The belated release of ‘Shabri’ (directed by Lalit Marathe) about a female gangster, brings to notice the severe shortage of powerful women in Bollywood cinema. In real life too, powerful female role models can be counted on the fingers -- Rani Laxmibai, Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi; maybe Kiran Bedi, Mayawati or Phoolan Devi would make the list.
Most of the women in a 'chair' (symbolic of political or financial power) are there because of their family connections to men in power -- they are invariably wives, daughters or daughters-in-law. And more often than not a woman in power is punished for her ambition or felled by her heart — from Razia Sultan downwards.
How can cinema create characters in such a vacuum? So, in many Hindi films, women who have power are either mothers-in-law or molls. In such a bleak scenario, two women stand out -- Aarti Devi (Suchitra Sen) of Gulzar's ‘Aandhi’ and Rambi (Shabana Azmi) of Vinay Shukla's ‘Godmother’.
One follows her father into a political career (the character was loosely based on Indira Gandhi, which caused problems for the film during the Emergency), discarding her husband (a hotel manager) by the wayside. The other is a strong village woman, who grabs power in a rural society where women do not even have a voice.
In ‘Godmother’, Rambhi feels no squeamishness around violence and can hold her own before any male. And this character was also modelled after a real-life don from Gujarat.
At one point, Hindi cinema had its share of female dacoits (who became outlaws to take revenge, usually for rape, or murder of a male member of the family.) Now, it seems there is an interest in female gangsters — because a book ‘The Mafia Queens of Mumbai’ by S. Hussain Zaidi provides the source material. Top actresses, probably fed-up of simpering on screen, would undoubtedly vie to play one of these exciting characters.
In terms of cinema, female gangsters make far more watchable characters than, say, female industrialists — and how many of these can be found, who have reached the top of the ladder on their own steam, and with inspiring stories to back them. They are also more interesting than female politicians (unless Mayawati allows an honest biopic on her life).
‘Shabri’ might just kick off a series...too bad Isha Koppikar won't be around to reap the benefit, since she is no longer in the running.