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Transgressive Bodies in Dark Worlds: Female Gangsters and Film Noir in Indian Popular Cinema

Femmes gangsters et film noir dans le cinéma populaire indien
Sony Jalarajan Raj et Adith K. Suresh


L’influence du film noir se reflète dans le cinéma populaire indien au sein histoires se déroulant dans des univers urbains infestés de criminels, moralement dérangés et extrêmement violents, où les personnages font face des angoisses liées à la modernité. La représentation des femmes dans ces récits prend le contrepied de la façon dont les personnages féminins sont stéréotypés dans les films indiens traditionnels. Cet article contribue à l’étude de la construction sociale, culturelle et historique de l’identité féminine dans le cinéma indien en se penchant sur le cas des personnages de femmes gangsters de films noirs. Les films noirs bollywoodiens sont traditionnellement dominés par des personnages de méchants/anti-héros hypermasculins, cyniques et moralement insaisissables. En tant que gangsters évoluant au sein de cet univers générique dominé par le crime et l’action, ces personnages féminins violent les normes de genre et sapent les représentations traditionnelles de la féminité. Cet article analyse ainsi ces personnages féminins comme une nouvelle catégorie de figures transgressives qui subvertissent et fragilisent les identités de genre conventionnelles en usurpant des positions subjectives masculines.

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1The concept of film noir has changed its meaning so much that some refuse to identify it as a genre (Borde and Chaumeton, 2002; Neale, 2000). Noir’s historical origin as a uniquely American form is often contested on the ground that noir is a “discursive construction created retrospectively by critics and scholars” (Mayer, 2007: 3). Even though scholars have identified the European roots of film noir (Morgan and Dudley 1996; Vincendeau, 1992), it emerged as a popular genre of Hollywood cinema in the 1940s and 1950s where it reflected the anxieties and indifferences of the post-World War American society (Biesen, 2005; Luhr, 2012; Quart and Auster, 2018). The social and cultural context of noir is established through the description of the diegetic space as a dark environment defined by themes such as crime, corruption, and betrayal. The deliberate use of shadowy cinematography, high-contrast lighting, and night shots of city life emphasize a strong sense of noir atmosphere (Bossche, 2023; Glitre, 2009). The way noir constructs its world in narratives somehow refers to the unpleasant realities of the real world.

2The film noir is noted for having an international form and its ability to identify with other genres and themes such as psychological thriller, crime fiction, horror, gothic, etc. (Broe, 2014; Jancovich, 2009; Fay and Nieland, 2010.) Therefore, it is practically difficult to map out every possible dimension of noir in cinema. Since different genres overlap with film noir at some point, making it “by far the largest body of work on any film category” (Brookes, 2017: 15), this paper restricts the discussion within the crime fiction angle with an emphasis on the gangster/criminal/villain female protagonists/antagonists in Indian popular cinema.

  • 1 Bollywood refers to the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai, India. It is known for its vi (...)

3Films from Eastern geographies have contexts that “arise from specific locations and are the product of particular social and political histories, artistic traditions, and industrial practices” (Gallagher and Shin, 2015: 10). The influence of film noir is reflected in Indian popular cinema through narratives that portray the aesthetics of crime-infested, morally deranged and extremely violent urban cityscapes where characters deal with anxieties of a modern world. Lalitha Gopalan (2013) uses the term “Bombay Noir” to define the bleak vision of crime/gangster films of the 1970s and the 1980s that reflect a dystopian-like city life in Indian cinema, contrasting it with the colorful popular Bollywood1 texts. The urban space is identified in Indian cinema as a site for freedom, especially in the context of female sexuality and its power structure (Bose, 2011). The underground crime syndicates and gangster cultures of these regions influence crime-thrillers that mirror the infamous Dharavi slums of Bombay (now Mumbai) and other ghettos and cities where life is elevated to dimensions unknown to the mainstream public sphere. The social, cultural, and political elements that shape such worlds are used as diegetic to generate narrative tropes and character constructs in what we can broadly refer to as “Bollywood noir.”

4Rick Altman (2012) while discussing “differing levels of ‘genericity’” argues that “not all genre films relate to their genre in the same way or to the same extent” (34). He suggests that genres arise either by developing a “relatively stable set of semantic givens” through “syntactic experimentation into a coherent and durable syntax” or adopting “a new set of semantic elements” into “an already existing syntax” (35). In other words, genres can either evolve from experimenting with meanings and forming a structure around them or by integrating new meanings, symbols or themes into an existing structure, leading to the development or transformation of a particular artistic or cultural category. Here, it is relevant to emphasize that, in the context of Bollywood, the definition of film noir is notably broad. Within this context, film noir functions as a significant sub-genre within crime films; they are “gangster films” that “rely on the topos of the modern city,” characterized more by thematic resonance than strict adherence to the traditional aesthetic components associated with classic film noir (Gopalan, 2013: 497). Indian films delve into morally gray areas, criminal activities, and intricate character portrayals, including female protagonists involved in gangster activities, echoing thematic elements found in film noir, albeit with distinctive cultural nuances and storytelling approaches. These themes serve as indications of a critical reaction to the actual social conditions of post-liberalized India, articulating the anxieties of a marginalized domestic audience, thereby resembling the concerns of classic Hollywood noir despite the considerable time gap (Biswas, 2019: 49).

