Kangana Ranaut is a product of the system she was brought up in – a patriarchal society that forced her to fight for her own corner of freedom, at every step. Shunned by her family early as a teenager for her choice to be independent, her battles extended to the blinkered film industry, controlled mostly by males, where she was quickly labelled as being ‘crazy’ by the sensationalist media and colleagues for having a mind of her own and demanding equal ground as male stars. If one goes beyond the noise and loud voice, the vulnerability can be detected easily during small moments when she lets her guard down. During the Panga press conference, when asked if she had watched Chhapaak, her response was a simple, not yet, that she is waiting to. The issue is close to her heart as her sister Rangoli is a survivor of acid attack.

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, who we know through her movies, is a force within herself. Her movies Nil Battey Sannata and Bareilly Ki Barfi were entertainment personified and marked by detailed and superb storytelling. Her stories showcase women and explore a range of topics, from romance, marriage, motherhood, ideas of femininity and masculinity with sensitivity, quiet force and everyday humour. Mothers feature importantly in her world, and Ashwiny has a knack for giving her female characters ample space to explore their dreams, strengths, flaws, desires and instincts without judgement, delving completely into their emotions, complexities and the multi-dimensional aspects of their personalities.

Directors go to Kangana for one reason: her undeniable talent. I suspect co-writer and director Ashwiny knows no one else could play Jaya Nigam as well as her. Together, they are invincible and on fire with Panga.

Kangana had refused Sultan many moons ago as she told Aditya Chopra she wanted to have a say in how Aarfa’s character would play out. With Ashwiny, Kangana was in good hands. Compare Aarfa of Sultan with Jaya of Panga and you will know why she chose not to do it. Both characters fall pregnant, halting their sport careers, and have a baby. Sultan was narrated from the male’s perspective and Aarfa had power only until the point the male is not inconvenienced. In Panga, it is Jaya’s story but Aarfa’s counterpart Prashant has his own journey. His male privilege is directly questioned, yes, but one also sees the struggles from his point of view, his reactions to his world changing, after his wife goes back to kabaddi.

Whether her opinions are politically correct or not, whether one agrees with her personal beliefs or not, whether she realises her own dichotomies as a feminist or not, there is one thing Kangana has got pat perfect. Her finger is right on the pulse with the emotions of the popular Hindi cinema heroine, lending dignity and softness to every situation. Time and again, she goes beyond the template of the sister, wife and mother roles, giving them strength and identity, taking them way beyond being just revered, sacrificing, enticing, honourable and dutiful women in ornamental roles.

We all live with these contradictions within us. In Kangana’s case, they appear heightened as her on-screen heroine is so directly in contrast with her off-screen personality. Look at Anushka Sharma, also a feminist producer, who agreed to play Aarfa. Her choice is to fight the system externally, by starring in popular movies that cater to the male audience, while she invests her own money in feminist movies that push boundaries for a limited audience.

As a selfish feminist and cinema viewer, I fervently hope Kangana is able to preserve this immense talent as she has altered the landscape of popular Hindi cinema heroine, more than ever before, paving the way for others, by standing her ground and choosing feminist scripts that defy the patriarchal mould, while catering to the heart and pulse of popular Hindi cinema audience.

Ashwiny’s Panga tells the story of Jaya Nigam with superb flair, capturing the nuances of a sportswoman, her state of mind and struggles as a wife and mother, of living with overt and covert pressure forced to choose between having a career and family. In a poignant moment, Jaya tells her husband Prashant, when I look at you, at my son, I see happiness, but when I see within myself, I see sadness. Now that’s a message conveyed in a simple yet powerful manner.

Ashwiny captures the finer nuances of everyday biases, taking every little or big opportunity, using the transparency of the sports system to “show” and “externalise” the obstacles mothers face when they want to get back to a career, much like their partners, but have to battle it out internally and externally before anything moves. In an Indian context, the maternal desires coupled with cultural pressures don’t do much for a woman wanting to step out after a baby, which Ashwini captures with great accuracy.

Jaya gives up a prestigious national opportunity and a kabaddi career for her son (Yagya Bhasin, superb), reconciling herself to a boring job in the railways which doesn’t give her much joy, taking on chores at home, looking after her husband and son. A chance opportunity turns into a desire for a career comeback at 32. Her husband (Jassi Gill, effective) supports her half-heartedly in the beginning, changing track after she finds her drive and ambition back. She doesn’t get any support from her mother (Neena Gupta, in a breezy appearance) initially until she is on her way to establish herself. Richa Chadda packs a punch with an extended special appearance as Jaya’s best friend Meenu, who is her rock-solid support. Ashwiny makes sure her character gets to have some fun and is fleshed out to leave her mark as a single woman scared of commitment.

Kangana plays Jaya with subtle dignity, delivering every expression surely and superbly. The victory in the end is always the sweetest but Ashwini keeps it super real, by establishing that change for women comes in slow, small and silent steps first inside their own homes before they find the courage to step out and conquer their corner and space in this world. Jo sapne dekhte hain, woh Panga lete hain, lekin dheere se.

Rating: 6 out 5

Panga (2020). Director: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari. Writers: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, Nikhil Mehrohtra. Players: Kangana Ranaut, Richa Chadda, Jassi Gill, Yagya Bhasin, Neena Gupta. Music: Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Sanchit Balhara, Ankit Balhara. Theatrical release: Fox Star Studios.

Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of cinemaspotter.com. She writes on cinema, culture, women and social equity.