Bollywood's Killer Queens
Kareena Kapoor made her streaming debut this week with Jaane Jaan, Sujoy Ghosh’s new crime thriller on Netflix. The moody film sees Kapoor as a single mother with deadly secrets, and if you’ve read Keigo Higashino’s novel The Devotion of Suspect X, then you know she’s made some seriously inventive use of the immersion heater.
Hindi cinema has often turned to murderous women to make statements about societal evils. Their motivations may be varied — to seek revenge for loved ones or to fulfil their selfish ends — but their crimes invariably take other characters (and the audience) by surprise. Occasionally, these crimes highlight how unfairly society treats women. Often, they shine a light on gendered anxieties and the fears that lurk beneath a male-dominated status quo. Other times, the women just kill for fun. Either way, it works like a charm.
Kamini in Karz (1980)
On the day of her wedding, Kamini Varma (played by Simi Garewal) takes control of the jeep and crashes into her new husband Ravi, throwing him off the edge of a cliff. Several years later, Ravi’s spirit is reincarnated into rockstar Monty. After learning the truth behind Ravi’s murder, Monty wants to expose Kamini. His performance of the song ‘Ek Haseena Thi’, which depicts the events of the murder, strikes fear into the heart of the previously remorseless Kamini. She flees the scene, and attempts to kill Monty in the same way she did away with Ravi. However, she ends up driving off the cliff and falling to her own death.
Aarti in Khoon Bhari Maang (1988)
Hell hath no fury like a woman pushed into crocodile-infested waters by the man she married. Rekha’s character in this revenge thriller begins as a docile heiress who is conned by a dashing Kabir Bedi, who plays her villainous husband Sanjay. After Sanjay throws her to said crocodiles, Aarti (mutilated and furious) survives. With copious plastic surgery, she is a new woman — determined to not just exact revenge, but also save her two children from Sanjay’s clutches. At one point, Sanjay mocks her, saying that she is nothing but a weak woman. To this, Aarti, armed with a horsewhip in one hand and a rifle in another, retorts, “Tune aaj tak aurat ka roop dekha hi kahan hai? (You haven’t yet seen what a woman can really do).” Ultimately, Aarti returns the crocodile-flavoured favour to Sanjay, but not before an extended fight scene, which turns unexpectedly tense in parts. Khoon Bhari Maang has everything that made Bollywood in the Eighties fantastically entertaining, but under the excess is a subtle reminder that women need to be independent and in control of their own finances.
Anuradha in Khal-Naaikaa (1993)
Coincidentally released on the exact same day as Subhash Ghai’s Khal Nayak (1993), this film’s title makes no secret of the fact that its primary antagonist is a woman. In Khal-Naaikaa, Anu Aggarwal’s character pretends to be a nanny and attempts to get revenge on Jaya, the woman she holds responsible for the death of her unborn baby and husband (a doctor who sexually assaulted his patients, and who committed suicide when he was reported). As part of her plan, Anuradha turns Jaya’s children against her and sows discord in the other woman’s marriage, systematically taking out whoever gets in her way. At one point, she even holds a knife to the throat of Jaya’s baby, threatening to kill him if they come after her. Although Anuradha ultimately meets her end, one is left wondering if she would have resorted to these tactics had she known the truth of her husband’s vile nature.
Isha in Gupt: The Hidden Truth (1997)
Few people in 1997 could have predicted Gupt's final twist: A woman is the elusive serial killer. When easy-going Sahil (Bobby Deol) is framed for murder, he attempts to find the real culprit of the crimes he’s accused of, completely unaware that his possessive girlfriend Isha is behind the killings. When the truth is finally revealed, Kajol — dressed in all black, dagger in hand and a look of unadulterated fury on her face — is a menacing sight. But as she spends her dying moments in Sahil’s arms, Isha is vulnerable once again, seeking his love and forgiveness, and explaining that everything she did was for him. Kajol became the first woman ever to win the Filmfare Award for Best Performance in a Negative Role for her performance in this film.