5Predominantly a male-dominated industry, the quality of Bollywood is shaped by long historical and political discourses that foreground men and masculinity. Even though the gradual social transformation and the industry’s need for offbeat cinema have provided screen space for female artists, Indian cinema essentially lacks a fair share of movies that can be branded as women-oriented (Gokulsing and Dissanayake, 1998). Hindi cinema has portrayed women with seductive yet graceful beauty, and female characters personify endurance and patience with a high degree of emotional manipulation. Historically, Indian literature does not supply enough female protagonists or antagonists to be adapted to cinema. Inspired by this bleak legacy, screenwriters have also avoided women-centered narratives. Characters written for women in early mainstream Indian cinema were either too hazy to make a social and commercial impact or were restricted to portrayals as “arm-candy,” meaning that stereotyped emotional and behavioral patterns are presented in sharp contrast to the depiction of masculine virility (Chakravorty, 2002).

6The noir space in Bollywood cinematic narratives is dominated by hypermasculine, morally elusive, and existentially indifferent villains/anti-hero personas. However, these are not spaces for exclusive male performances. Women who occupy the underworlds of crime and action often violate the norms of culturally assigned gender performance and thus disrupt the entertainment value associated with the traditional picturization of female identity. The representation of women as gangsters and criminals in such narratives presents a context that challenges the way female characters are imagined and stereotyped in traditional Indian film narratives. There were decent attempts to take female characters out of the Bollywood shell to present social attributes of female liberation through ruffian characters (Datta, 2000). The depiction of female gangsters and villains in Indian cinema exerts a counterintuitive perspective on the female role in cinema and can be contrasted with the existing conceptualization of masculine noir in Bollywood. Through character constructs such as the female gangster, the lady police officer, the item dancer, the prostitute, and the female ghost, the notion of film noir can be observed as a fluid category in Indian cinema that describes the way transgressive feminine identities are represented on screen.

7The cultural transaction between Bollywood noir and cinematic discourse outside its territories redefines noir female representations for how they disrupt symbiotic relationships between conventional gender politics and culture. The female noir character emerges as a new category of transgressive figure who has the agency to disrupt traditional moral dichotomies. This article will establish how noir female representations take power by mirroring a masculine subjectivity which in effect creates a gendered unpredictability that allows female noir identities to perform with an ambiguity that threatens masculine power positions.

Evolution of gangsters in Indian cinema

8Bollywood, the popular culture industry of Indian cinema in the Hindi language, is known for producing films that appeal to the collective imagination of a large audience. It has been internalized in the mind of the Indian spectator that the entertainment production of the Bollywood industry depends on a set of stereotyped elements such as unrealistic plots, larger-than-life stars, melodramatic romantic storylines, colourful song-and-dance sequences, exaggerated action, etc. The Bollywood style has become over the years a cultural identity of India, which is often globally used to signify Indian stereotypes. Bollywood is known for adopting western elements and ideas in its cinematic texts (Jones, 2009), and sometimes adapting them in a way that creates a native narrative version specific to the social, cultural, and aesthetic qualities of the land. The Bollywood version of film noir reflects a larger trend within the industry of constantly reinterpreting and recontextualizing global cinematic influences to cater to the tastes and sensibilities of the local audience. It provides a context for exploring complex human dilemmas, moral ambiguities, and gender dynamics within the framework of Indian popular cinema, offering a distinctive perspective on storytelling and thematic exploration.

9In traditional hero-villain narrative templates of Bollywood, antagonists are used as catalysts to ameliorate the gallantry of the hero protagonist. Compared with their western counterparts, Hindi film villains have a higher star status and screen presence. Their exuberant lifestyles, an equal share of screen time with the hero, and overall impact on a film’s promotion make them an integral part of the narrative. The impact of villains on Hindi cinema is so significant that many films are remembered for the performance of the villain rather than the hero (Halli, 2011). Reflecting the social setup from the early 1950s to 1970s, the villains in Hindi cinema were essentially dark and evil characters that belonged to princely kingdoms or were oligarchs, thakurs, zamindars, and sahukars (landlords and village leaders). Tereza Kuldova (2014) argued that the rise of the hypermasculine gangster as a hero in Bollywood cinema contributed to the revival of “pre-imperial authoritarian kingly models” and “right wing politics” in India.

