I love female action heroines more than their male counterparts. I've spent precious hours of my academic years playing various iterations of the Tomb Raider games. I don't understand the reason for this propensity. Maybe it's because I have seen my mother beat up miscreants. She has beaten up people making merry in the open near our house, and also college students criminally ragging their juniors at a traffic signal. One time, two gentlemen roughed me up after a minor road accident; my mom reached the spot within ten minutes, like an action star, and, well … you know.
So my problem with Bollywood's lack of action heroines is personal. I don't see enough representation. Then came Baby, the 2015 film directed by Neeraj Pandey, dominantly starring action star Akshay Kumar. But also blissfully featuring Taapsee Pannu in a minor role. I was a Taapsee fan already, thanks to a deodorant ad.
In the trailer for the film, the actress has barely three shots, including one where she's bruised. I knew something was in store, but I was not ready. Taapsee stars as Shabana, a name that would go on to spawn a mediocre spinoff. But in Baby, the only mediocrity with Taapsee's action sequence was my ability to breathe properly. Shabana was Akshay Kumar's Ajay's colleague on an espionage mission. To extract information, she meets Sushant Singh's Abdul Haq. The plan goes awry and an intense hand-to-hand combat takes place in the confines of a hotel room.
Shabana learns that Ajay will be late to the party so she has to take matters into her own hands. She excuses herself to go to the powder room, removes her dupatta, ties her hair up – usually, Bollywood would dish out a seductive song and dance to keep the villain engaged until the hero arrives. But Taapsee comes face to face with Abdul and lands on his cheek a … Thappad. Just one slap and, God, he deserved it.
An eleven-minute long action sequence ensues, and I can't say I was on the edge of my seat. I was buried deep in the seat with my hands over my face. The adrenaline rush was so strong that I went back to watch the movie two more times, just for that one scene. Despite the tactful hand-blocks coupled with kicks and punches on sensitive areas, the fight was not one-sided. The stakes were high as Taapsee was being beaten black and blue as well, but she eventually ends the scene victoriously. There's a dazed look on Ajay's face, who arrives on the scene a little too late for a Bollywood hero.
The beauty of the action scene did not merely lie in the finely choreographed, realistic hand-to-hand combat, which is also a rarity in Indian cinema. A major part of the charm was the tension that had been injected prior to the scene. Shabana's failure to get the job done earlier, the terrifying change in plans, the reveal about the villainous nature of the driver on the car ride – the action scene is a payoff and not a titillation.
Elsewhere, Katrina Kaif got her moment in the sun in Tiger Zinda Hai, as she killed terrorists. Baby and TZH remain the two scenes with the highest level of butt-kickery by heroines in Bollywood, for me. I can't wait to see more women in action, because I have living proof breathing down my neck that women can smash skulls like they shatter glass ceilings.
I wish the spin-off to Baby, titled Naam Shabana, had lived up to expectations. But the vulnerability of Shabana was replaced by the same old cocky confidence that male action stars are popular for. In Baby, she didn't know what lay ahead. In Naam Shabana, she had memorised the script and knew everything would go well for her character. I'm waiting for Taapsee to take up an action role again, and hit me, Baby, one more time with that adrenaline.