Heroines in a Man’s World

Ahead of Babli Bouncer, we raise a toast to Indian films that shone the spotlight on women who thrive in male-dominated fields
Heroines in a Man’s World

Babli Bouncer, directed by Madhur Bhandarkar and starring Tamannaah, is about a girl who comes from a small town near Delhi that’s famous for producing bouncers. Babli’s father runs a local akhada (gym) and she’s among his best students. Instead of going the usual route of leaving home to get married, Babli wants to be independent. So she heads to Delhi and becomes a bouncer. While we wait for Disney+ Hotstar to open the doors for Babli Bouncer on September 23, here are some more movies about leading ladies who made their mark in fields predominantly occupied by men.  

Mary Kom 

Directed by Omung Kumar, Mary Kom (2014) follows the life of the eponymous boxer Mary Kom. There are very few sports that are considered feminine and boxing certainly isn’t one of them. The film follows Mary from her childhood in Imphal to becoming an international-level boxing champion, noting her coach’s initial indifference, her father’s disapproval, and her friendship with footballer Onler Kom (they would later marry and he would support her ambitions). While Priyanka Chopra playing the titular role raises questions about representation — there’s no mistaking Chopra is not Manipuri — the film does give audiences some sense of what it took for the athlete who would be nicknamed Magnificent Mary to succeed in a field that is associated and filled with men.

Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl

Based on Indian Air Force (IAF) officer and former helicopter pilot Gunjan Saxena (played by Janhvi Kapoor), Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (2020) is about the first woman to fly in a combat zone. The action takes place during the Kargil War, but the film looks at how Gunjan was able to prove herself. Her acceptance into the Indian Air Force is cause for celebration for Gunjan and her father, who proves to be her pillar of strength. However, being a trailblazer is hard. There’s no women’s washroom at the training facility and seniors are unwilling to train her. She refuses to be dissuaded and ultimately makes history with a rescue mission that saves the lives of countless troops. It’s a classic underdog story, except instead of a man, it’s a woman who ends up being the hero.

Mission Mangal

Directed by Jagan Shakti, Mission Mangal (2019) is loosely based on the experiences of the scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) who contributed to the Mars Orbiter Mission, India’s first interplanetary expedition. While the poster played up Akshay Kumar as its hero, the film is as much about the ensemble of women who make up Kumar’s team. Vidya Balan was the project director; Sonakshi Sinha played propulsion control expert; Taapsee Pannu was a navigation expert; Nithya Menen and Kirti Kulhari played the roles of two satellite designers. Mission Mangal felt similar to Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures (2016) — about a team of female African-American mathematicians whose contributions were crucial during the nascent years of the American space program — but ultimately, Mission Mangal became a vehicle for Kumar. Still, the best parts of the film are the ones with the women working together, to prove their critics wrong.

Mardaani

Directed by Pradeep Sarkar, Mardaani (2014) follows Crime Branch Senior Inspector Shivani Shivaji Roy (Rani Mukerji), who sets out to investigate a child trafficking ring that has abducted Pyaari, a girl Roy has looked after like her own daughter. Indian cinema has a long line of charismatic women inspectors, but the khaki femme hadn’t found the spotlight much since the Nineties. She made a belligerent comeback with this film in which Mukerji was seen in an avatar very different from the glamorous love interests for which she’s famous. Her Shivani didn’t pull her punches or hesitate to inflict brutal violence upon anyone who got in her way.

Kodi

The 2016 Tamil-language film features a character, Rudra (Trisha) who, akin to the protagonist Kodi (Dhanush), has been a politician for a very long time. However, unlike him, she is treated as an inferior in her party on account of being a woman. To establish herself as a reigning politician, she has to employ extreme measures like purloining a minister’s seat by exposing his fraudulent documents and stabbing her partner, Kodi, to death. In the end, she too dies after being pierced by an iron rod. Devoid of redemption, the film is telling of what ‘making it’ entails in politics, especially for a woman.

Kanaa

Directed by Arunraja Kamaraj, Kanaa (2018) is about Kowsi (Aishwarya Rajesh), the daughter of a farmer who wants to be a cricketer and make her father proud. As a 14-year-old, she joins the village cricket team but is constantly snubbed for behaving like a boy, wearing trousers and so on. Once the team realises she’s got an impeccable off-spin bowling technique, she earns their respect. Later, Kowsi’s hard work has her qualify for the Indian women's cricket team, and she goes on to play in the T20 World Cup.

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