10The evolutionary journey of the antagonist in Hindi cinema started in the early twentieth century, and the pre-Independence state of the country under the evil of British colonialism had its influence in shaping a collective idea of the enemy. Nira Gupta-Cassale (2000) argues that films set in the context of pre-Independence rural India “tend to draw upon a mythology of nationalist resistance that sanctions and mediates the potentially subversive politics of female resistance” (231). The idea that antagonists as “cruel zamindars” (landlords) of the pre-Independence era later transformed into the identity construction of mafia leaders in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. After the decline of this rural archetype came the trope of criminals and smugglers that reflected the strict regulations and licence Raj of the early 1980s when smuggling was a booming business. The smugglers of the 1970s who turned into wealthy and powerful dons in the 1980s are used as narrative inspiration for the creation of criminal figures such as Mogambo in Mr. India (1987), Vijay in Don (1978), Shakaal in Shaan (1980), and Kancha in Agneepath (1990).

11The gangsters attracted the audience with their unrealistic visions and evil motifs, persistent endeavour to challenge the hero, and the capacity to create nerve-wracking spectacles of action in the dark and violent streets and ghettos of India. The 1970s marked a significant change in the positioning of criminals in Indian cinema; they were not necessarily the “bad boys” of the silver screen but rather aspirational models for many youngsters who mimicked their traits and mannerisms. Parallel to this came a set of films displaying anti-heroes as sexual predators and ravagers where the story often displayed women as objects of desire, a site for the invitation of the male gaze. In the 1990s, the gangster and mafia don character types became more common and popular. Although these films followed the classical archetype that ensured a win for the hero, the villains also personified their roles in such a way that the audience could connect with them. If popularity, the overall impact on the film, and social connections are benchmarks, these villains are the true heroes of their respective films (Sujoy, 2008). While the early villainous acts committed by gangsters were defined by threatening, looting, and kidnapping, toward the end of the twentieth century, transgression started to cover other dimensions like terrorism, conspiracy, social violence, and psychological deception; adorning the Bollywood texts with strong themes of film noir.

12Traits of anti-heroism are often associated with physical and financial dominance, traits not readily associated with women until the 1990s. When discussions of female empowerment and social equality tried to change perceptions surrounding the female gender, there have been attempts in Indian cinema to capture this through the portrayal of female characters in unusual ways. Films like Gupt (1997), Ishqiya (2010), 7 Khoon Maaf (2011), Kahani (2012), and Revolver Rani (2014) placed a female antagonist at the centre of the plot, and Ajnabee (2001), Humraaz (2002), Race (2008), and Race 2 (2013) portrayed situations where women actively involved in criminal activities. These on-screen “action-women” helped to change commonly held beliefs about gender identity in Hindi films with the assistance of realistic plots and aesthetics of violence. However, there remain conspicuous differences between the way women and male antagonists are developed in such films. While male goons are presented as leading the life of a criminal by choice, female counterparts usually associate themselves with crime only for reasons such as love, seeking revenge, reacting against initial suppression, or safeguarding their existing position. There is always an attempt in the narrative to justify the criminal behaviour of a woman through her woeful past to encourage the audience to sympathize with the female antagonist, even if she is a gangster.

The female gangster as a transgressive figure

13From Mother India (1957) to the recent NH10 (2015), there have been many films that focus on women-centered narratives. In the initial post-Independence era, women were portrayed as submissive to their husbands and they accept torture and oppression as an integral part of their wifehood. Radha (played by Nargis) of Mother India was a very young woman when her husband deserted her. She had three sons and was pregnant with the fourth. Sucked into the vortex of tragedy, events took a toll on her two little sons when they were killed by a storm, and she barely escapes from the coquettish approach by the village moneylender. Mother India was released in the early post-independence period when nationalist rhetoric was evident in all creative works and provided the nation with an image of a mother—Mother India. The film established the concept of the self-sacrificing female who faces all the odds and trials of life on her own. It shows that when feminism is exalted and found in a character, she is simultaneously de-sexualized by preventing her identity from being defined by elements of romantic drama. Radha, the central character in Mother India (having no other major female characters in the film except for her mother-in-law) is thrown into misery when her husband leaves her. It is only then that her choices help the image of a sacrificial and tolerant woman come to the forefront of a society where her position as an ideal wife, ideal mother, and ideal woman is valorized. Hence, while Radha is brought to the centre of the text and given so much prominence, she is still trapped within the set of moral values that culture and society have already showered upon women—requiring her to be tolerant and safeguard sexual morality at any cost. Therefore, it is those deviations from this “ideal” feminine image that define transgressive female characters in Indian cinema.

