Bollywood is no stranger to cop dramas. The morally upstanding cop facing off against corruption and evil is an age-old trope in the industry. What makes Jai Gangaajal (Hail The Water of Ganges) different and rare is the fact that its lead is a woman. Women don’t get cast as the lead of cop movies in Bollywood. Preceded only by Rani Mukherji in Mardaani (Masculine Female) and Sushmita Sen in Samay (Time), Priyanka Chopra shows skill and bravery in taking on the role of SP Abha Mathur. She’s tough, bold, and afraid of no one.
Fans of Priyanka Chopra will know her from her new series Quantico. In this ABC thriller, she plays an FBI agent of Indian origin who gets caught in a terrorist plot to bomb New York City. In her role as Alex Parish, Chopra is flanked by a cast of powerful and diverse women from all different types of backgrounds. The radical thing about Quantico is, instead of choosing to cast a white person who saves the day from a terrorist plot, it’s a brown person instead. The symbolism of Chopra working to save New York City from terrorists, when so many South Asians (and other people of colour) were and still are racially profiled and treated as threats, is greatly subversive.
And subversive is what Chopra delivers with Jai Gangaajal too. The movie is different because its tone isn’t one of female empowerment or of feminism. On the contrary, Abha Mathur faces almost no sexism or disrespect in the workplace. No one talks down to her because she is female or tries to use their masculinity to threaten her. Instead, she is treated like everyone else and her gender rarely comes into play. Of course, when one casts a female in a sea of men, she will stand out. And so Priyanka Chopra does. The moment when she rescues a girl from being sexually assaulted or even raped weighs heavy because we rarely ever see a female rescuing another female in Bollywood. But, again, it isn’t framed as women looking out for women. Abha Mathur is simply doing what is right, and that includes protecting other women in the narrative.
This movie is also not about black and white morality either, like most cop movies that focus on corrupt systems. Abha is dealing with internal disruption within the force, outlaw goons, corrupt politicians and a rigged justice system. The landscape of the movie is complex and layered, reflecting contemporary Indian society. Moreover, she is facing the wrath of the battered public. Having had enough, they resort to vigilantism in the movie and decide to break the law so that they can live in peace. However, Abha remains the voice of reason and ever confident in the law. Abha respects the system and wants to abide by it. But can she do so when everyone else, the guilty and the innocent, are resorting to violence?
When your moral compass, voice of reason, and lone moment of calmness in a sea of turbulence is a woman, you are making a powerful statement. Abha Mathur is brave, bold, heroic, and righteous. She also happens to be a woman. While the movie doesn’t seek to be overtly empowering for women, it becomes so. Who better to play this role than Chopra, who is getting familiar with law enforcement in all types of capacities. Her portrayal was stern and tough, unflinching in the face of some great one-liners that can easily sound corny. Whether she is turning tables with her race or with her gender, Priyanka Chopra is definitely a woman who knows how to pick her roles. Being a brown actress can be difficult, for different reasons, in Bollywood and in Hollywood. But with these latest roles, Chopra proves she can conquer both.