During a recent appearance on an American late night show, Uma Thurman, known for her iconic action role as The Bride in the Kill Bill series, summed up her love of portraying badasses like this: “Pretending to kill people is definitely better than making out with them.”
In the West, the female-oriented action film is a celebrated oeuvre of its own. Something that Bollywood hasn’t managed to do yet. However, in the last few years, our actresses have had more opportunities than before. Naam Shabana featuring Taapsee Pannu is a spin-off of the 2015 spy caper Baby. Pannu reprises her role as the no-nonsense undercover agent in the movie. She headlines the film and is, for all purposes, the story’s lead protagonist.
In doing so, Pannu is following in the footsteps of other famous actresses who have recently stretched their action muscles. This doesn’t mean performing a few stunts as a male star’s competent sidekick (a la Ek Tha Tiger or Dhoom 2). These are stars who carried the whole project on their shoulders:
Rani Mukerji in Mardaani (2014)
The actress has played her share of feisty characters (note: Bunty Aur Babli and No One Killed Jessica) but this crime thriller, about a formidable female police officer taking on a child trafficking ring, was the real deal. The film didn’t make as big a splash as expected Rani’s fire-breathing performance was applauded by everyone.
Anushka Sharma in NH10 (2015)
In this road trip gone horribly wrong, Anushka and her co-star Neil Bhoopalam were a well-heeled urban couple trapped in a violent spiral in a north Indian hinterland. Unlike in your usual female action narrative, Anushka doesn’t start out as a fearsome heroine. Instead, she is transformed into a deadly avenger by the circumstances that befall her.
Madhuri Dixit in Gulaab Gang (2014)
The film was loosely based on a real-life group of women, who took on oppressive social practices across villages in north India and called themselves, the Gulabi Gang. Madhuri portrayed Rajjo, the leader of this outfit, who didn’t need heavy artillery to put her male antagonists in place. A simple lathi was enough.
Priyanka Chopra in Jai Gangaajal (2016)
The straight-laced law enforcement officer posted in the badlands, where thugs and rogue politicians run amok, is a favourite storyline in many films. In Jai Gangaajal, the only difference was that the protagonist was a woman. To her credit though, instead of screechy histrionics, Priyanka stuck to an understated intensity throughout the movie.
Sonakshi Sinha in Akira (2016)
An angst-ridden young woman, the titular character is hardened by a stint in prison. When she returns to normal life, Akira is once again sucked into a situation where she has no choice but to defend herself against her enemies. Sonakshi’s hand-to-hand combat scenes in the film got a fair bit of attention even though the movie, as a whole, didn’t leave a mark on the box-office.