14If we forward to the next few decades, one can witness the emergence of the femme fatale as an enigmatic and seductive female figure that strictly violated the traditional dimensions of the Bollywood heroine. In Bollywood cinema, the femme fatale emerged as an alluring, transgressive figure challenging societal norms through her seductive independence, often depicted in earlier decades as either romanticized or victimized, embodying a distinct departure from the traditional chaste heroine, contributing to the delineation between ’desirable’ and ’desiring’ women within the narrative landscape. In a period when morality is tied with sexuality, such representations had a subversive charm and transgressive form. However, the femme fatale characters like Sahibjaan in Pakeezah (1972) or Umraon Jaan in Umraon Jaan (1981) were overly romanticized or victimized to the extent that they choose a tragic end for themselves. Chandramukhi, the prostitute in Devdas (2002), is rejected by Devdas, the lead hero, for being overly desirous. Though the distinctions between women who are labelled as prostitutes and women who are ideally domesticated are explicitly and sharply drawn in social interactions and negotiations, the distinctions between the two types of female characters are also often seen in argument, practice, and display. The barrier between these two categories, i.e., desiring women and desirable women, was visible in Indian cinema. The sexualized femme fatale roles in earlier films (played by Helen, Bindu, Nadira, and Padma Khanna) were confined within the character stereotype of the vamp or the item dancer, who performed the art of seduction through song-dance spectacles and flirtatious mannerisms, thus leaving enough narrative space to construct the desirable women as chaste and loyal.

15Yvonne Tasker (2013) argues that gender issues are central to film noir (367). Since the 1990s, there has been a transformation in the physical, social, sexual, and moral depictions of women in Indian cinema. The compartmentalized ideals of the wife and the courtesan, the heroine and the vamp, and the ideal wife and the deviant woman have blurred the visible contours of film discourse and deconstructed the notion of women as a monolithic collective identity. Here, Julie Grossman’s findings on Hollywood cinema can also be applied to Indian cinema. She observes that:

Film noir’s lead female characters predominantly demonstrate complex psychological and social identity, resisting the spectator’s habit (traced in criticism and cultural responses) of seeing past her by treating her as opaque (thus a screen on which to project male fears and desires) or of fixing on her as a thing, a dangerous body, to be labelled and tamed by social roles and institutions. (Grossman, 2009: 21)

  • 2 The post-liberalization era in India, initiated in the early 1990s, marked a pivotal shift from a p (...)

16The post-liberalization2 Indian cinema is marked by diversity in characterizing female roles rather than following a radically similar pattern set by past films. In a noir text, a wife is also an adulteress, as displayed in films like Asthiva (2002), Jism (2003), Aitraaz (2004), and Murder (2004), or a clandestine prostitute, as portrayed in Aastha (1997). In the film Damini (1993), Damini, the wife of a wealthy businessman, fights, at the risk of her own life, to provide justice for her maid who has been gang-raped by Damini’s brother-in-law. Ishqiya (2010) presents a plot where a beautiful woman who thinks that her husband is dead has guilt-free physical relations with two different men. It is evident that modern Indian cinema is exploring new aspects of female identity—both sexually and narratively—with thematic elements of film noir providing a new context for revisualizing gender politics. However, it remains, as Gopalan (1997) says, in many films, female characters are only brought to the center of the text while seeking revenge for rape and sexual assault. Even while the female characters evolve, women are still “objects” of voyeuristic entertainment. The terms of objectification have changed from paragon of virtue to performer of the “item number”; a sizzling and sexually provocative dance number performed by the female character (not necessarily be the lead female character) that has no direct connection with the narrative. An item number acts as an entertaining interlude or promotional piece for the film. The roles of such actresses are limited to only the song where she will be dancing with sexualized and revealing attire aimed at a male audience. When these dance numbers are praised for their effective roles in promoting films, they are seen as a basic and pessimal way to objectify women as only bodies or “items” to be traded off. The major factor that brings such criticism of the item number is that the popular and leading actresses of Bollywood are placed at the center of the text due to their physical attractiveness and not to advance the relevance of the film.

