“Put the candles on the cake, start singing and I’ll be home before you finish singing happy birthday.”
In the opening sequence of Pathaan, we see Dimple Kapadia on the phone in the Indian government’s cool, decidedly non-sarkari-looking intelligence agency office. She’s the boss with the handsomely-sized glass-walled cabin, who frequently misses her family get-togethers. (She does report to a male boss but in this film’s scheme of things, she is the one who takes the important calls.) Of course, an emergency prevents this birthday party attendance too. “Shall I tell them to keep a slice of cake in the fridge?” her assistant asks in a subsequent sequence.
Right off the bat, Pathaan underlines Nandini’s maternal identity. She is a boss and a mother. Through a large part of the film, she is narrating Shah Rukh Khan’s story to an underling in the office, much like mothers talk fondly about their children. Later in the film she tells Pathaan, “So what should I have told them? That you are like my son, could they please torture you a little less?” At film’s end, Khan’s feelings for her are spelt out explicitly when he hands her a bravery medal that he says are her true due. You know that what you sensed all along is correct: although he always calls her “ma’am”, she is actually mom.
This dynamic is reminiscent of the relationship between Daniel Craig’s Bond and Dame Judy Dench’s M. She first appeared as M in 1995 in GoldenEye, but Pierce Brosnan’s Bond had a more campy equation with her. The franchise was trying to signal that it was cool with feminism with Dench’s casting, and the Brosnan films retained a jokey ironic tone towards M. Daniel Craig’s Bond brought feeling into the franchise—he is the most emotional and human Bond on screen, a man more than a smooth operator of machines. Their dynamic is characterised by distinctly maternal sentiment. The scholar Phoebe Pua has pointed out how Dench refers to Craig’s Bond as James, not Bond, and this James is often seen breaking into M’s home, signalling a crossing of lines beyond an official relationship that was not seen earlier. This maternal love is underlined in Skyfall, where Craig cradles the dying M, reversing the mother-and-child Pieta posture.
But this maternal feeling between Daniel Craig’s Bond and Dench’s M is an outlier in the Western spy film canvas. We don’t see it in the Mission Impossible or Bourne films for instance. In Hindi, arguably in some other Indian popular language cinema too, maternity is the hallmark of the powerful/ martial woman spy. What about Deepika Padukone’s Dr Rubai, how is she maternal? Not in the obvious sense that Dimple’s character is, but I’d argue that her love for her motherland, her sense of serving her people, is a rendition of the unconditional love of mothers. There’s also childhood trauma, the tortured good father, a subtext that suggests she toughened up to protect herself and her widowed mother. A mother figure. The martyr in the background is also an important configuration of the virangana, the martial woman in Indian mythology, something I shall come to.
The film that underlines the maternal impulse of women spies unforgettably, indeed plays with it, is Kahaani (2012). The story, and its sequel, is premised on Vidya Balan’s maternity status. There is also the lovely relationship she shares with the boy child who works at Mona Lisa guesthouse, and the affection for Parambrata Chatterjee’s policeman assistant.
Then there’s Raazi, where Alia Bhatt’s character was married into a Pakistani army family to spy for India by her father, an intelligence agent himself, who discovers he has terminal cancer. Sehmat is bright and competent, motivated in particular by the thought of carrying on her ailing father’s legacy of serving the country. By film’s end, when she has conveyed a stream of particularly vital information that helps facilitate crucial triumphs in the 1971 war against Pakistan, she realises she is pregnant. In the plot, this is when her instinct for information, for danger, as also for the thin line between duty and moral betrayal is at her sharpest.
There are more. In the Tiger films, Katrina Kaif’s Zoya, a Pakistani agent, teaches ballet to cherubic kids in the first film and is a mother in the second film. In Naam Shabana, Taapsee Pannu’s Shabana Khan is similar to Deepika Padukone’s Dr. Rubai and also different. She murders her abusive father to stop her mother’s daily beatings. The trauma moulds her into her mother’s and her own protector, a reserved mother figure of a sort. Kangana Ranaut’s jaded super agent in the Dhaakad has a soft spot for a colleague’s motherless daughter. I’ll add the Telugu film Yashoda to this list, although it isn’t strictly about international espionage. Here, Samantha Ruth Prabhu is a cop who goes undercover inside a surrogacy facility to find her missing sister, and unearths a criminal project where surrogate baby foetuses are murdered for their body parts, used in the cosmetics industry. The maternity motif is naturally laid on thick here.
