjee’s Mardaani, there have been one-off attempts at keeping the spark alive. My favourite, surprise stunt moment in a Hindi film comes in Baby with Tapsee Pannu, who until she starts hitting the bad guy doesn’t give away just how powerful her role is going to be.
While you wait for more women to take the bad guys to the cleaners, K-Drama has you covered, for at least 16, hour-and-a-half long episodes of Strong Woman Do Bong Soon.