The murderous women in Hindi cinema are a thing of beauty; a beauty, edged with razor-sharp intent, that is keen to draw blood. Some of them kill for selfish reasons: Simi Garewal’s character in Karz (1980) murders her husband because she is in cahoots with his enemies. Kajol’s character in Gupt: The Hidden Truth (1997) eliminates anyone who gets in the way of her love life. There are women for whom murder is chillingly instinctive: Think Urmila Matondkar as an unhinged serial killer in Kaun? (1999) — she lures unsuspecting men to her house and murders them. Tabu’s Lady Macbeth-esque character in Andhadhun (2018) kills her husband and stops at nothing to get rid of the eyewitnesses. But there is another category, perhaps the most prominent, of female killers in Bollywood: The Virtuous Murderer.
When a woman commits murder on screen, not only are traditionally feminine notions of gentleness and delicacy subverted, but she also ends up taking centre-stage within the narrative as she is rarely able to when she’s the passive paragon of virtue. When this act of violence is pursued in a bid to protect or avenge her loved ones — this is especially true where a child is concerned — she is even likely to evoke a charged sympathy from the audience. The dichotomy of a vulnerable, family-oriented woman and a cold-blooded killer is delicious, compelling — it is bolstered further in a culture that reveres vengeful goddesses like Durga and Kali, who embody female rage, power and destruction.
In 1988’s Khoon Bhari Maang, Aarti (Rekha) is a recently-widowed mother of two children. When her new husband Sanjay (Kabir Bedi) pushes her into crocodile-infested waters in a bid for her fortune, Aarti emerges from the ordeal a new woman — literally. With plastic surgery to repair her mutilated face, she takes on a glamorous, alluring avatar. It is a far cry from her previously unassuming appearance, when she donned simple salwar-kameez and had a conspicuous birthmark on her face. She wants to exact revenge on Sanjay for what he did to her, yes, but Aarti’s motives predominantly hinge on her love for her children and pet animals, who are tormented by Sanjay and his accomplices in Aarti’s absence.
In the film’s climax, Aarti approaches the villains on horseback, wearing black leather and brandishing a rifle. She confesses that she could easily have reported them to the police and got her revenge, but the appeal of taking their punishment into her own hands was irresistible. In the fight scene that follows, Aarti thrashes Sanjay with a whip, lassoes him and sets off on a swift gallop, dragging him behind her. Ultimately, Sanjay hangs off the edge of a cliff, begging for mercy while crocodiles lurk in the waters below. Aarti hits him over the head with an iron rod, causing him to fall to a grisly death. As the water turns red and Sanjay’s screams rent the air, she gasps in relief. In the last scene of the film, Aarti tearfully embraces her children.
It is on Durga Puja that the climax of Kahaani (2012) unravels, when Vidya (Vidya Balan) orchestrates a final showdown with one of the men responsible for the death of her husband (and her unborn baby). For most of the film, she seems helpless — a perception fortified by her apparent pregnancy — relying on the men around her for assistance. Vidya, who is neither with child nor feeble, leans into this perceived powerlessness to execute her carefully made plan without arousing suspicion. She stabs her adversary with her hairpin, before shooting him with his own gun. She makes a smooth exit before the police arrive at the site of the crime, and faces no legal consequences for her actions. As the audience, it is hard to resist the delight of this twist.
Lyn Gardner writes about the portrayal of murderous women on stage: “In theatre, it sometimes seems that the only way women can escape their gender roles and the terrible burden of femininity is by plunging a knife into a male breast or taking aim with a gun and making damn sure they don't miss.” By enacting acts of violence, these female characters are stepping into a role that is largely reserved for men, a role that brings with it power and agency, even if they are rendered culpable at the end. Aarti and Vidya are both women who are undermined by the other characters in the film (as well as the audience) until they are compelled to take justice into their own hands. Additionally, their noble motivations serve to exonerate them of their crimes. The public indictment is instead saved for the men they kill. Both Aarti and Vidya achieve what they set out to achieve, offering a sense of catharsis and restored justice. We also see the two women push ahead with a sense of contentment in their respective narratives.