There may be other Indian films with women spies, this essay is not an encyclopaedic mapping. This is about noting a code: why do so many women spies on the Hindi screen have maternal impulses and/or traumatic backgrounds? My answer is the virangana—the figure of the martial woman of Indian mythology.
The Sanskrit tatsam word translates to a heroic woman. In an essay, the academic Kathryn Hansen, noted that the virangana stands as an “alternate paradigm” to the two most established female motifs in Indian narratives— that of the devoted wife and the powerful mother. She is a “valiant fighter who distinguishes herself in warfare”. She dresses in male clothes, rides a horse and adopts male symbols such as a sword. The martial activity is typically undertaken on behalf of a kingdom or country.
These are the features you see in the historical figure of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi. She was mother to an adopted son, and most of her statue memorials, construct her on horseback with an infant strapped to her body. (The film Manikarnika recreated this image.) The slave dynasty queen of Delhi, Razia Sultan’s image in Hindi film is also constructed as that of a virangana—sword in hand, on horseback. She does not have a child associated with her but she was said to be a popular rule, arguably a mother figure to her subjects.
The virangana can also be found in mythology in the figure of the goddess Durga, although she is not on horseback but on a lion’s back. (All the forms of Durga—Jagadhatri, Sitala, Sherowali—are viranganas.) In Bengal, Durga is pictured with her four children, mounted on a lion, as she slays the demon Asura. The story of Durga does not feature trauma—she is created to destroy the demon Mahisasur, born of a demon and a buffalo, whose penance was rewarded by Brahma’s boon that no man could kill him. When the gods in ‘swarg lok’ (heaven) were threatened, they created the ten-handed Durga and individual male gods bestowed their celestial weapons upon her. After a ten-day battle with the buffalo demon, Durga won—hence, one of her names is Mahisasur Mardini, the one who slays Mahisasur.
Can she be a virangana without trauma or martyrdom in the backdrop? I would argue yes. The central characteristic is heroism. Outside of that, the figure of the virangana can be a permutation and combination of her principal characteristics. Rani Lakshmibai may fulfil all of them—she is brave, she is widowed, she loves her kingdom and she is a mother—but Ma Durga is martial, a mother and does her duty to her people (the gods), but she does not carry any baggage from her past.
Thus, in Pathaan, Kapadia’s Nandini is patriotic, brave and maternal but we don’t know if she carries any trauma from her past. Padukone’s Dr Rubai is a terrific warrior, patriotic but not explicitly maternal like Nandini. As I’d argued earlier, patriotism can be read as a unconditional, hence maternal, love to one’s people. By this parameter, Padukone is maternal too.
Most Hindi films, however, choose to showcase all the characteristics of the viranagana in the rendition of the female spy, and if we broaden it a little historically, the woman warrior. Vidya Balan’s Vidya Bagchi in Kahaani, Alia Bhatt’s Sehmat in Raazi, Kangana Ranaut’s Agent Agni in the colossal failure Dhaakad and Rani Lakshmibai in Manikarnika, Deepika Padukone’s Mastani in Bajirao Mastani (widowed or made single by circumstance) are all perfect viranganas.
In fact, so potent is the viranagana’s imagery that the motif is applied to another category of patriotic film—the sports film. In Mary Kom, we see Priyanka Chopra boxing the sandbag with one fist and rocking the cradle with the other. In Panga, Kangana Ranaut plays Jaya Nigam, a star kabaddi player who gives up the game when she becomes a mother and returns to it to fulfil her son’s desire. In Sultan, perhaps the most interesting of all, Anushka Sharma’s Aarfa gives up wrestling when she miscarries. As if when she is bereft of her maternal abilities, she is no longer able to fight for the nation. Heroism, it would seem, lies in the womb.