In time for International Women's Day on Saturday comes a serious girl power film from the Hindi film industry not exactly known for empowering women.
Releasing today, Gulaab Gang is loosely based on a real group of activists — known as the Gulabi gang because of their pink (gulabi) sarees — in North India who fight violence against women, notably by beating abusive husbands with bamboo sticks.
Writer-director Soumik Sen insists he didn't set out to make a women's movie.
"It's a classical rural Bollywood western with song, dance, fights and larger-than-life characters," he said in an email. "(It's a) battle between a good guy who helps destitute women and the bad guy who is a power-hungry politician. Only here the guys are actually women."
But the fact that there's "just no male stars in any pivotal roles" is of some significance.
In an industry where female actors tend to disappear after age 30 or marriage, Gulaab Gang stars two 46-year-old icons of the '90s who have fought that pressure. Madhuri Dixit plays Rajjo, the gang's good leader (distanced from Sampat Pal, leader of the real-life movement), and Juhi Chawla plays Sumitra Devi, a corrupt politician who would stand in her way to maintain the status quo.
Though considered as bankable as any male star in the 1990s, Dixit dropped off the scene after 2002. This year, though, she has already starred in critically praised Dedh Ishqiya, and she is set to dance at the April 26 IIFA Awards at Raymond James Stadium. Chawla, bubbly Miss India 1984, decided around the early 2000s to tackle more indie roles.
Sen was excited about casting the veterans in his directorial debut, which is also the actors' first film together.
"Madhuri Dixit is a legend, and when you work with her you know why," he said. "A fantastic professional with the kind of zeal and energy that you want to work with her again and again. Juhi is a personification of her bubbly and charming image, and so to convince her to completely play a villainous type persona was novel, and she took to it after much deliberation."
He said they "get together like a house on fire." One can hope that a decade of being off-screen rivals at the box office will lead to a sizzling portrayal of on-screen ones.
It opens at AMC Veterans in Tampa.