Pathaan may be a Shah Rukh Khan film through and through, but Deepika Padukone’s role as a spy is unmissable. Her Lara Croft suits and femme fatale persona may be inspired by Hollywood, but there are unmistakable ‘Indian’ sides to her — be it her dance moves, peppy dialogues, or charm. Nearly a decade ago, audiences elicited a similar welcoming response when they saw Katrina Kaif play an Inter-Services Intelligence spy in Ek Tha Tiger.
This is the age of new and evolved female spies in Bollywood.
With Deepika Padukone as Rubai in Pathaan, the ambitious ‘spyverse’ of Yash Raj Films has expanded. While Katrina’s character of Zoya was limited to her ‘Pakistaniness’, Rubai is more international. Deepika has, after all, also acted in XXX: Return of Xander Cage (2017) as Serena Unger, an agent with stellar fighting skills. In Pathaan, she pulls off playing a double agent without missing a beat.
Deepika is not a screen prop that simply adds to the ‘oomph’ factor in Pathaan — she has some great one-on-one combat scenes executed artfully throughout the movie, especially the one in Jim’s (John Abraham) condo in Spain. Rubai is, at times, even wittier than Pathaan and beats him to the punch with her plot twist while catching hold of ‘Raktbeej’ in Moscow. A double-crossing, quick-witted, and yes, long-legged agent, Deepika is both the Bollywood heroine and cosmopolitan action hero we have craved to watch on screen.
But Katrina and Deepika are not the sole proponents of the female spy trope in Hindi cinema; Mala Sinha played Meenakshi Mehta in the 1968 spy thriller Ankhen, produced and directed by Ramanand Sagar — the same year the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) was established.
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Guns, gadgets, and women
Ankhen was inspired by the James Bond franchise, which become hugely popular in the 1960s. The Sagar directorial had guns, gadgets, and women. Set in Lebanon, the film was an Indian refashioning of the Hollywood spy trope; the template is still followed today. Meenakshi, however, was quite ahead of her time in some ways. As an Indo-Japanese character with links to the Indian National Army, she pursues Sunil (Dharmendra) who is undergoing spy training.
That same year, another spy thriller, Khiladi, starred Fearless Nadia as Madame X1. Directed by Homi Wadia, the film showed a deadly Nadia fighting the Chinese and rescuing a kidnapped scientist. The 1973 film Hindustan Ki Kasam was based on the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) 1971 mission Operation Cactus Lilly. Priya Rajvansh played the spy Mohini who helps the protagonist and IAF complete their mission.
Despite these films’ strong box office performances, Hindi cinema didn’t have any more spy thrillers until The Hero: Love Story of a Spy was released in 2003. The movie starred Sunny Deol as an R&AW agent and Preity Zinta as an undercover agent like Alia Bhatt in Raazi (2018). Zinta is trained to be an R&AW spy and passes sensitive information – including that of a potential nuclear attack on India — to her seniors.
Despite lavish filmography and a star-studded cast, the film was a flop. The script lost tenacity after a while.
Bollywood hit pause on spy thrillers starring strong female characters.
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Revival from 2012 onwards
It was only with Ek Tha Tiger in 2012 that Hindi cinema breathed new life into the trope. And suddenly, female spies were everywhere in Bollywood.
Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani, starring Vidya Balan and Parambrata Chatterjee, became a sleeper hit due to its tight plot and brilliant performances. Vidya Bagchi (Balan) comes to Kolkata in the guise of looking for her missing husband while actually being a secret agent hunting a rogue Intelligence Bureau agent (Indraneil Sengupta). It is her supposed pregnancy and helplessness that leads everyone to underestimate Vidya.
On the glamorous side, there was Kareena Kapoor as Ruby Mendes, an ISI agent, in Agent Vinod (2012). Huma Qureshi played Zoya in D-Day (2013) and Taapsee Pannu played Shabana in Naam Shabana (2017). In most of these movies, the personal became professional. In Naam Shabana, Shabana joins R&AW after her partner is brutally murdered and she avenges his death, before starting on her official missions.
“Bond may have had the gadgets but women make ‘bloody good spies’ coz they can multitask and have a better understanding of emotions,” Pannu wrote in a promotional Twitter post for Naam Shabana in 2017. Female spies in Bollywood have only taken forward strides since.
Raazi (2018) broke the mould with a more realistic portrayal through the character of Sehmat Khan (Alia Bhatt), an Indian spy who marries a Pakistani Army officer to access classified information. There were no high-octane scenes or thigh-high slit dresses. There were, in fact, soft, flowy sarees, a heartbreaking love story, and a young woman following the footsteps of her patriotic Kashmiri father. The tension between romance and betrayal takes centre stage, marking a departure from the tried-and-tested formula for spy thrillers.
Female spies in Bollywood often succumb to using their sexual prowess to extract sensitive information. Moreover, if it’s an ISI agent, she almost always falls for her Indian counterpart — Hindi cinema hasn’t really gotten over the Romeo and Juliet template. Raazi’s Sehmat, too, fits that template, though there is an attempt to humanise her at the end of the movie.
Pannu’s character in Naam Shabana is the only oddity who doesn’t subscribe to that formula.
In Pathaan, the spotlight falls upon Deepika’s chiseled body, emphasising her sexuality. From thigh-high slit dresses, sleek hair, and stilettos to an array of colourful swimwear—Rubai is all things alluring. Zoya goes for a girl-next-door spirit — her outfits are more every day, with fitted colourful dresses or salwar kameez, and comfortable shoes. Zoya’s sexuality is way muted than Rubai’s. However, she too emotionally manipulates Tiger (Salman Khan), only to eventually fall for him.
Despite these elements, the two spies pull off combat scenes with elan. It is no longer about just supporting the male spies. The female spies of Bollywood are here to stay.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)