The woman in Kaun? (1999)
As the title of this Ram Gopal Varma thriller suggests, we never find out the name of the main character, played by Urmila Matondkar. This namelessness adds to Kaun?’s sinister edge. The viewer is led to believe she is a frightened young woman, reluctant to leave her house because there is a serial killer at large. However, as the two men in the film fight each other — each believing the other to be the murderer — neither suspects for a moment that the killer is actually the woman. Realisation strikes too late and the woman stabs them to death in a frenzy. Matondkar is terrifyingly unhinged as she attacks the men — she laughs and claps like a child, mockingly humming at her victims before she murders them, her eyes bugging out and her face twisted in a creepy rictus. Her motivation behind the murders is not explained. This nameless woman feels like an embodiment of the cumulative fears of men’s rights activists — especially as the film ends with an implied promise that the woman, who appears to be mentally unstable, will continue to kill unsuspecting men.
Susanna in 7 Khoon Maaf (2011)
Priyanka Chopra is femme fatale extraordinaire in this film about a woman who murders six of her seven husbands. Each of these men represent one of the seven deadly sins, mistreating Susanna enough to provoke her to murder them in increasingly creative ways — from administering an overdose of Viagra to shooting him in a game of Russian Roulette. Indeed, one of the best-known dialogues in the film is, “Duniya ki har biwi ne kabhi na kabhi toh yeh zaroor socha hoga ... ki main hamesha hamesha ke liye apne pati se chutkara kaise paon (Every wife in the world must have at some point considered how she can get rid of her husband forever).” Fed up with her failed attempts at finding love, Susanna ultimately elects to become a nun, confessing to her sins and finally achieving a sense of true peace and freedom. We can only wonder how Susanna would have coped with dating apps like Tinder and Bumble.
Vidya in Kahaani (2012)
There is more to Vidya Balan’s character than meets the eye in this film. A pregnant woman who is desperate to find information about her missing husband comes to Kolkata. During her final showdown with one of the men responsible for her husband’s death (fittingly set during Durga Puja celebrations), Balan whips off what turns out to be a prosthetic belly from underneath her sari and disarms the bad guy with it — before stabbing him in the neck with her hairpin. Kahaani plays on the notion — held by both the film’s characters and the audiences — that a woman, especially one who is pregnant, is incapable of murder. The tragic loss of her husband and unborn baby compel Vidya to channel her rage and grief to find closure and enact her own brand of justice.
Meera in NH10 (2015)
When Meera (Anushka Sharma) and her husband happen to witness an honour killing along a highway in Gurugram, they become the targets of the brutal gang of men. Despite the tense and high-stakes situations she finds herself in, Meera does not hesitate to protect herself by any means necessary — she shoots the man who attacks her husband, she stabs the sinister police officer who is in cahoots with the gang members, and she runs over the bad guys with their own SUV. Meera is someone who is forced to resort to violence because all the systems fail her, but once she starts lashing out, she is unapologetic. Sharma’s virtuoso performance in the film remains unforgettable.
Simi in Andhudhan (2018)
At one point in Andhadhun (2018), a character refers to Simi (played by Tabu) as ‘Lady Macbeth’. Crafty, ambitious and doused with a delicious dollop of drama, Simi is doubtless deserving of the moniker. When Ayushman Khurrana’s not-so-blind pianist Akash becomes an unwitting witness to Simi’s murder of her husband, she stops at nothing to clear her name, from tossing an elderly neighbour off the ledge of their apartment building to actually blinding Akash. Later, Simi and Akash are unlikely allies in an organ-harvesting scam (don’t ask), but she proves once again that she works for no one but herself, as she makes every attempt to throw Akash under the bus — seriously, she tries to run him over with a car — in order to save herself. Simi’s fate at the end of the film is ambiguous, but we like to believe she’s still out there somewhere, causing chaos and being fabulous.
Naina in Badla (2019)
In this remake of the 2016 Spanish mystery thriller ‘The Invisible Guest,’ Naina (played by Taapsee Pannu) is accused of the murder of her lover. For much of the film, she pleads innocent of the crime, but as her defence attorney (Amitabh Bachchan) begins to unravel the case, the truth comes to light. On the way back from a romantic getaway at a cabin in the middle of the woods, Naina rammed into an oncoming car, immediately killing its driver. She then dumped his body into a swamp and skilfully covered her tracks. But it is only at the end that she reveals the most chilling part of the story: the young man was in fact alive and kicking (literally) when Naina was disposing of his body, a fact she chose to ignore in favour of protecting herself. She also ended up murdering her boyfriend, who was overcome with guilt and was planning on confessing the truth. Despite her cold-blooded calculations, Naina is eventually outsmarted by the parents of the boy she killed.