The film The Bandit Queen (1994) told the true story of Phoolan Devi (played by Seema Biswas), a woman brutalized, who turned to banditry and then, following a spell in prison, politics. The film gained critical international praise and it wasn't long before cheaper and tawdrier copycat films followed in its wake. However if you take away the biographical elements of Bandit Queen there are many films which preceded it that told basically the same story. Many of these films originated in Pakistan but the story of the female bandit leader seems popular throughout the region.
The Pakistani film Daku Rani starring the Lollywood starlet Saima as the horse riding bandit certainly followed Bandit Queen and was its inspiration whereas Daku Hasina and Deshwashi predates it by several years. It seems that these films resonate more with the populace of the the rural community rather than the towns and cities. Maybe this popularity is an indication of the dissatisfaction of the social inequalities between countryside and town and the continuing injustices and discrimination suffered within the rural communities and by women in particular.
Whatever, the movie industry of any country will never be slow to exploit these grievances and the various Daku films and others offer some hope at least that injustice and deprivation can be fought. The surprising aspect of these films is the complete transference of traditional male iconology to the titular heroine. These include a wardrobe of black (often leather), bandoleers and gun belts, exceptional physical strength, horse riding and a quite startling sadistic and brutal course of revenge.
As most of these films are set in rural areas where the infrastructure is poor even now it is difficult to know when the films are supposed to be set. For the most part it doesn't matter though certainly the preferred mode of transport is the horse. Before moving on though it is worth noting that the actresses playing these characters are believable. They look the part they are meant to be representing. A minor criticism of Hong Kong and western film is that the actress playing the action heroine is stick thin (think Keira Knightley in "Domino") but is beating up guys who look like Mike Tyson. The women who take action roles in ISC films for the most part look and take their parts well. The veteran actresses Malashri and Anjuman and most of the other actresses don't look like the kind of women who broker any nonsense.
The role of the female avenger does not extend solely to the bandit queen film genre. The spirit of Kali has strong resonances in Indian culture and is one of the main motivations for the actions of the female character in the girls and guns genre. Angaar the Fire is an example of the genre albeit poorly executed and acted. Readers of a certain age will remember the Charles Bronson "Death Wish" films. In those films a vigilante takes vengeance upon the criminal fraternity following a series of horrors perpetrated on his family. In Angaar the Fire the vigilante is played by Sanober Kabir who does an OK job with a lousy script. Whilst the storyline has been explored in many films, probably more so than in Western film, the fact that the revenge motif is carried out by a woman and is in fact the only plot device means the film seems timid about tackling any issues which the film might legitimately raise. Needless to say the film did badly and Sanober Kabir never made it much further in the Bollywood film industry.
Whilst comparisons to the Death Wish franchise is not unfair it would be more accurate to consider the films alongside Abel Ferrera's Ms 45. The reasons for this are that the motivation of the protagonist is normally driven by direct sexual abuse, both within and exclusive from the family unit. Once again the status of women within Asian society is a factor to be considered. In Ms 45 the female vigilante has been driven to her actions by rape but in a perverse way then uses her sexuality to seduce and murder her victims. In many ISC films the female protagonist becomes a character far less glamorous or physically attractive as the screen caps from Angaar the Fire demonstrate. One has to question whether this is a deliberate reflection on a society which still largely expects the woman to be the home maker. The inference could be that any woman who deviates from the social stereotype and defies the sexual demands of a male dominated society, no matter how unjustified, has to be depicted as psychotic and denied the mantle of attractiveness.