At a recent press conference in Bengaluru to launch an upcoming Kannada film, the conversation revolved entirely around one person, and understandably so.
Kannada star Malashree, known to her fans outside Karnataka as the titular character from the Hindi dub Mumbai Ki Kiran Bedi, is back on the screen, but with a difference. Uppu Huli Khara (Salt, Tamarind, Spice) is not one of Malashree’s regular action films, the ones that have earned her the title ‘Action Queen’. Nor has it been produced by her home banner.
“What is madam’s role in this film?” asked one reporter. “Will this film have the customary action sequences?” enquired another.
“You will see a different Malashree in this film,” replied Imran Sardhariya, the director of Uppu Huli Khara. “I’m a huge fan of her action avatar. So, yes, action will be there, but along with that, there will be some humour too. Oh, she will also be doing a special dance number in this film.”
Malashree and dance? Are things changing dramatically in the kingdom of which she is the unchallenged empress?
Malashree is renowned for her vigilante action films in which she routinely performs daring and outlandish stunts and reduced her male opponents to pulp. For over a decade now, Malashree has played the female version of the angry, righteous, muscle-flexing hero single-handedly battling rape, corruption and other crimes, earning the title ‘Action Queen’. She cuts a distinctively androgynous figure, squeezing her bulk into shirts and trousers and sporting short hair as her characters make their way in a man’s world. Malashree also has a cult following beyond Karnataka since her films have been dubbed in Hindi.
Uppu Huli Khara, which will be released on November 24, looks set to tinker with the recipe. “I feel I need a change,” Malashree told Scroll.in. “For too long now, I’ve done the same thing and have had the same look too. I’m now focusing on losing some weight. I will let my hair grow out and look at different kind of roles. A pucca feminine look is what I’m going to go after now. I think it is time.”
Born in Chennai, Malashree made her debut as a child actor in the Tamil film Imayam (1979), in which she was cast as Jamuna, a young boy. In an interview to The Hindu, she had said that as a child, she was always cast as a boy “with an Amitabh Bachchan-like haircut”.
Her first role as an adult was a decade later in the family drama Nanjundi Kalyana (1989), in which she starred with Raghavendra Rajkumar, the son of Kannada screen icon Rajkumar. Glimpses of Malashree’s street fighting abilities were already visible in this film. In her entry scene, she punches a classmate for posting a caricature of her on the college wall and drawing a moustache on it. She drags the boy into the classroom and pummels him.
Other characters in Nanjundi Kalyana call her Chamundi (a fierce form of the goddess Parvati) and Rakshasi (demoness) for being “unlike other women” and rejecting marriage as an idea. She even has what the Kannada movie industry calls a “batli song” (a bottle song), one that generally features men dancing in a drunken stupor.
Flashes of Malashree’s Action Queen persona were already evident in the 1990s, such as in her no-nonsense attitude (Policena Hendathi, 1990) and independent streak (Gajapathi Garvabhanga, 1989). The gender politics in these films wasn’t always on point, but Malashree was instrumental in portraying a woman as anything but frail and delicate.
During the decade, several of her films – Rani Maharani (1990), Readymade Ganda (1991), Ramachaari (1991), Belli Kalungura (1992), Malashree Mamashree (1992) – proved immensely successful. This was also a versatile phase for the actress, who dabbled in a variety of genres, from romance to comedy.
She was hailed ‘Kanasina Rani’ (Dream Queen) during this phase. The title was even used for one of her films in 1992, and stuck for a long time through a string of romances such as Prema Sangama (1992), Megha Mandara (1992), Snehada Kadalalli (1992) and Mana Mecchida Sose (1992) as well as action films such as SP Bhargavi (1991), Lady Police (1995) and CBI Durga (1997).
In 2000, Malashree’s screen persona underwent a dramatic change. She signed up more action films than before. Her appearance changed too. She cut her hair short, put on weight and was kitted out in leather jackets, shirts and pants. Chamundi (2000) was the first in a series of actioners featuring a perennially angry and fierce woman, fighting crime all by herself.
Chamundi has a remarkable opening sequence. A car screeches to a halt in front of a criminal (Ramireddy). Chamundi (Malashree) steps out of the vehicle. The goon walks up to her and says, “Going by the way the car swivelled and entered, I thought someone like Mike Tyson or Mohammed Ali was going to step out of it. I’m sparing you because you are a woman. Go away, otherwise you won’t have any honour left and death won’t spare you.”
Chamundi says nothing. Without wasting any time, she thrashes and pummels her adversary to death.
The Chamundi formula was applied to Bhavani IPS (2001), Durgi (2004), Kannada Kiran Bedi (2009), Shakti (2012), Veera (2013), Mahakali (2015) and Ganga (2016). Malashree seemed to be following in the footsteps of Telugu action star Vijayashanti, who appeared in a string of over-the-top action films in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Many of Malashree’s films, produced by her husband Ramu, failed to hit the sweet spot at the box office, but her reputation as an action goddess grew. Her appeal during this period is best summed up by a line in Ganga: “I don’t believe in correcting mistakes through words and advice. I’d rather thrash and teach a lesson.”
