Resistance to the “female-centric” film is an affliction that has plagued Bollywood for most of its history; despite the few dozen films over the years that have proved actresses’ ability to hold their own without needing a male costar (dating back to 1957’s Oscar-nominated “Mother India”), screenplays that place women in the spotlight have been disappointingly infrequent.
Thankfully, with Vidya Balan’s “Kahaani” in 2012, Kangana Ranaut’s “Queen” in 2013, Deepika Padukone’s “Piku” in 2014 and Priyanka Chopra’s “Mary Kom” that same year, Bollywood has increasingly warmed up to the reality that female star power and strong stories can draw in crowds, box office returns, and critical acclaim. While you won’t see a fan following for an actress as rabid as that of, say, Salman Khan, the concept of a woman-oriented film is approached with less trepidation and more curiosity now than ever before by both filmmakers and audiences.
But a female-centric action film is pushing the envelope still a few inches further in an industry dominated by male heavyweights. The last time we saw a leading lady kick ass on screen was Priyanka Chopra as Mary Kom in the Olympic boxer’s 2014 biopic, which earned mixed reviews. So when Sonakshi Sinha—just six years into her film career and so far known for her tendency to choose damsel-in-distress roles in vapid potboilers—snagged the title role in director A.R Murugadoss’s action film, “Akira,” there was hope that not only would she turn her own one-note image on its head, but also that we’d be in for an engaging twist on a genre Bollywood reserves almost exclusively for men.
The film makes clear early on that it’s oh for two. We’re introduced to Akira as a child, who has been raised on karate lessons instead of dance classes. Almost too principled for her own good, she becomes something of an outcast in her small Jodhpur village after snitching on an acid attacker, then pouring acid on his own face when he attempts to gain revenge. Three years in a correctional facility later, she is sent to study in Mumbai, where the hope is to start fresh. But her troubles follow her to the big city as she becomes unintentionally embroiled in complications, beginning with beating up her college bullies to somehow becoming an unwitting target of nefarious police commissioner Rane (Anurag Kashyap, who somehow manages to overact and under-deliver at the same time). And so begins a mangled web of a plot where stolen money, a missing video camera, a few suspicious deaths, an incomplete attempt at a romance angle, and one nonsensical, lazily-coiled twist after another are supposed to somehow add up to something riveting, but do little more than confound, exasperate, and utterly bore.
We quickly realize that this isn’t quite the female-centric film we were expecting; in fact, there’s nothing centering the story at all. It’s hard to know where to anchor our attention at any point, when there’s so much going on but nothing substantial happening. The frayed storyline is built entirely on corruption and cover-ups, which penetrate everything from the college principal’s office to the police force. Additional characters are hastily brought in at the director’s whim when he needs to plug up a leaky plot point (and there are many), and they disappear just as quickly. Murugadoss loses any remaining grip he had on the narrative in the second half, where Rane has Akira locked up in an asylum to keep her from ratting him out, and the remainder of the film is spent in a frenetic cat-and-mouse game as she attempts to escape and prove herself innocent. It’s almost embarrassing to watch.
Moreover, while Akira’s aggression is rooted in her desire for justice, she is punished, sabotaged, and made to suffer constantly for her actions, thanks to the misogynists who hold almost every position of power in this film’s world. Intentional or not, the message isn’t one that encourages women to stand up for themselves; rather, it implies that those who fight for what is right will pay dearly before they can ever hope to be rewarded.
It doesn’t help that none of the main actors seem to have enough interest in their roles to make them mildly convincing, least of all Sinha. While her punches are assertive, her dialogue delivery and facial expressions are depressingly flat. Kashyap seems to have resigned himself to a nonsensical role by hamming it up with relish. Even the usually-electric Konkona Sen Sharma, who had a chance to pump some life into the film as the sole upstanding police officer investigating Akira’s case, sleepwalks through her performance.
Murugadoss, famously, isn’t one for subtlety or even much logic. However, he may have reached new lows of lazy filmmaking here, delivering on virtually none of his pre-release declarations of celebrating female strength, defying gender stereotypes, or even simply entertaining. There’s no doubt that Bollywood could stand to have more women action heroes, but it could definitely have done without Akira.
“Akira” is now in theaters.