Hindi cinema’s penchant for powerful mothers intersects with its obsession with revenge and retribution in the April 24 release Maatr, which features Raveena Tandon as a mother who avenges the rape of herself and her daughter by killing the perpetrators. Maatr is the newest installment in a long line of Hindi revenge films, weighed down with intimidating and successful predecessors like Sholay, Karan Arjun, Khoon Bhari Maang and Ghajini.
The Hindi film industry has transformed a genre that has been considered low brow into a cash cow, demonstrating that an eye for an eye actually keeps viewers glued to the screen. The revenge drama is also egalitarian because there is as much room for the angry female in these films as there is for the angry male.
But what makes revenge films, especially those helmed by rage-filled women, so popular?
Most Hindi film characters set the wheels of revenge in motion only after they have been denied justice through traditional means – judges ignore crucial evidence, police officers turn out to be corrupt and lawyers use convenient loopholes to help criminals escape conviction. Their disillusionment over an ineffectual, corrupt or lazy legal system resonates deeply with audiences.
In Pratighaat (1987), college lecturer Lakshmi (Sujata Mehta) is shocked to find that legal and social institutions at Dharampura have been systematically compromised by the fearful Kali. Lakshmi testifies against Kali after watching him murder a police officer, but she is disrobed amidst a crowd of apathetic and powerful men. She continues to asset her control over her body, aborting her child when she realises that her lawyer husband is unwilling to support her in her crusade. She ultimately kills Kali with an axe and is arrested, but tells the crowd not to be cowed by fear and continue to resist oppressors. Lakshmi’s revenge is performative and requires an audience – she hopes to galvanise and embolden a resigned populace.
The cathartic and vicarious thrill is central to the appeal of revenge dramas. In Phool Bane Angaray (1991), police inspector Ranjit opposes the nexus between his superior officer Ravi Khanna and politician Bishamber Prasad. Ranjit is forced to watch his wife Namrata (Rekha) get raped before he is murdered. Namrata becomes a police officer and is able to cause considerable damage to Bishamber’s image and Khanna’s ego, but the politician wins an election anyway. Namrata finally takes the law into her own hands and kills Bishamber at a victory rally.
Phool Bane Angaray is a typically campy melodrama with in-your-face symbolism, a victim who appeals to a hapless judge with “talluk hai, milord” and a hero who is contented with scanty material possessions because “mere paas imaandari ki dhaak hai”. Since the focus shifts from Ranjit’s heroism in the first half to Namrata’s revenge in the second, its appeal cuts across genders.
In Anjaam (1994), when Shivani (Madhuri Dixit) persists in rejecting businessman Vijay’s obsessive romantic advances, he kills Shivani’s husband and batters her. Vijay (Shah Rukh Khan) escapes conviction and uses his clout to get Shivani imprisoned for his own attempted murder. While in jail, Shivani is galvanised by the loss of her unborn child, and the news that Vijay has accidentally killed her daughter and sister and embarks on the path of revenge.
Anjaam’s retelling of revenge puts it firmly in the horror genre because it reflects one of the deepest fears of male spectators – a powerful woman who is unafraid of death and out to maim men. Rahul Rawail’s movie also encapsulates the core reason for the success of revenge dramas. As Shivani kills men by burning or biting them, Anjaam, like many other revenge films, validates our belief in the concepts of hell, where humans are tortured for the sins they committed.
Revenge films also reinstate our belief in karma, since perpetrators pay the consequences for their actions and always get what audiences think they deserve.
In Kahaani (2012), a pregnant Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan) comes to Kolkata seeking her husband Arnab, but discovers that her husband looks like terrorist Milan Damji. In the process of tracking down Damji to get to her husband, she kills his aide and acquires sensitive documents that will implicate a powerful man in the terrorist attack engineered by Damji. Vidya uses several social and cultural prejudices around pregnancy and womanhood to hunt down the man behind the attack.
In all these films, avenging women are connected to Hindu goddesses with dialogue and imagery. This handily establishes a sharp dichotomy between the nobility of women and the demonic nature of the men they kill, justifying the violence of their retributive acts. Pratighaat’s Lakshmi is equated with the Mahabharata’s Draupadi, Shivani is compared to Kali and Vidya to Durga.
But Vidya is not the typical avenging heroine – she is armed with desperate grief instead of burning anger, and doesn’t set out for revenge until she is convinced to do so by an external source. Although she gets a sense of closure by murdering her husband’s killer, she doesn’t believe it will alleviate her personal grief.