Malashree says that she did not plan this action avatar. “I never knew I’d become a Kannada actor, let alone becoming known as an action heroine,” she said. “Films just happened to me. Titles like Dream Queen and Action Queen were given to me. I don’t think I can explain how it all happened because it wasn’t planned at all.”
What, then, explains her decision to exclusively headline action films for close to 15 years? “I think the feedback that came to me after Chamundi gave me the confidence to take up more such projects,” Malashree said. “A senior director like Mohan Gandhi, who has worked with the likes of Vijayashanti, saw my performance and said that if there are doubts lurking in my mind about doing action roles, I should get rid of them. He told me that there is a kind of power in my body and I must make use of it. That’s when I became more confident. I’d tell myself before a shoot that I’m not a girl, I’m a man, and then go on the set.”
The feedback from film crews and audiences also helped in shaping her tough persona. “Everyone who came to Ramu said that he must make an action film with me in it,” she said. “There should be a fight in it and I must kick the bad guys. Even little children say they are fans. Most of them do not know who Malashree is, but they have watched my films and love the character that hits and scares away thugs. She is someone who punches so well that you are scared to come close to her, they say. Even during plot discussions, everyone says that this is what works best for me. All of them have together made me a power woman.”
Malashree has a magnetic screen presence that is unmistakable and undeniable, Uppu Huli Khara director Sardhariya said. “Something happens when she comes in front of the camera,” he said. “Right when she enters, she has an aura. I think it is magic. She will be talking to you normally. But once the shot is ready and I say action, everything changes. She has a way of capturing the screen. Once, I told her I want a particular kind of walk from her character in this film – she showed me six types of walks. I liked all of them. She forced me to choose finally and when I did, she explained how she came up with that particular walk. I’ve mixed a little bit of Amitabh Bachchan in it, she told me.”
Malashree counts Bachchan and Sunny Deol as her inspirations. “In the beginning, that is much before I became an action heroine, I would chuckle when director Somashekar sir told me to wear a police uniform for SP Bhargavi,” she recalled. “I had been brought up on a steady diet of love stories up until then. I had no idea how to behave as a police officer. I followed whatever instructions were given to me. After I got the confidence to take up these roles, I began to prepare properly. I’d watch Sunny Deol and stand in front of the mirror and practise the expressions he’d make in his films.”
That authoritative voice that rattles her opponents isn’t hers, however. Malashree has always got someone to dub her portions because of the perception that her voice isn’t as powerful as her looks.
What does she feel when she watches herself on the screen?
“I think it is god’s gift,” she said. “It is not easy for a woman to do such fight sequences. And it suits my body too. Most directors who want to do these action films with me write characters that they know can hit a minimum of 20 or 30 people. And it is effective when it is seen on screen. No one has come up to me and said that these scenes are fake.”
When Kannadada Kiran Bedi (2009) was dubbed in Hindi as Mumbai Ki Kiran Bedi, Malashree found an audience beyond her home state. In Omprakash Rao’s movie, which regularly surfaces on Hindi movie channels, Malashree plays the double role of a police officer named Kiran who is killed and replaced by her lookalike, Bellary. The movie features several jaw-dropping Malashree moments, including one in which, through a single punch of hers, a man flies through the air and lands against an auto which then somersaults five times before crash-landing.
In another scene, she scares away a bunch of women who have come to attack her merely by staring at them.
“I’m so proud that Kannada films are reaching other audiences and are being liked by them,” Malashree said. “Earlier, when I used to travel to the north of the country, people would barely recognise me. Even if someone said Malashree, a superstar, is here, it would evoke cold reactions. Now, they ask, aap Mumbai Ki Kiran Bedi hai na? Oh my god, you fight so well.”
And yet, the 44-year-old actress is now going to move away from the roles that have made her popular.
“I feel that I’ve done the same thing for too long now,” she said. “I want to change according to the tastes of this generation. I’m confident that my fans will accept this too, just like they have supported me until now.”
Malashree is thirsting for roles that will be remembered for her dramatic potential, not for her ability to paste her opponents. “In Hindi cinema, actors like Vidya Balan and Kangana Ranaut are doing such fantastic work,” she pointed out. “They have managed to do meaningful roles as women actors – their films have women solving problems of society too but differently. I want such roles to come to Kannada cinema too. The action route to changing society is necessary but the other method is too equally.”
At the press conference in Bengaluru, Malashree announced that her upcoming films include a thriller and a horror film. “Both are very different from the films I’ve done so far,” she declared. “I plan to start shooting in January, once I lose more weight and grow back my hair.”
“So are you now going to start wearing long braids?” asked a worried-looking reporter.
“No, just longer hair, that’s all.”
“What title should this new phase of your career get?” asked a journalist. “Horror Queen?” suggested another as the room packed mostly with men exploded in laughter.
“Please wait until I embark on this new journey,” Malashree calmly replied.