A monthly eye on all things women in the entertainment business.
When Linda Hamilton appears in the trailer for Terminator: Dark Fate, a slight figure with Aviators, a thick mane of white hair and a Bazaoka with which she melts a Terminator, it felt like I had known this woman a long time, especially the determined turn of her lips. As if she’d been fighting a long long time, and knew that she could not sleep for a long while yet. I know this woman, I thought. But I had never come across Hamilton before, I was too young when the first two Terminator films came to India. And then, Hamilton was (mostly) gone from the screen.
Terminator Dark Fate is her return to big-ticket Hollywood in 28 years, and major Anglophone publications such as The Guardian and The Atlantic have heralded her as the return of the “beating heart of the Terminator story”. This edition may have bombed at the box office, but it is far superior to the three Terminator instalments in between, and it is significant for how centrally it places women. Besides, how many million-dollar franchises do you know where the heroine is brought back to breathe life into the series again?
In Dark Fate, we see Hamilton’s boots first and then the camera travels up to her Aviator-ed visage while her virile SUV spins in the background—the sort of masala entry that huge male stars get in blockbusters. Within a couple of minutes of this, she gets the franchise’s iconic line: “I’ll be back.” Indeed, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a supporting actor, this film is Sarah Connor’s story—the character she plays in the Terminator series.
I know why this figure felt so familiar—I had glimpsed her in Charlize Theron’s one-armed warrior Furiosa. In Mad Max: Fury Road, Theron wears her hair cropped short, but everything else is the same—the legs-apart battle-ready stance, the back and shoulders held straight, the eyes alert and sleepless, the extraordinary intensity of never cracking a smile. There’s also the resemblance to Ellen Ripley in the Alien franchise, the only person with the guts to combat the terrifying reptilian alien adversary in a spaceship filled with a male crew. Like Furiosa and Sarah Connor, she too is slender, singularly focussed, unsmiling and when she cradles a bazooka in her arms, it feels like it belongs there.
The Maternal Instinct
All these women are unmistakably … maternal, driven by a primal instinct to protect their own children or the next generation. “This creature will never be drunk or too tired to play with John. In an imperfect world, he may be the perfect father figure for him,” Sarah Connor says in a voiceover in Judgement Day. But the ferocity of Sarah Connor is driven not only by her love for her son John, but also her hope for humankind. Furiosa takes off on the mission that forms the plot of Fury Road, because she wants to deliver the young women, known as “breeders”, to a gentler, happier, greener place. Google Ellen Ripley in Aliens and every image will show Sigourney Weaver cradling a young girl in her arms or a cat (the resident cat on the mercenary space ship). And there is, of course, on a lighter register, Uma Thurman on the rampage for a child she thought she lost in the Kill Bill films.
Remember that sequence in Bajirao Mastani, where Deepika Padukone thrusts expertly with a sword in her right hand, and holds her infant son on her left shoulder? There is a similar sequence in Manikarnika, where Kangana Ranaut takes off on her horse with her son on her back, and a sword in her right arm. Come to think of it, this iconography is used even in Mary Kom, in the practice sequences where Priyanka Chopra rocks the cradle with one arm and boxes the sandbag with another. Think of Mary Kom’s moniker too: Mother Mary. It is the idea that underpins Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani as well—a pregnant woman takes on the entire “system” to hunt down a mass-murderer.
Think of the opening sequence in Telugu language Baahubali where Ramya Krishnan faces down an army and a flood to save the newborn king? In the 1974 Bengali film Debi Choudhurani, superstar Suchitra Sen played the role of a bandit queen with distinctly maternal instincts towards the under-privileged in British India.
Indian films show this martial mother explicitly, one arm doing battle the other holding a child. The ferocious mother goddess is, after all, a motif in Hindu mythology—the goddess Durga who battles the asura to protect her four children (and all of us), another form of Durga is Kali, the mother of the universe who fights the demon king Raktabija and stops only when her husband Shiva intervenes. From our mythology, we read the figure into our history, hence the iconography of Rani Lakshmibai and more recently, former prime minister Indira Gandhi, who like Lakshmibai died in ‘service’.
There is a small but interesting difference between the warrior mothers of Hollywood film and Indian cinemas. In Hollywood, the motivation appears to be motherhood, the instinct to protect not only your own children but also the next generation. In Indian film cultures, motherhood is coupled with a love for the motherland, maternity plus nationalism. The iconic Mother India has shades of this mother figure who takes to arms, even against her own child, to protect her land. This reference is evoked in the recent light-hearted Saand ki Aankh, based on the remarkable real-life stories of the multiple medal-winning shooters Chandro and Prakashi Tomar. These women took to arms in the form of a sport for their daughters and grand-daughters, and belatedly for what it meant to themselves too. In the trailer for Mardaani 2, Rani Mukerji is tasked with protecting the young women of India, vulnerable to a serial rapist-killer in Kota. “Every year, lakhs of aspirants come to study in this town. The effects of this case will be felt all over the country,” Mukerji’s boss tells her. In a press event, Mukerji said that she has channelled Ma Durga for the role.
The nationalism of the Indian figure makes her similar to the archetype of the ‘virangana’, the cross-dressing, sexually-promiscuous, martial woman who is either the daughter or widow of a martyr for the homeland in the analysis of the academic Kathryn Hansen. The virangana is not a mother, certainly the folk figures of the virangana are characters like Shirin in Shirin Farhad or the popular representation of the empress of the Delhi sultanante, Razia Sultan, are not mothers. The Hindi film’s most iconic depiction of the virangana is the work of Mary Ann Evans, known by her screen name as Fearless Nadia. (I wrote about the adventures, and imprint of Nadia in an earlier essay.) Kangana Ranaut paid tribute to her in the film Rangoon (2017). Nadia was rarely married or a mother in her films, but the Hindi film is increasingly fusing the motifs of the all-powerful mother with the virangana.
All Fun and No Saving the World
There was another set of women with dishoom in November, the squad in the latest instalment of Charlie’s Angels. This edition is directed by a woman, Elizabeth Banks, the first in the franchise to be helmed by a woman. I found it really tasty, not the plot or most of the action, but the way almost all the White men in the film are revealed to be whiners, fussing about their furniture or unable to move on about their retirement. There’s one money shot, as they say, where angel Ella Balinska executes a feline stretch from the front seat of a moving car to aim a bullet at the tyres of a car in hot pursuit.
This franchise is sharply different in register from the aforementioned—these films are like an extended Spice Girls video, five-star fun built on fashion-magazine locations, absurd situations and sometimes enjoyable punch lines. The women here look for dates and good sex, there is no loftier purpose to their adventures, no motherhood or motherland to hang their motivations on. The stakes too are appropriately lowered, the bad guys are very bad but they are not horrid.