With movies like Akira and Wonder Woman introducing us to action-ready actresses, we meet the people who’ve made them what they are.
In the 1950s, we had Fearless Nadia beating men up in Hunterwali. And who can forget 90s heroine Vijayshanti, of Karthavyam fame, even if traditionally action movies have been about brawny alpha males protecting damsels in distress? This testosterone-fuelled trend, however, is on its way out. Just look at the 11 million views garnered by upcoming action-thriller Akira’s trailer, where Sonakshi Sinha is shown roundhouse kicking goons sans any CGI. “Audiences have seen a lot of heroes doing action sequences. Now they can enjoy watching heroines doing it. It’s something new for them to look forward to,” says Sinha, who plays a fearless college student in AR Murugadoss’ adaptation of Mouna Guru (a Tamil movie where the lead was originally played by actor Arulnithi Tamilarasu). In fact, Sinha is joining a growing list of female action stars who make up contemporary Indian cinema’s fight club.
The war-cry for change is a resounding one, especially today with gender equality on everyone’s radar. Remember #JaneBond, which was trending worldwide recently, with X-Files star Gillian Anderson as a front runner? Or the rising popularity of Instagram accounts like @queensonscreen, started by 21-year-old Shivani Gorle from Mumbai, which celebrates strong female characters in global cinema with exquisite illustrations of the actresses? On screen, the signs are everywhere. While Hollywood action girls like Gal Gadot (in the upcoming Wonder Woman) are proving their mettle by training and fighting just as hard as their male co-stars, closer home Priyanka Chopra’s portrayal of Olympian boxer Mary Kom and Anushka Sharma’s role of a champion wrestler in Sultan shattered preconceived notions that films with strong female leads cannot do well at the box office. Since every ‘kick-ass’ woman needs a smart trainer, we meet the people who pushed Sharma, Chopra and Sai Dhansika (Kabali) to endure punishing workouts and ensured that their wards were fighting fit for the screen.
Location: Mumbai | Expertise: Parkour | Trained: Sonakshi Sinha for Akira
All the intimidating martial arts moves you see Sinha perform in Akira’s trailer are courtesy this 28-year-old professional stuntman. Meet Kuldeep Shashi, who originally hails from Faridabad, but moved to Mumbai when actor Tiger Shroff hired him as his personal trainer in 2011. Thanks to the success of Baaghi and Heropanti, director Murugadoss approached Shashi and gave him four months to train the actress. “I chose a rigorous blend of exercises—two-hour sessions of cardio, acrobatics and agility drills (like running) in the morning, and mixed martial arts in the evening. Gymnastic routines came easy to Sonakshi, as she’s surprisingly strong. So we focussed on flexibility,” explains the parkour expert, adding that to achieve the college student look the actress adhered to a strict diet. She ate only protein and carbohydrate-rich food like banana shakes, dry fruits, fish and eggs. Shashi, who is currently working on Bang Bang 2 (starring Sidharth Malhotra and Jacqueline Fernandez), says that it is natural for the audience to follow Bollywood religiously and feels people will be influenced by the portrayal of strong women in cinema. “When a big star plays such a role, it will encourage more women to take self-defence classes and fight back, and build their self-confidence,” explains the stuntman, who has also worked in Tevar, Hero and Dhoom 3. ■ Favourite action movie: Sultan ■ Best action sequence by an actress: Tapsee Pannu in Baby ■ Favourite Hollywood action film: GI Joe and Fast & Furious franchise
Location: Chennai | Expertise: Silambattam | Trained: Sai Dhansika for Kabali
Dhansika’s portrayal of the ruthless assassin, Yogi, in Kabali has made heads turn. And her trainer, S Pandian, couldn’t be more elated. Specialising in Silambattam—a 5,000-year-old martial art indigenous to Tamil Nadu, which is fought with a stick—he says women need to put in more work to learn these forms, as they require higher core strength, but the result is great. “Dhansika has been training with us for close to six years now and executes these stunts perfectly. In fact, she’s better than most men. With practice and perseverance, there’s really no difference between a man and a woman action star,” says the 51-year-old stunt choreographer. Pandian doesn’t believe in restrictive diets and says the aim is to eat healthy and maintain a disciplined fitness regime—with 30-minute warm-up sessions followed by training in kicks, punches, reactions (a cine-stunt specific), springboard jumps, vault practice and exercises in Silambattam—with an emphasis on strengthening one’s core, like the shoulders, back and hips—and footwork. “You’ve only seen one per cent of Dhansika’s skill set in Kabali. Girls need to be given similar opportunities and credence as men,” he concludes. ■ Favourite action sequence: Surya’s climax sequence in 7am Arivu ■ All-time greatest actor: MG Ramachandran, as he’s a Silambattam expert ■ New trend in stunts: Do-it-yourself attitude among superstars
