Dekho dekho, teacher, I did a woman-centric film. Look at me, I care about women.
Yeah yeah, I know A.R. Murugadoss and Sonakshi Sinha have not openly expressed themselves in precisely these words, but nothing encapsulates the spirit of Akira better than that breathless statement I could almost hear them making in my head as I watched this film.
Ever since the December 2012 Delhi gangrape sparked off anti-rape protests across the country, genuine feminists – men and women who are committed to gender equality – have been targeted for marketing purposes by a burgeoning mass of fakes in public life, from product manufacturers and advertisers, to filmmakers, politicians and even journalists.
You have probably met some of them. You know the sort that treat their wives like handmaidens, but write glowing tributes to the women’s rights movement on FB? You know the kind of men who sexually harass their female employees or women who look the other way when their male seniors and peers commit such crimes, yet write hard-hitting articles against sexual predators?
Akira exemplifies this trend of pretend feminism that threatens to harm a crucial cause and is perhaps even more dangerous than open misogyny.
Writer-director Murugadoss earlier ventured into Bollywood with remakes of his Tamil superhits Ghajini and Thuppakki (Hindi version: Holiday – A Soldier Is Never Off Duty). His latest Hindi film begins with an encounter involving three policemen. Among their three targets is a woman played by Sinha. The film then rolls back to Jodhpur 14 years earlier, when a younger version of Sinha’s character – Akira Sharma – witnesses an acid attack on a woman who spurned the advances of a local stalker. Akira bravely identifies the fellow for the police, and she too is soon attacked. Her father (Atul Kulkarni) enrols her in self-defence classes following the incident. A later street fight leads to her being sent to a remand home for girls.
Fast forward to the present, Akira has just enrolled in Mumbai’s Holy Cross College when she is implicated in a series of circumstances not of her creation, with tragic consequences.
In the same city, a quartet of policemen including ACP Rane (Anurag Kashyap) find a cache of cash at an accident site and decide to keep it. In a bid to cover up this crime, they commit another, then another, and another, until circumstances spiral completely out of control.
Their strand intersects with Akira’s life, as you would have guessed.
Akira is a remake of the Tamil hit Mounaguru directed by Santha Kumar. The original is about a male college student in Chennai who is pulled into a web of crime not of his making. Kumar is duly acknowledged in Akira’s credits as the original story writer while Murugadoss is credited as the adapted screenplay writer.
As I drove to my neighbourhood theatre this morning to watch the film, I heard Sinha telling a radio jockey she felt privileged that Murugadoss had chosen her for his “first woman-centric film". Therein lies the starting point of Akira’s problems: that it is a concept film. Like “Director X’s first action film” or “Actor Y’s first attempt at romance”. When a producer or director views “woman-centric” as a genre unto itself, s/he runs the risk of treating the film’s woman-centricity as a hook and a gimmick rather than seeing women as people just like men.
Murugadoss does this throughout Akira. You cannot replace a male protagonist with a woman without recognising that the change in gender could impact every aspect of your story. You cannot take violence as a measure of coolth, especially when you project your film as being realistic.
In an early scene, after she has begun self-defence training, Akira’s father is shown prompting his little girl to single-handedly take on hooligans who are harassing young women on a crowded street. Yes, you heard that right – Daddy does not deal with those goondas himself, nor does he call the cops to fight the creeps; instead, shortly after his child witnessed a gruesome acid attack, he prompts that same under-age child to walk up to a group of male adults and initiate fisticuffs with them.
Does Murugadoss think this is female empowerment? Does he hope to inspire female viewers to indulge in such dangerous stupidity? Or does he just think he is being cool?
If you want further evidence that woman-centricity is just an attention-getting device for Murugadoss, note this: the film may be called Akira, but Akira is the most poorly fleshed out character in the entire story. From start to finish she remains nothing but a one-line concept: a woman who can fight as skillfully and strongly as any man. That is it. The workings of her mind, her motivations and her feelings, remain a mystery.
Frankly, the best-written character in Akira is ACP Rane, the corrupt coke-snorting cop whose drug-addled brain is never so clouded as to make him lose sight of his self-interest. The group dynamic between the four policemen too is convincing, as is the build-up of suspense.
The fun in these aspects of the film is completely diluted though by Murugadoss’ ambition to make a woman-centric film although he seems clueless about women. No kidding, the director seems at a loss about how to deliver a credible female character. So he gives her some neat fight scenes and builds her up as a Hulk-type creature who is best left unprovoked. Sinha is believable while she punches people, but a shadowy figure without substance in the rest of the film.
None of the other women – not even the often-wonderful Konkona Sen Sharma playing a pregnant cop here – fares any better. The film is co-produced by Fox Star Studios who earlier this year scored a big hit with the lovely Neerja directed by Ram Madhvani and starring Sonam Kapoor. Neerja worked because the heroine was a living, breathing human being, not a means to prove the studio’s or the director’s feminist credentials.
(Spoiler alert) The most exasperating, mindless part of Akira comes in the end when the leading lady is asked to make a huge sacrifice to save Mumbai city from potential communal riots. The most vulnerable groups across the world in the matter of violence – sexual or otherwise – are women and children. And across the world, women and child victims of violence – especially sexual violence – are too often held accountable for the fate of their attackers.
“She reported the rape and ended up ruining his promising football career” … “Beta, if you tell the world that chacha touched you that way, the family name will be spoilt” … “He is the only earning member of the family. If you go to the police about him, what will happen to his children and his terminally ill wife?” … “India is going through a communally troubled period. Is it not in everyone’s interests to ignore the rape by that liberal artist/editor?”
I cannot reveal the specific circumstances in which Akira is asked to make a choice without posting spoilers here, but in glorifying that ‘sacrifice’, the film has taken a very dangerous position on victims of violence.
Akira ends with a dedication: “to the women who fought back.”
Oh puhleeease, spare us the unthinking advice and superficial concern. Come to think of it, what else can you expect from a director whose Holiday featured a hero stalking the heroine and forcibly kissing her, with the unwilling woman promptly falling in love with him shortly afterwards? Seriously, spare us your fake feminism.