A stale truism (or two) bobs up at the provocation of a Katrina Kaif release. You know the one — the crummy Hindi enunciation, a lack of that skillful contortion of facial muscles to offer up a skill — acting — the profession she has adhered to for two decades in Hindi cinema. The longevity of twenty years is tidily allotted to her looks (as well as a stringent work ethic). How to delve into the filmic resonance of Kaif’s beauty then, and the moral itch that wants to contest that reductiveness? To be clear: Her beauty pulls.
Since her debut in 2003 in the critical and commercial flop Boom — where she played a clueless but conscientious supermodel Rina Kaif — superhits (Partner, Welcome), hits (Raajneeti, Ajab Prem ki Ghazab Kahaani), blockbusters (Zindagi na Milegi Dobara, Dhoom 3), a few flops here and there (Tees Maar Khan, Fitoor) have riddled a filmography that is a paean to the niggling ease of getting ghettoised into a role. The characters she portrayed in her early years were not as incandescently oblivious as Rina Kaif, but they remained within that realm even if they registered for a lesser shade, like Priya R. Jaisingh from Partner (2007), or Sanjana Shetty from Welcome (2007). Both films contain a wacky plan to ‘get the girl’, and as the love interest, she remains at the gendered margin.
It doesn’t mean there were never any punctures within this pigeonholing. In the same year, she played Jasmeet Malhotra in Namastey London (2007), a liberated Londoner who is whisked into matrimony under coercive circumstances by her parents, and eventually beguiled by her husband. Alongside Babita from Zero (2018) where she plays a Bollywood actress struggling against a questionable relationship, and Maria from Merry Christmas (2024), it is considered her most buoyant role. The film has a predictable arc, and ends with the suggestion of a traditional ever after: she is courted into domestication by Arjun (Akshay Kumar). Yet, the persistent imagery is that of the snooty ‘Jazz’ telling her parents, and Arjun off — rather than, arguably, her getting hurtled towards Punjab, at the back of her husband’s bike.
But despite these occasional rips into the typecasted fabric, Kaif’s stardom continued to be characterised, and pumped by her stunning appearance, her love-life and her off-screen people skills. “The minute between cut and action, you don’t need to use your brain”, Kaif said in a 2015 GQ interview, “but after the shot is done, it's all about people management. It's the only way to make it in an industry that is so haphazard and highly strung.”
The other punctures became apparent in 2010, and 2012, when Kaif did ‘Sheila Ki Jawani’ and ‘Chikni Chameli’ in Tees Maar Khan and Agneepath respectively. Both are item numbers, that, at one point in Hindi cinema came within the purview of the ‘vamp’ of the film, but the lines have since been blurred with the virgin and the vamp dichotomy essentially disappearing after the Nineties. A year after Agneepath, we saw Kaif in ‘Kamli’ in Dhoom 3, where, for five minutes, she does an acrobatic dance to prove she would be irresistible, and reduce us to a puddle of helpless ogling. She does.
Usha Iyer, in her seminal work Dancing Women: Choreographing corporeal histories of Hindi Cinema writes how dance in cinema became a medium which embodied elements of desire — gratified that buried itch of the audience— that would otherwise have to be insinuated towards, and it especially became a gender-specific space that gave women both a space to explicitly entice, as well as sexually yearn. The dance sequences lathered Kaif’s filmography to not just catapult into a dancing star as the likes of Madhuri Dixit, but also provided her with an accessorised grasp to charm, to woo our pre-existing fancy.
Though the Ek Tha Tiger franchise continued in its quest to make Zoya (Kaif) play second fiddle to Tiger (Salman Khan) in its latest instalment, her other recent films provide a different narrative to what her celebrity has come to mean. Both Phone Bhoot (2022), and Merry Christmas, were marketed with Kaif’s outsized face on the poster. The former invariably refers to her beauty not in a bid to objectify — or pursue anything else that is subtractive— but rather pay a fond homage to her status as a beauty icon. In the latter, she is a beautiful woman who is compelled to lure a man into her apartment to construct an alibi that becomes essential to a plot twist in the film. Both are not only a nod to her gorgeous appearance, but provide a capacious story to tinkle with that perception, that pull of hers.
There is something to be said about the chafing quality of this persistent critique against her, because it is not just her beauty, though, but, it is what this beauty does to the celluloid. It also comfortably prods us to reckon with the possibility that beauty is not anaesthetic — it can be penetrative, acidic, or pungent. As if, in the case of Kaif, it doesn’t shamelessly pester us to accommodate that beyond the notion of acting we classically pull from theatre — a cinematic reckoning loiters. One that brazenly insists that we unhook our puritanical, boring convictions, to perhaps consider that beauty registers not just because we are necessarily vain — we are vain, that much is incontestable — but between our shallow urges, and repressed ones, it attests to a truism that we are beings with amorous instincts. So what if her beauty pulls?