17Indian cinema’s development of the atypical female character is based on real-life female gangsters and vigilantes as seen in the case of Phoolan Devi in Bandit Queen (1994) and Rajjo in Gulab Gang (2014). Female lead characters, who have traditionally occupied more passive roles that foreground tolerance and sacrifice, have recently made inroads into the realm of the antagonist; a role normally monopolized by men. Negativity is induced in these characters through characterizations that range from evil mother-in-laws to ex-lovers to western-educated, non-traditionalist female figures. Such roles often display psychological wickedness and the desire to inflict emotional pain on the more central and morally righteous female lead. Moreover, the female antagonist creates a clear demarcation between the ideal woman (the heroine) and the imperfect one (anti-heroine/villain). The female gangster is an important character type in Bollywood noir which often dissolves the imaginary boundaries between good and bad, and violence and peace as she embodies herself as a transgressive figure with both heroine and anti-heroine characteristics. She exhibits many characteristics associated with the villain, but also operates as the action heroine; a physically violent yet humanitarian figure.

The construction of female noir heroines in popular cinema

18Some key elements highlighting the construct of the female noir character include the juxtaposed depiction of hysteria and violence, a definite history of suppression, the liberty of sexual expression, and a desperate attempt to prove themselves equivalent to their male counterparts on a physical as well as a psychological level. The theatrical methods used to construct gender identity in Hindi films focus on the lives of female gangsters and depend heavily on the aesthetic styles used to portray their stories.

19The primary feature of female gangsters like Phulan Devi from Bandit Queen (1994), Shabri from Shabri (2011) and Rajjo from Gulaab Gang (2014) is the invariable need to use violence to establish justice in a corrupt society. However, one of the notable factors that make female gangsters distinct from earlier female character types is the focus on unusual structural attributes, both physical and emotional. This includes wearing rugged costumes, easily handling sophisticated weapons, and having the acumen to kill the antagonist in a cold-blooded fashion (Chakraborty, 2014). Similar to the development of female identities across other genres in Hindi cinema, the attire of female noir has evolved over time. In the 1990s, female dacoits (members of a gang of armed robbers) were shown dressed up as men. In Sherni (1988), Durga, the ferocious member of a ruffian gang, is dressed in black jacket, shirt, and trousers. She also wears a black headband. This costume is a stark contrast to how Durga is presented at the beginning of the film before she joins the gang. Here she adorns her femininity with colourful skirts (as well as sarees) and jewels. In the film, Durga turns to dacoit to avenge the death of her family members which happened at the hands of an autocratic village lord.

20It was Sherni where Sridevi played the role of a glamorous bandit that broke the stereotype of the negative female characters and introduced the more glamorous combination of action heroine/villain. The central obsession of film noir is the “dangerous woman” whose identity is a combination of two superior qualities: aggressiveness and sensuality (Place, 1998: 57). With untied hair and wearing a black leather jacket and trousers, a bullet belt, and a black band over the forehead, she rides her horse valiantly, consonantly lashing the whip and wielding the gun. This very specific costume choice was necessary because it encouraged the audience to relate the female character with machismo and not with customary femininity. Bandit Queen (1994) took this evolution a step further with Seema Parihar’s non-glamorized role of a dacoit based on the real-life story of notorious gangster, Phoolan Devi. Phoolan Devi was an avenger who mobilized her resources, organized a gang, and proved her physical strength to the surrounding society. The focus on unglamorous attire and other attributes is unusual for Bollywood leading actresses, therefore such depictions act as tools to encourage audiences to accept that women have the strength and determination to commit crimes with the same ease as male gangsters. Phoolan Devi’s attire in the film compliments the heinous nature of her crimes. Her costume includes rustic khaki bell-bottoms with a red cloth band worn around her forehead to hold her hair away from her face. When Durga in Sherni tried to glamorize her machismo look, Bandit Queen adhered to a more unrefined look in order to pay maximum justice to the real-life bandit queen, Phoolan Devi.

21While films such as Sherni and Bandit Queen celebrated a new style of female anti-hero, the focus on non-traditional attire was a careful way to highlight the main character’s “difference.” They actively negate their femininity by dressing and acting like men. However, this practice did not seem essential in later female gangster films. In Godmother (1999), Rambhi wields her power by positioning her female identity firmly within traditional muliebrity. She is seen wearing a traditional red ghagra choli and a white shawl to cover her head. Similarly, in Gulaab Gang, the gang members and their leader are all dressed in red or rose-coloured sarees; this signifies their gang’s name, “Gulaab Gang” which means “gang of roses.” The colours pink and red are used here to reflect femininity in dark circumstances, hence, adhering strictly to feminine symbols identifiable to a larger audience, the gulaab gang essentially undermined the notion that gangster women needed to be isolated from traditional femininity by their dress as well as their manners. In the twenty-first century, female gangsters in Hindi cinema have undermined the stereotypical portrayal of action women by displaying a diversity of costumes. For instance, Alka Singh (Kangana Ranaut), a politician as well as a gangster, in Revolver Rani (2014) is presented as a fashion aficionado who has a crush on a popular Bollywood actor. Her role as a criminal does not limit her characterization or negate her feminine desires. As with the female characterization in films, the visual appearance and vesture of female gangsters are constantly evolving as the context demands and expects. As Sherni was one of the first films to portray a female gangster, the character needed a masculine look to gain credibility with the audience. This was gradually negated in later films that depicted machismo not through the attire but through the activities, skills, and the amount of violence that the female gangster delivers.

