From the very beginning of Mary Kom, Priyanka-as-Mary commands the screen and the ring with hero-levels of power, strength, and confidence. Priyanka could not have been a better choice for Mary; she looks nothing like the real life Mary, but with the help of prosthetics and CGI, she didn’t look at all out of place amongst the Northeasterners in the film. More importantly, she embodied the role so well that I couldn’t have found a problem with the casting if I had tried – and I did try, because no one wants to admit that someone made the right choice in taking away a really solid minority role in a movie. But truth be told, I only saw Mary Kom in theaters for a combination of loving Priyanka Chopra and wanting to see what all the fuss was about; if her name hadn’t been on it, I probably wouldn’t have seen this movie at all, so the marketing strategy there was spot-on.
However, despite Priyanka going above and beyond to show Mary’s strength and determination, Mary Kom falls short of excellence because it isn’t any different from other hero-driven films. Yes, the hero is Priyanka Chopra, who is undeniably a female, so that is a change. And yes, Mary is a strong woman who definitely doesn’t let the men in her life get in the way of her and her career – even when the man is on his death bed only months after she literally created him out of her own vagina. Mary Kom is obviously a badass, but that doesn’t make her different from every other badass Bollywood hero.
Mary Kom missed a billion opportunities to show the gender-specific struggles a heroine faces. We are shown that Mary Kom, as a woman, is expected to be everything – extremely good looking, strong, talented, an excellent cook, a loyal daughter, a loving mother… but Mary just happens to embody all of these things naturally. She only faces the same conflict every Bollywood hero has to face: finding a balance between his family life and his career. A heroine-driven film would have shown us Mary’s woman-specific struggles. I wanted to see Mary almost break from all of the pressure to be everything all at once, Mary internally trying to balance all of society’s conflicting expectations, and all of the ridiculous media commentary about Mary’s changing looks. Headlines like “Mary Kom dominates in the ring but can she dominate in the bedroom too?” must have popped up at least fifteen times in her career, yet how many times did they pop up in this film? Not even once.
At the same time, though, I can’t deny the benefits of finally having a hero-driven film with a woman as the hero. If what you are looking for is Bollywood masala with a female lead, this movie still has everything: witty one-liners, patriotic song sequences, a nearly-perfect hero whose only flaw is his anger, and a storyline in which the hero’s life goes to shit after implying (with a lot of winky faces that cut to a pregnancy test) that the hero had sex. No man will have trouble relating to the hero in this movie, even though she’s a girl – and that, in itself, is an achievement on the part of the filmmakers. Mary Kom is basically Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, with a hero who is actually attractive and also happens to be female – and BMB was a pretty fantastic movie, so I can’t complain too much.