In the haunting Hindi film "Pari", Anushka Sharma is chained, whipped, thrown violently to the ground and made into an ideal candidate for a trauma centre. Jennifer Lawrence in last week's big Hollywood film "Red Sparrow" is a woman on a mission who is at the receiving end of a torrent of abuse.
And I do mean that in a sexual way. Hard up for money and in dire need of financial help to tend to her seriously ailing mother (played by Joely Richardson, daughter to the legendary Vanessa Redgrave), Dominika Egorova becomes a Russian spy.
In case you haven't already guessed from the actress' name, "Red Sparrow" is set in the forbidding, ominous and politically charged Russia where, if the movies are to be believed, intrigue and conspiracy are a way of life. We recently saw Charlize Theron don a steely seductiveness in "Atomic Blonde". Jennifer Lawrence's spy act is far more vulnerable. She brings in an element of tenderness to the ongoing brutality, like an adamant chef who slips in a green vegetable dish at a meat banquet.
Dominika is introduced into the dark inescapable world of spying and seduction (not in that order) at a finishing school for potential whore-spies. A "whore school" is how Dominika describes her training ground for orgasmic nirvana. The guru is played by that amazing British actress Charlotte Ramping who last stole our hearts in Ritesh Batra's underwhelming "The Sense Of An Ending". Here Rampling seeks a different kind of ending for her followers.
As Lawrence goes through a series of not-so-charming adventures in espionage kingdom, we get to meet some truly remarkable actors, including Jeremy Irons and Joel Edgerton and the long-time-no-see Mary Louise Parker. All of these brave actors have something to add to Dominika's strange and seductive story told by a director whose virility of vision is matched by his leading lady's proclivity to infuse vulnerability into sadism.
Early in the largely-gripping plot, Dominika -- injured and shunned from her life as a ballerina -- storms into her dancing partner's sex romp and clubs the lovebirds to death. It is a defining moment of physical violence, underscoring the emotional upheavals that Dominika would have to weather before she stymies the storm.
"Red Sparrow" is being compared with the silly and puerile "Atomic Blonde". But this is a far more profound study of exploitative sex and state-sponsored seduction where young men and women are taught to lose all their inhibitions for the sake of the country. Only, the sex may not be for as noble a cause as the State actors claim.
There are constant throwbacks in the narrative reminding us that the Cold War, Kremlin and the KGB (now SVR) have come a long way since James Bond embraced John Le Carre. "Red Sparrow" is strong, seductive and scintillating in its brutal candour on sexual gratification. The camera prowls the lush unkempt locations with predatory urgency, as the actors act out their karma in a mood of resigned irony.
In a classroom for sex training a young man is called up and asked to go naked. He strips completely and stands with his entire body exposed to the camera, as Jennifer Lawrence's Dominika cowers at the sheer brazenness required from her for the job. She is told that her body and mind belonged to the State.
Getting naked for the camera is nothing new for Jennifer Lawrence. She did it in her last film "Mother!" where she was brutalised to an insane degree. "Red Sparrow" is no less prone to violating the actress. Some would say it's the bigoted male gaze. I would rather believe it's a sign of the times. The more we speak of equality of the sexes, the more the sex comes in the way.
Luckily for us in Bollywood the heroines are making brave, pathbreaking choices. Anushka Sharma, who is now hitched to cricketer Virat Kohli, is not afraid to explore the dark side in "Pari". Most of our actresses are trapped in the glamour glasscase, unwilling to make choices that could break the mould.
Roles that require tremendous physical perseverance are shunned by most Bollywood A-list actresses. Shradha Kapoor is supposed to play the badminton champ Saina Nehwal. But the project is on hold. She just doesn't look convincing on court.
Decades ago, when Madhubala had to play the enchained imprisoned Anarkali in K. Asif's "Mughal-e-Azam", she insisted on wearing those heavy iron chains even though the doctors said it could kill her. The actress thought it was worth the risk.
Immortality is not an easy state to obtain. Most of our actresses would never know the hunger because they refuse to starve themselves.
(Subhash K. Jha can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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