The female cop movie is to the actress what the boxing picture is to the actor: an endurance test in which every muscle is stretched to prove undiminished power and ability. Priyanka Chopra is only the latest A-lister to swap her cocktail dress for the police uniform in Prakash Jha’s Jai Gangaajal, and she certainly won’t be the last.
Nearly every female cop movie is a tribute to Kiran Bedi, the first woman to become an Indian Police Service officer in 1972. Bedi is known as a politician with a questionable worldview these days, but her professional achievements are not to be sneered at. Bedi hails from a progressive Punjabi family that encouraged the education of its girls. Her paternal aunt, Banarso, is the grandmother of Kanchan Choudhary, who was India’s second IPS officer. Kanchan Choudhary’s story inspired her sister, Kaveta, to produce and direct the groundbreaking television series Udaan for Doordarshan in the 1980s.
One of the most outré tributes to Bedi can be found in the Kannada movie Kanaddada Kiran Bedi (2009), which has been dubbed in Hindi as Mumbai Ki Kiran Bedi. It stars “action queen” Malashri. The plot borrows its lookalike device from Don: Malashri plays a con artist who impersonates police officer Kiran after she is killed in the line of duty. The movie was a box office hit, probably because audiences were crowding the cinemas just to see how the overweight Malashri kickboxes her way to glory.
Kiran Bedi partly helped revitalise the female stunt film, of which Fearless Nadia remains the best-known exponent. The action sub-genre allows heroines to expand their repertoire and gives them something more to do than wait upon their men and lip-sync songs pledging eternal love. A popular female lead might consider her career incomplete if she hasn’t ticked ‘Latest version of Kiran Bedi’ off her bucket list. Consider the advantages. Firstly, the movie is about you, rather than a bulked up male lead. You get to order men about, and they actually listen to you. You can shout down the villains, especially the rapists, and slap and punch them. You too can be angry, rather than weepy or willowy, and contribute to making the world a better place.
Telugu star Vijayashanti wasn’t the first person to play a police officer in the movies, but she is one of the best known. Vijayshanti brings immense conviction to the part, not in the least for the manner in which she drags criminals by their collars into the lock-up. Her blockbuster Kartavyam (1990) has a scene that will chill rights activists and lawyers but thrill even the most jaded followers of the ultra-macho action movie. She confronts a restive culprit in a prison cell and gets him to put down his weapon merely by glaring at him.
One of the first A-list actresses to wear khaki was Hema Malini in Andha Kanoon (1983), otherwise a showcase for Rajinikanth’s unmatched antics. Featuring an “extended special appearance” by Amitabh Bachchan, this revenge saga is one of countless films in the 1980s that were remakes of Tamil and Telugu hits. Hema Malini plays Rajinikanth’s sister who is trying to nab the three men who killed their family members through lawful means. Guess who gets to the criminals first?
Instant justice that bypasses the police stations and courts is one of the enduring themes of Indian cinema’s most volatile but also fascinating decade. The values of the Nehruvian era had come undone in the 1980s and various groups were clamouring for their due. Lockdowns and strikes were common as workers’ unions protested against the erosion of labour rights. Student groups were exploding across campuses. The majoritarian Hindutva project was gaining ground, while political parties aligned on caste lines were vocal and visible. The autonomous women’s movement was also gaining ground, drawing attention to domestic abuse, custodial rape and dowry deaths. The tensions that raged on the streets found their way into the movies.
The ’80s were also one of the worst decades to be a female lead. Already nudged to the sidelines by Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man character, the actress had little to do in the urban potboilers that regularly fetched up in theatres. Song sequences simulated sexual intercourse in imaginative ways, the rape screen count skyrocketed, and Jeetendra, often portrayed in bigamous bliss, was a popular leading man.
The female cop was designed as a course corrective, and was often passed off as a “feminist icon”, but the perils of storming male citadels were numerous. The best way to shut up an annoyingly honest cop was to threaten to rape her or actually carry it out – one of the most disturbing legacies of the ’80s. In the notorious Zakhmi Aurat (1988), Dimple Kapadia’s police officer is gang-raped in her house. She takes revenge by forming an all-women vigilante group that metes out a fate worse than death for rapists: castration.
Rampaging women police officers who were as unmindful of Constitutional rights and guarantees as their male counterparts endured into the early 1990s. The title of the vigilante drama Phool Bane Angaarey (1991) seems to be a response to the rousing feminist slogan “Hum Bharat ki nari hain, phool nahin chingaari hain.” One half of the movie is yet another tribute to Rajinikanth’s serio-comic talents. When he is offed by a triumvirate of evil men led by the reliably leery Prem Chopra, his wife, played by Rekha, takes charge. She undergoes training and directly catapults into the position of Superintendent of Police, but cannot prevent the villains from rigging an election. There is no better solution than to dress like the legendary Queen of Jhansi and hunt down the criminals on a horse. Rekha looks fine in khaki, but she really comes into her own with a sword in her hand.
Over the years, several actresses have appeared as police officers, including Madhuri Dixit in Khalnayak (1993). Dixit is scarcely remembered for her conduct as a law protector and more for thrusting her breasts and shaking her hips in the song “Choli Ke Peeche.” Sushmita Sen brings corporate efficiency to her role as an investigating officer in the Seven rip-off Samay (2003); Rani Mukerji is a street-smart Mumbai police officer in Mardaani (2014), whose title is another tribute to the queen of Jhansi; Tabu in Drishyam (2015) uses the law and order machinery for her own purposes.
One of the most convincing police officers who justifies her pay-check is in Ek Hasina Thi (2004). Seema Biswas plays a Mumbai Police officer who realises that Urmila Matondkar’s character is on a private vigilante mission. Biswas’s thinking police officer is an aberration. The glamour that protects the uniform of the female cop from the dust and grime that actual policing involves makes it an attractive role for actresses, but we still don’t have an Indian version of the Coen brothers’ Fargo, in which a policewoman cracks a case by using her brains, rather than her fists and hips.