Jab yeh dhai kilo ka haath kisi pe padta hai na, toh aadmi uthta nahi, utth jata hai (when this sledgehammer-like hand falls on a person, he is wont not just to fall on the ground, but depart from this earth). The dialogue from the 1993 film Damini spoken by Sunny Deol, the son of Bollywood’s original he-man Dharmendra, occupies pride of place as one of the most iconic dialogues dripping with machismo, of that time. Fast forward some 20 years and it’s another whistle-worthy dialogue, but it’s no he-man mouthing it, but a fair maiden who gives as good as she gets.
That’s actress Sonakshi Sinha playing the gutsy Akira in the A R Murugadoss-directed recently released film of the same name wherein she vanquishes the baddies single-handedly.
The rules are the same, only the players have changed. As adept at throwing a coy smile as a punch, the action bug seems to have bitten the heroines big time. There’s no stopping them, be it on the battlefield, within the boxing ring or any other venue for that matter.
Like Sonakshi, who is playing her first bonafide action role, other leading actresses such as Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra are also part of this new fight club. With movies such as Don 2, Jai Gangaajal and Mary Kom (not to mention Hollywood TV shows such as Quantico and Baywatch), Priyanka is leaving behind a trail of broken bones. Deepika is emulating her in films such as Bajirao Mastani and the Hollywood film XXX: Return of Xander Cage, in which she co-stars with Vin Diesel. Just a few months ago, the lithe Anushka Sharma wrestled her way to box office success in Sultan. The bubbly Taapsee Pannu matched her co-stars Akshay Kumar and Rana Daggubati punch for punch playing an undercover agent in the 2015 thriller Baby.
In the south too, the leading ladies are following in the footsteps of their Bollywood counterparts. Dhansika played the ruthless assassin Yogi in Kabali to perfection, as did Tamannaah as a guerrilla fighter in Baahubali: The Beginning.
Getting into the skin of the character for the actresses necessitated a lot of preparation and hard work. For the curvaceous Sonakshi, it meant training in martial arts for months and foregoing junk food. “Action roles are tough for a woman. It may look easy on screen, but it is very gruelling. Before the shoot began, I trained vigorously in martial arts and continued to train during the shooting. I did not stick to any particular diet, just ate a lot of healthy food, which I have now ingrained into my lifestyle,” says the actress (see page 12).
If Sonakshi was plausible as the girl with fists of fury, she has her trainer Kuldeep Shashi to thank. Faridabad-born Kuldeep’s introduction to Bollywood was via actor Tiger Shroff, who he was training much before Heropanti and Baaghi made him a star. “Sonakshi was put through a two-hour workout involving mostly punching, kicking and boxing. We practiced for eight-nine months,” says Kuldeep. The 28-year-old remembers that during the shooting of Akira, Sonakshi was not getting a scene right. “The action director saw me and told me to step in for Sonakshi. He made me wear a wig, which was a trifle embarrassing,” confesses Kuldeep.
In the action thriller Force 2—the sequel to 2011’s Force—Sonakshi will be taking her action persona further. “Shooting for the film is still on, so I can’t divulge much though I’m enjoying it a lot,” she says.
For Anushka, it came down to credibility; whether she would be able to pull off the look of a wrestler in Sultan and appear convincing during the action in the ring? She did a bit of research and realised that wrestlers could be like her—tall and lithe. “Besides the look, I doubted whether I would be able to wrestle. It’s a contact sport and I was not used to the physical proximity. Sometimes your face is under somebody’s armpit, which I found bizarre. Thankfully, I had a great teacher in champion wrestler Jagdish Kaliraman, who taught me the right technique,” says Anushka. Jagdish was selected by the producer to train both Salman Khan and Anushka.
Sultan might have had a completely new premise—a woman wrestler winning medals abroad—but for Jagdish, it was an everyday affair as he trains a number of women wrestlers at the Chandgi Ram Akhara, one of the oldest wrestling clubs in the country. His father, celebrated wrestler Chandgi Ram, was the first to train women in wrestling when he introduced Jagdish’s sister to the sport.
When Jagdish came on board Sultan, he took the new 'shagird' under his wing and thus was born Aarfa the champion. “Hardly anyone knows that in the wrestling matches, Anushka did not use a body double and she was pitted against national and international wrestlers. She was honest and committed to the role. There was no recourse to camera tricks. Whenever her confidence seemed to be ebbing, I would motivate her,” says Jagdish. He got his 'dakshina' while shooting the sequence of winning at the Commonwealth Games. After running along the periphery of the ring with the Indian flag, Anushka told Jagdish what a memorable feeling it was and it made her want to give up acting for sports.
In a departure from the norm, Taapsee eased into the role of a secret operative in Baby. She confides that the role did not come to her, but she went about getting it. “Director Neeraj (Pandey) had decided on the casting when I requested that they try me out. He asked me to enact a small scene from the film, and I guess that worked for him, and I was in,” says Taapsee, adding that she always wanted to do an action-filled role. She trained in Krav Maga, the Israeli form of self-defence, for Baby. “I trained for a month with an instructor. I felt it suited the role where I had to engage in hand to hand combat,” says the actress, who describes herself as an outdoorsy person. Emboldened by the film’s success, director Neeraj is collaborating with Taapsee on another action-oriented film. “It’s an extract out of my character in Baby. The tentative title is Meera,” says the actress with riotous curls.