22Female gangsters in Indian cinema started using crude language to portray the emotional strength of their characters. To typify the efficacy and endowment of women as gangsters, derogatory slang is zealously employed. Since gangsters have a rough and woeful past, the language is meant to illustrate how a character has been denigrated by the atrocities she has faced. The shabbier the language, the more feral she has become. Having been traditionally associated with morality and beauty, the use of explicit language subverts the traditional popular version of the female identity by asserting an anti-essentialist view. When Phoolan Devi used such language first in Bandit Queen (1994), it raised many eyebrows, but as the society accepted foul language in cinema as a means to portray realism, more of these female bandits used colloquial or harsh language to demonstrate their outlaw character.

23Another significant factor that defines female gangsters in Hindi cinema is the objectives with which these characters were constructed. It can be observed that the existence of male gangsters in films is to play the position of an antagonist that balances the hero-villain binary fundamental to popular cinema. Since there is usually an underlying message of social justice, equality, and female empowerment associated with female gangsters, they operate as both the protagonist and antagonist in the film narrative. To accomplish this, their “past” is made equally relevant as their “present.” They are shown as part of the crime world as a result of a need to enact revenge or fight social injustice. There is always a moral backstory attached to the life of a female gangster that explains why she had to adopt this path. Acts of resistance by women can transcend gender distinctions when they are inspired by struggles beyond the personal realm (Gupta-Cassale, 2000).

24Backstories are not necessary for male gangsters as they usually turn to crime to achieve materialistic ambitions. The core philosophy behind the construction of a female gangster in Indian cinema is that “no one is born evil, only circumstances make them bad.” Rape, molestation, economic suppression, and caste disparities in society are used as catalysts that convert women into avenger-gangsters. In other words, the role of female gangsters in films is to enact poetic justice for crimes against women. This also suggests an essentialist view that women become transgressive only when they go through traumatic experiences of oppression and inequality, thus further reinforcing the stereotype of women as soft and passive. The context of noir undermines female agency as an individual trait by emphasizing the external realities that force them to act in transgressive ways. For example, in Sherni (1988), Durga, a tender village belle, joins the gang because she is left helpless after her family is mercilessly tortured and killed by their landlord. As the police refuse to enforce law and order, Durga joins the gang as a way to enact revenge upon the landlord. In Bandit Queen (1994), Phoolan (a real character) has a devastating past to share. Due to family pressures and hardships, she was married off in her childhood at the age of eleven. She then underwent severe sexual harassment at the hands of her husband, landlords, and even police officers. Finding justice nowhere, she eventually found solace in setting up a gang through which she could take revenge upon those who denied her justice as well as those who made her life miserable. In both these films, the female gangster is a tormented soul who is forced to fight back against her enemies to become a criminal idol in the process. By displaying the transition from a village girl to a gangster, these films continuously emphasize that if these women were put into different circumstances, they could have lived a normal life.

25After Phoolan Devi, the ambitions of women in cinema changed significantly. Godmother (1999) is about a woman’s evolution from a domestic housewife to a powerful politician and mafia boss. The film’s plot demonstrates that there will always be a quintessential reason for women to transform into a criminal. The helpless situations push a “former” housewife to use violence as a tool for protection against the demons of society and to stop herself from being hurt. Similarly, in Gulaab Gang (2014), Rajjo (Madhuri Dixit) and her gang act more as activists than as dacoits for they take up issues related to women and children in their village. Hence, in this instance, Rajjo stands as an icon of female empowerment as much as a gangster, especially when she is shown teaching girls language and literature along with martial arts. The gang fights social injustice enacted by a local politician and uses violence only to protect themselves. In Shabri (2011), the protagonist is portrayed as a quiet, emotionally cold woman with a desire for vengeance. She turns from an average mill worker into a gangster through the unavoidable situations around her.