In Mom (2017), Sridevi plays Devki, a woman who craves the affection of her teenage stepdaughter. When the young girl is brutally raped, and left for dead at a party — the perpetrators getting off scot-free — Devki takes it upon herself to seek vigilante vengeance. Her arsenal filled with everything from castration to cyanide, she takes out each of the attackers one-by-one. The last and most violent of them is shot by her, and the film ends on a heartwarming note — with Devki’s stepdaughter finally acknowledging her as “mom”.
Bollywood’s posse of virtuous female killers has a sparkling new addition in Merry Christmas’s Maria, played by Katrina Kaif. (Spoilers for Sriram Raghavan’s Merry Christmas ahead.) Her husband Jerome is constantly cruel to Maria, lashing out at her under the influence of drugs, and also cheating on her. Maria is willing to tolerate this abuse to a point, but it is when Jerome begins to take out his anger on their young daughter Annie that Maria sees red. Although his actions are not laid out explicitly, we learn that he abused Annie to the point that she became mute. Maria outwardly keeps her cool, while secretly, painstakingly devising a plan to get rid of Jerome for her daughter's sake. Maria is calculating but not cold; devious but not diabolical; a murderer with moral fibre — one you can’t help but root for. The setting of Christmas, a time of mercy and merriment, for this meticulous murder exemplifies this dichotomy.
The eventual success and happy endings of these murderous women often comes at the expense of the well-meaning men in their lives. In Kahaani, Rana (Parambrata Chatterjee) works closely with Vidya, under the impression that he is helping her get to the bottom of her husband’s disappearance. He even develops a bit of a crush on her. At the end, he is left reeling at her deception. Nawazuddin Siddique’s character in Mom is a detective who assists Devki every step of the way. He ends up as collateral damage, killed by one of the criminals. In Jaane Jaan (2023), Kareena Kapoor plays Maya, a single mother who murders her nasty ex-husband to protect her daughter. She enlists the help of her dubious neighbour Naren (Jaideep Ahlawat), who is obsessed with her, to cover her tracks. At the end of the film, Naren takes the fall for her, choosing to spend several years in prison so Maya can be cleared of her crime. The bittersweet ending of Merry Christmas sees Maria walking away with a surprise proposal and a life of freedom with her daughter, even as things look significantly bleaker for Vijay Sethupathi’s Albert.
The idea of the heroine being punished for her actions, after we have come to empathise with her over the course of the film, is uncomfortable to reckon with. As such, the “good man” who sacrifices himself for her sake almost feels like a proxy for the men who hurt her in the first place, a twisted sort of balancing act in these films (all of which have been directed by men). It allows the woman to preserve her virtue in the eyes of the law, which might otherwise fail to take into account the nuance behind her motive for the murder. The court of audience opinion, meanwhile, has long forgiven the woman for her actions, given that they stem from honourable intentions.
The virtuous murderer is driven by pain and rage and love, a combination that is made all the more potent when it is a woman, a mother, whose hand is forced to violence by her circumstances. Even when the blow of her murder is softened by the campy crocodiles of the Eighties, or couched in Sriram Raghavan’s pristine direction, the anger is legitimate, and the outcome sympathetic. No matter what she does or whom she kills, her actions are justified by the grammar of the film.
There is something enthralling in the imagery of a woman striking back at the men who have wronged her, her compassion juxtaposed against her lethality. When Aarti confronts Sanjay in the climax of Khoon Bhari Maang, he callously dismisses her as a “weak woman”, a “foolish woman”. She puts him squarely in his place: “Devil, you haven’t yet seen what a woman is capable of. You have treated women as playthings all these years, but you haven't yet faced the wrath of a woman.”