Location: Uttarakhand | Expertise: Boxing | Trained: Priyanka Chopra for Mary Kom
Hemlata Bagdwal had a dream to join the Army, so she decided to focus on her fitness early on. “My coach, Anoop Kumar (former national women’s boxing coach), was impressed with my fitness and urged me to take up boxing. In 2000, I won the gold at the UP state championship. There was no turning back after that,” explains Bagdwal, who became a coach in 2004 and trained renowned athletes like Mary Kom, Sarita Devi and Pinky Rani. So when Priyanka Chopra wanted to portray Kom (in the boxer’s eponymous biopic), she chose Bagdwal. Talking about Chopra’s training regime, the 34-year-old shares, “She had to combine training sessions—for fitness (warm-up) and boxing. We focussed on footwork (Kom’s strong suit) and punches; she practised shadow boxing and stretches. Priyanka aced the footwork. The difficult part for her was to learn the left hook (a punch that involves the core muscles and back).” Chopra’s diet was limited to protein shakes, cereals or oatmeal for breakfast, and fruits like bananas and green veggies. She was also allowed one meat item and brown rice. After the movie, Bagdwal feels a lot of parents have started encouraging their daughters to take up boxing—if not as a sport, at least for self-defence.■ Favourite boxing movie: Million Dollar Baby■ Favourite boxer: Mary Kom and Shiva Thapa ■ Boxing then and now: More about speed, technique
Location: Delhi | Expertise: Wrestling |Trained: Anushka Sharma for Sultan
Anushka Sharma didn’t have too long to train before shooting for Sultan, yet she impressed with her wrestling on-screen. She has Jagdish Kaliraman, the chief coach of the UP Police Wrestling Team, to thank. Son of the famous Indian wrestler, Padma Shri Master Chandgi Ram, Kaliraman started wrestling at the age of six and has won several accolades, including the highest title in wrestling, Bharat Kesari (five times). In 2015, he was approached by Yash Raj productions to train Sharma and he agreed. Talking about the actress’ training, he says, “She was physically fit, so it wasn’t difficult. I taught her several wrestling techniques—from bharandaj to dhobi—but what she specialised in was kulla (one arm throw) and dhak (headlock). I trained her for two months, with two 150-minute sessions every day.” The 40-year-old wrestler explains that Sharma stuck to a diet plan that included banana and protein shakes, coconut water and fresh juice (every few hours), while watching practice videos to improve her bouts. Kaliraman can see the effect the film has had. “Sultan deals with women empowerment. There is a newfound respect for wrestling. People take it seriously and want their daughters to learn it,” he concludes. ■ Favourite action movie: Terminator
Favourite wrestler: Adeline Gray (United States) ■ Olympic wrestlers from India he is banking on: Narsingh Yadav and Yogeshwar Dutt; Babita and Vinesh Phogat from the women’s team
“The last five years have seen a large movement, where female-centric movies have attained commercial success and garnered critical acclaim—be it Kangana Ranaut’s Queen, Kalki Koechlin’s Margarita with a Straw or Anushka Sharma’s NH10. I believe the rise of more woman-oriented action films is a natural progression of that movement,” says Anupama Chopra, renowned film critic, elaborating, “It is undeniable that movies are hugely influential in our nation’s socio-political fabric and women’s emancipation. Take Anushka’s character in NH10 for instance, where she refuses to become a victim, or Sonakshi’s Akira, where the villains learn quickly that they’re messing with the wrong girl. I’m fairly certain that when women and young girls witness such strong female character portrayals, it will have an innately positive impact.”
By Saloni Sinha & Lavanya Lakshminarayanan.