26The harsh economic circumstances endured by these women are important factors in creating sympathy and authenticity for their criminal objectives. These factors also differentiate them from the male villains. Male gangsters in films are pictured with luxurious residences, high-tech weapons, large and obedient workforces, and robust businesses to support their empires. They have their origins in the underworld, where politics, terrorist roots, caste system, rural monopoly, feudalism, etc., play their roles in identity construction. A common thread is the economic power that they possess to maintain their dominance. In the case of female gangsters, like Phoolan Devi, Shabri or Rajjo, they come from economically weaker sections of society and stay economically weak, even when they decide to rebel against social evils. The contradictory economic status of male and female gangsters is revealed here; if male gangsters are a product of terrorism, feudalism, caste system, or political power, female gangsters serve as a countermove against these circumstances. Unlike their affluent male counterparts, female gangsters are portrayed as living in hostile environments—the dense forests of Chambal or the shabby chawls of Mumbai, as demonstrated in the case of Phoolan Devi and Shabri. Their un-glamorized roles are a testimony to the existential struggle through which they go; the caste system is an obvious factor in maintaining these traditions. The female dacoit leaders in Sherni, Bandit Queen, and Gulaab Gang belong to lower castes and are deprived of the basic amenities of life. The classic example was the film Bandit Queen, which was, as previously stated, based on the real-life of the dacoit Phoolan Devi where the filmmaker conveys a larger message about social equality.

Social aspects of female noir

27By placing their female characters in the masculine crime world, female noir blurs the gender stereotypes associated with criminal behaviour. According to Gaylyn Studlar (2013), film noir creates a space where traditional roles of masculinity are challenged to the point of men experiencing a loss of power and control. The noir is observed to have been characterized by anxiety that disrupts the normative existence, definition, and function of masculinity (Dyer, 1998). In film noir narratives, there is an increased eroticization of urban women who are portrayed as violent and dangerous (Naremore, 1998: 45). This association of criminality and female sexuality reinforces the modern image of the city as a place of moral decay and corruption. Sketching female criminals as powerful and sinister as male characters has made them less emotionally charged and more urbanized and organized, well-equipped with modern arms and technology, crueler than their previous avatars, and good at strategic planning. Such skills are shown to a large extent in films such as Supari (2003) and Shabri (2011). In Supari, Mamta Sekhari (Nandita Das) is the central anti-hero(ine) character who hires the male protagonist of the film, Aryan (Uday Chopra), as a contract killer. Mamta is portrayed as a confident, cruel, highly strategic, and technologically aware gang leader with a strong commanding power over her ruthless gang. In Shabri, the female lead plots against her enemies and murders them in the most efficient way, which aligns her with attributes and abilities most associated with the label gangster. Shabri kills a wicked police officer who has tried to rape her in front of her brother. She escapes from the hands of another corrupt police officer, Kadam, and a gang leader, Rajdar Bhau, who tries to molest her. She evolves as a gangster in the climax of the film when she plots against Rajdar Bhau when she reaches Rajdar’s den as a helpless victim, defying audience expectations points a gun at Rajdar, and is supported by Rajdar’s goons whom she befriended through manipulation. As opposed to other female gangster films that provide either a glamorous or a distinctively Bollywood façade, Shabri is portrayed as a representative of ordinary Indian women and hence is seen wearing an ordinary saree, muddied and dishevelled by the events she endures. Supari and Shabri are examples of how the Bollywood film industry has experimented with female characters and noir themes to not only portray the noir female character as realistic and modern but also powerfully vicious and sinister.

28Female noir representations in Hindi cinema started with the economic liberalization in the country and other movements related to women’s rights. However, it is important to examine whether these characters truly reflect female liberation or work as yet another offbeat story to accrue critical acclaim. Actress Madhuri Dixit, who played the co-lead in Gulaab Gang (2014), believes that movies such as Gulaab Gang and Bandit Queen are a balanced combination of entertainment and female empowerment. She believes that such roles cannot be one-sided because commercial cinema has to establish an equilibrium between realism and the need to spice up the mass audience (“I am not a feminist,” 2013). The film opens with Madhuri Dixit as Rajjo and shows the female protagonist in a pink saree. Her Gulaab Gang, with their sickles, axes, and lathis, sabotage a bunch of thugs who try to steal their rural ration. Their violence is ferocious, and each of them slices and stabs the thugs until they are terrified and vanquished. The story begins to develop, gradually revealing Rajjo as a woman who runs a school for abandoned girls and women by sheltering them. “Rod is God” is the avenging motto that she uses to survive in the world with all the inhuman practices against women; these include the corrupted officials, the lazy police officers, the carnal husbands, and the squalid rapists. She encourages the gang to take on all the men who deserve their vehemence by preaching violence as a strong attribute and an instrument to seek justice.

