Just like how Cricket has always revered its batsmen more than its bowlers, Cinema in general has always been Hero-dominated rather than give space for the Heroines. There have however been quite a few instances across the world where few women have risen above the men to have scripts solely based on them and their ability to shoulder the film, a Meryl Streep for example. And of course, there are quite a few filmmakers who do not go by the agenda of hero or a heroine but rather let the script dictate the choice of the protagonist’s gender. Furthermore there are cases where there are strong women who move the plot in spite of not playing a leading role. With Iraivi proving to be the talk of the town for its lofty ambitions, let me try to touch upon a few films that I came across recently which inverted the gender stereotype in practice.
Perhaps one of the strongest portrayals from the feminine gender in recent times came in the form of Asha Sharath who played a commanding role with ease in Drishyam (December 19, 2013). To hold one’s in front of a champion performer like Mohanal takes volumes of talent & class and the fact that she had been chosen to reprise the same role in Tamizh (across Kamal Haasan no less) and in Kannada shows how people rated her performance across state borders.
One of the rare films on the ‘slasher’ genre to come out in India, NH10 (March 13, 2015) had a smoking (literally & figuratively) Anushka Sharma as Meera take control of her life and annihilate her adversaries single-handedly. But what was more interesting was the characterization of Deepti Naval as Chief Ammaji who is actually the mastermind with the casteist agenda on her mind. It was a masterstroke indeed from the writer Sudip Sharma as having a male there would not have created such an impact. Excellent casting too from Navdeep Singh & Team.
The opinion on the Anand L. Rai – Himanshu Sharma combo is often divided. While people accuse them of the incessant stalking in Raanjhanaa and criticize them for the ending of Tanu Weds Manu Returns (May 22, 2015), credit has to be given to them for giving Kangana Ranaut the focus through the roles in Tanu Weds Manu and its sequel. In between the two films, Kangana went on to star in one the best films made with a female protagonist, Vikas Bahl’s Queen (March 7, 2014). It is a testament to fine writing & enacting that such roles rocked both the Box Office as well as the National Awards.
Another gutsy attempt to succeed in the mainstream space was the Tamizh film Maya (September 17, 2015) that boldly reinvented the motherhood sentiment by following the journey of a single mother and packaging it into a captivating visual & aural experience. It marked the onset of a glittering run of success for Nayanthara even being christened ‘Lady-Superstar’ by a section of the media.
Sudha Kongara made the bilingual Irudhi Suttru/Saala Khadoos (January 29, 2016) starring Madhavan & debutant boxer-turned-actor Ritika Singh after struggling for more than 2 years. But the reception given to the film (at least in Tamil) was absolutely phenomenal in spite of the film focusing more on the journey of Ritika Singh than on the commercial love track between the coach and his protégé. The amount of fans Ritika made in one outing for a gritty unconventional performance shows the evolving taste of the audience. The role also got her a National Award under the Special Mention category.
In spite of being inspired from a well-known incident, Neerja (February 19, 2016), written by Saiwyn Quadras and directed by Ram Madhvani, does deserve a mention in this list for being centered on a valiant air hostess with Sonam Kapoor (who until then had not impressed neither the critics nor the Box Office) in the titular role.
It is quite rare for me to see a Telugu film but I did not regret seeing Kshanam (February 26, 2016) one bit for it was a tautly written thriller with little or no commercial compromises. Although the film was essentially a hunt launched by Adivi Sesh to trace the missing child of his ex-girlfriend, the film had a fantastic antagonist in Anasuya Bharadwaj who held the film together and made a tremendous impact with her cold & calculated demeanor.
A Kannada film then and it was Pawan Kumar’s U Turn (20 May 2016) which openly inverted the gender stereotype by making the girl approach the guy for a date and the guy eventually proving to be the nuisance amidst more serious happenings. While the film looked in essence to be a socially conscious effort from Pawan masquerading as a thriller, it did bravely place Shraddha Srinath as the Alpha Female and even Radhika Chetan to some extent taking control in the second half instead of her husband.
Another recent Tamil film that quite surprisingly makes an entry into this territory is Muthiah’s Marudhu (May 20, 2016). Although his Komban had strong-willed women in ‘Kovai’ Sarala & Lakshmi Menon, Muthiah had gone a notch higher by moving the plot using two women – Kulappuli Leela who in spite of the horrible lip-sync managed to stay rooted to the character and of course Silambam Maariamma who totally captured our attention as the law-abiding socially conscious woman by being brave enough to take on the bad men verbally and smart enough to summon for help when needed.
Having caught Waiting (May 27, 2016) recently on the big screen I was immediately reminded of Margarita with a Straw (April 17, 2015) as well not because of any thematic similarity but how well Kalki chose her scripts. In both these films in spite of sharing space with champion performers like Nasseruddin Shah and Revathy, Kalki was able to carry the film on her shoulders and is perhaps the inspiration for Radhika Apte whose Phobia (May 27, 2016) should also theoretically make it to this list. However, having not seen the film till now (due to lack of subtitles!) I am just going by the reviews which are absolutely in love with her performance.
Although we get the “Film is a business. Everything is market driven” gyan, the moment a film is pitched with a leading lady, or even a female character with equal if not greater space than the hero, good promotions and effective budgeting can certainly make such films work as evidenced by the above mentioned films.
P.S. I might have missed a few films in the above list considering the time period of last 2 to 3 years. So feel free to let me know the missed ones in the comments.
Column written by Anand Sethuraman.