The action genre is not new to Priyanka (PeeCee to her friends and fans) who seems to have fortified her reputation with roles in Quantico and Baywatch. When she stepped into the shoes of boxer Mary Kom, she embraced action of a different kind. Being a thorough professional and wanting to make her portrayal of the former world champion as authentic as possible, PeeCee enlisted professional boxer Hemlata. “Director Omung Kumar had got a foreign coach, but when Priyanka came to know I coached Mary Kom, she preferred to train with me. Mary Kom is a technical boxer and her style is very individualistic,” says Hemlata, who is a boxing coach attached to the senior Indian’s women team.
For nearly eight months, Priyanka went through a gruelling routine involving footwork basics, running and skipping, with a fitness trainer, with Hemlata combining forces to make a champion out of her. “PC told me not to let her superstar status come in the way of training her, and I obliged by making her work out without an air conditioner. She sweated buckets and I told her that’s how we train,” recalls the coach.
Katrina Kaif, who would have had no trouble getting selected for a fitness advertisement, has also had her share of action in films such as Bang Bang! and Ek Tha Tiger. Action took on a new meaning when she found herself suspended 40 feet above the ground, playing an acrobat in Dhoom 3. “It was a challenge to play the role considering my fear of heights. There were times when I was on the hoop several feet above the ground. I did not use any harness for the Malang Malang song. I trained six to seven months with Yasmin Karachiwala. There’s another trainer called Vedant, with whom I have been training for the last 10 years,” says the apple-cheeked beauty.
Another Bollywood stunner, Shraddha Kapoor, also had to learn martial arts for Baaghi. “Director Sabir Khan told me that besides Tiger Shroff, I also would be performing action scenes. Kicha, who has trained in Kalaripayattu, taught me some basic moves. It was physically demanding, but considering I was preparing for ABCD 2 at that time, my fitness was never in question. But I had not bargained for the multiple body aches,” she says.
In the south too, action-oriented roles have never only been the prerogative of male actors. For all that, Dhansika—with her close-cropped hair teamed with Western wear and toting a gun—wowed audiences playing Rajinikanth's daughter Yogi in Kabali and the utterly camera-friendly Tamannaah brandished swords and eliminated enemies effortlessly in Baahubali: The Beginning.
In the late 90s, Vijayashanti established herself as an action queen. Says film historian Mohan Ram: “Vijayashanti rose to fame as an action star when heroes were dominant, that was the time when Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan and a whole plethora of Telugu actors ruled the roost. She took on all of them single-handedly, especially in cop roles in films such as Karthavyam, dubbed into Tamil as Vijayashanti IPS and other such films bearing strong woman characters. She did it with so much panache that she was elected as an MP. The other action actress who comes to mind is Mary Ann Evans aka Fearless Nadia, best remembered for her valour-filled role in Hunterwali.”
Besides Vijayashanti, Kannada actress Malashri made waves in the late 90s with roles that warranted action, such as the ones in Chamundi, Durgi and Kannadadda Kiran Bedi, in which she played a double role. For Malashri, who had earlier played homely characters and was dubbed ‘Kanasini Rani’ (Dream Girl), it was a total turnaround and perhaps a strategy to boost her flagging career. She is still around and now has another contender in actress Ragini Dwiwedi, who has been doing a lot of onscreen bashing and screaming of late. Ragini had gone the glamorous route until she donned khaki and went aggro in the 2014 movie Ragini IPS. “My fans love watching me in these kinds of roles. The action genre has always been difficult to capture, but I think I have established myself and it’s a fantastic feeling,” she says. “I relate a lot to feminism and standing up for myself in any situation, which is wrong, and that probably reflects in my on-screen character as well.”
The Bengaluru-brought up Ragini has just completed Veera Ranachandi, in which audiences will again see her accomplishing spectacular stunts. “It’s my career’s most difficult film, riddled with injuries as I was and which took a year to shoot,” she says. Her role models for fitness are Sushmita Sen, Bipasha Basu and Cameron Diaz.
Actresses taking up action roles are significant for many other reasons as well. Says Mohan Ram: “Socially speaking, it’s a different way of women expressing that they are in no way lesser to men and that it’s not the hero’s prerogative to do stunts. Because dance was for both, singing for both, acting for both, it was only stunts that set the heroes apart. It’s a kind of social evolution. Moreover, movies are cyclical—out of the blue there will be fantasy films, then social films, then women-centric films and so on.”
The spin-off to heroine-led action roles has been the interest generated in keeping fit and taking up sports. Hardly anybody knew about Mary Kom until Priyanka made her a household name. Says Hemlata: “After the biopic Mary Kom, many parents came to me to get their children trained in the sport. It’s nice that girls want to learn boxing, it’s great for self-defence.”
Sonakshi believes that after watching Akira, every girl may want to take up martial arts. “Self-defence should be taught in schools,” she says.
Taapsee says such films will send out the message that one should not wait for the hero to come and save the heroine; rather she should sort out problems herself.
Which is why these lines slipping from Akira’s lipstick- accentuated lips: “Please maaf kar do... already merey college kay teen sal barbad ho chuke hain... aur agar tum logon ko marungi to phir se problem mein pad jaungee” is guaranteed to bring out the whistles.
with Sharadha Srinidhi and Shama Bhagat