29S. Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges in their book on Mumbai’s real-life mafia queens have suggested that the lives of gangsters are very much readymade stories for Bollywood, but every time Bollywood picks up on such stories, the spicy quotient in the script seems to kill the essence of real-life gangsters (Zaidi and Borges, 2011). The director of Bandit Queen Shekhar Kapur defends this by suggesting that his film is based on real incidents and is an adaptation of Mala Sen’s book India’s Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi. However, the book itself presents many conflicting, ambiguous, and contradictory incidents that are based on the author’s interviews with Phoolan Devi and many others who are closely associated with her. Because Shekhar Kapur did not choose to establish the credibility of these incidents independently, there is a possibility that the truth has been distorted in the film (Sen, 1991). Arundhati Roy, the Booker-prize winning author, interprets this approach of Shekhar Kapur as a purely commercial attempt to monetize a sad, true story of a lady who was raped and turned into a dacoit in order to exact revenge. Roy claims that Kapur has merely intertwined the caste and rape theory into the film, which is a successful formula to gain viewers’ sympathy, and at no point did the director try to be sensitive toward the protagonist (or antagonist as the context claims) as an individual (Roy, 1994).

30Similarly, Shabri (2011) is also based on the true-life story of Mumbai’s first female gambling kingpin Shabri and Godmother (1999) is a fictional work inspired by the life of Santokhben Jadeja, a gangster turned politician from Gujrat. The utilization of Bollywood tools of entertainment like thumping background music, hyperbolic melodrama, and unimaginable violence proves that the films that are based on the lives of female gangsters are inspired more by the commercialization of the stories as a spectacle than their authenticity as social truths. In recent times, commercial crime film narratives have become more unreal and rudimentary to a higher extent. The gap between real life and reel life has been inflated at a rapid rate, especially when it comes to the mafia and gangster backdrops (Counter Cinema/Counter Media Project, n.d.). Unlike male-centered crime films, the scenarios in female-oriented movies are more likely to retain a semblance of realism. The oppression and injustice experienced by women are shown as root causes for their transformation into criminals. The aesthetic style of the female crime drama is ultimately mixed with Bollywood sensationalism to increase its commercial validity on a bigger scale.


31Female noir character portrayals have a strong sense of social justice that cinematically legitimizes their performativity of violence as gang leaders and their moral transgressions often reflect the long historical oppression faced by women in Indian society and the gender stigma associated with their stereotyped identities. The Indian female gangster is an unusually strong noir trope, and the representation and performance of their gender dynamics reflect both masculine and feminine traits. Such a perpetual shifting of gender signifiers is indicative of the gendered unpredictability with which the female noir character gets represented in popular narrative cinema in India. There is a growing affinity to portray more intense female characters in a strong film noir setting where the emphasis is on the irrationally ferocious, nihilistically materialistic, and emotionally nonchalant character constructs. Since the Indian cultural context is defined by historically male-dominant narratives with traditionally moralistic attitudes, the genre of female film noir has to negotiate with the mainstream demands of commercial cinema. In Indian Hindi cinema, this big challenge is addressed to some extent through the portrayal of strong female characters as gangsters and criminals from a social angle in which gender is often undermined or overlooked.

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1 Bollywood refers to the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai, India. It is known for its vibrant and colourful movies that encompass various genres like romance, drama, action, and musicals. Bollywood films often feature song and dance sequences, intricate plots, and larger-than-life storytelling, captivating audiences not only in India but also worldwide.

2 The post-liberalization era in India, initiated in the early 1990s, marked a pivotal shift from a predominantly closed and regulated economy to one that embraced globalization, liberalization, and privatization. These reforms led to rapid economic growth, increased foreign investment, technological advancements, and the expansion of the middle class.

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Sony Jalarajan Raj et Adith K. Suresh, « Transgressive Bodies in Dark Worlds: Female Gangsters and Film Noir in Indian Popular Cinema »Genre en séries [En ligne], 16 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2024, consulté le 22 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Sony Jalarajan Raj

Dr. Sony Jalarajan Raj is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Communication, MacEwan University, Edmonton, Canada. Dr. Raj is a professional journalist turned academic who has worked in different demanding positions as a reporter, special correspondent, and producer in several news media channels like BBC, NDTV, Doordarshan, AIR, and Asianet News. Dr. Raj served as the Graduate Coordinator and Assistant Professor of Communication Arts at the Institute for Communication, Entertainment and Media at St. Thomas University Florida, USA. He was a full-time faculty member in Journalism, Mass Communication, and Media Studies at Monash University, Australia, Curtin University, Mahatma Gandhi University and University of Kerala. Dr. Raj was the recipient of Reuters Fellowship and is a Thomson Foundation (UK) Fellow in Television Studies with the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association Scholarship.

Adith K. Suresh

Mr. Adith K. Suresh is currently associating as a research assistant at the Department of Communication, MacEwan University, Canada. Adith holds a Master’s Degree in English Language and Literature from Mahatma Gandhi University. His research interest includes Film Studies, Literary Criticism, and South Asian Cultural Studies.

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