The woman in Bollywood rarely is given a lingering thought. Her role has always been limited to ‘standing by her (onscreen) man’ and nothing more. In recent times, she has not done herself a great favour by gyrating to suggestive and obscene lyrics with a bunch of salivating men who look like they could tear on her any moment. But then she has also defied this stereotype if you take a closer look.
My intention is to name those who have done their bit by remaining within the periphery of what is known as ‘commercial cinema’. I will begin with the 80s for no other reason but the fact that I was born in the mid 80s and the times that you witness is always etched in your mind.
Woman of Substance, my tribute to you:
Sridevi: When a voluptuous Sridevi was paired against an aging Jitendra in Himmatwala, the nation went into frenzy. No, I was not there; but while growing up I saw Dadas and Kakus going dreamy-eyed over this lovely woman. In fact, years later, Jitendra admitted that for once the audience was more taken with the heroine (Sridevi) rather than the heroes she was paired with during that decade and mid 90s. My image of Sridevi for the most part has been associated with her ‘Hawa-Hawai’ act. ‘Gritty journalist’ might be the favourite profession of a strong female in contemporary Bollywood but Mr.India would have been incomplete without Sridevi’s bumbling journalist. However, Sadma cemented Sridevi’s mettle as an actress and not just a heroine. In 2012, she bounced back with English Vinglish. 15 long years had not rusted her charm a bit!
Meenakshi Sheshadri: She made a name for herself in the late 80s and early 90s. But the reason she is here on this list – and no points for guessing – is the eponymous film Damini. The story-line need not be retold. Damini was one of the few meaningful and gritty films made during the 90s. Sheshadri gave an electrifying performance as a woman seeking justice against misuse of power and position.
Kajol: I cannot say she has a Sadma or a Damini to her credit. One might cite Dushman but to me it is an Indianised and rather crude remake of the Sally-Field starrer Eye for an Eye. But no one can deny her screen presence and histrionics. If there was one heroine who could match up to her hero’s emotions, turmoil and pain step for step then it has to be Kajol. And yes without her, the most popular rom-com couple in B-town would never have been half as endearing.
Karisma Kapoor: She had many hits to her name starring opposite the comic/action/ romantic hero but she also gave us films like Fiza, Zubeidaa and Shakti: The power before fading out. It takes more than the Kapoor tag to impress a director like Shyam Benegal. Zubeidaa is my clear favourite among the three I have mentioned.
On a slightly off track note, Kareena should take a cue from her sister and stretch herself a little further than playing the fragile (Omkara) or supporting (Dev, Yuva) woman to a dominant male. Her acts in Chameli and Heroine were not quite convincing.
Urmila Matondkar: I believe she was a game-changer of sorts. As an adult, Urmila made her debut with Rangeela. In times when a heroine being confident with her sexuality was frowned upon, she dared to cross the sacred line. Who can forget the oomph she exuded in ‘Tanha Tanha’? She also has to her credit quite a few off-beat films which rode on the female lead rather than a hero. Her commendable efforts include Kaun, Pyar Tune Kya Kiya, Ek Hasina Thi and Pinjar among others.
Tabu: I don’t think Tabu had much of a mainstream career although she started out as an out and out commercial actress. Part of this ‘failure’ could be attributed to her unconventional appearance. But then she turned her ‘weakness’ into her strength and went on to deliver films such as Maachis, Thakshak, Astitva, Chandni Bar, Maqbool and Cheeni Kum.
Rani Mukherji: She started out as an ‘industry-kid’ with the makings of a commercial heroine. During the most part of her career that is what she has done. But she has to her credit a film called Black and simply put one cannot question her inclusion here. Besides, she also stretched her acting limits in films such as Hey Ram, Yuva, Laga Chunri Mein Daag among others.
Bipasha Basu: More than anything else, Bipasha has not just survived but has had considerable success without pairing up with any of the 3 Khans! Apart from that two of her films are worth a mention viz. Jism for refuting the ‘traditional Indian woman’ image and Corporate for it is her who carries the film (although at the end of the day it ends on a predictable note).
Priyanka Chopra: Among the transitional/ current lot, the former Miss World is the only one who has caught my attention. She not only is arguably the top commercial heroine, she also has come up with memorable performances in her not so long career. From the ambitious woman-predator in Aitraaz to the autistic Jhilmil in Barfi, she has come a long way. In between she came up with Fashion, Kaminey and 7 Khoon Maaf which only goes on to prove her credibility as a versatile actress.
Kangna Ranaut: This young woman from Simla makes no bones about creating a niche in the industry without a ‘Godfather’ and with reason. Although she has had more misses than hits in recent times, her turn as Sana Azmi (modeled on Parveen Babi) in Woh Lamhe was quite a performance. She supported Priyanka ably in Fashion and also has given us films like Gangster and Tanu weds Manu.
There but not quite there:
I have quite a few names in this sub-section:
Madhuri Dixit: Together with Sridevi she ruled the 80s and mid 90s but could never come out of the roles she was expected to play. The closest that she came to doing something different was perhaps Lajja and Mrityudand. I am awaiting Dedh Ishqiya eagerly.
Manisha Koirala: I could perhaps put her in the main list but I am limited by the fact that I have not had proper exposure to her body of work. Yet I think she did break the mould with films like Bombay, Khamoshi (although it is not really her film), Dil Se and Lajja. Ek Chhoti Si Love Story was at best a brave effort.
Juhi Chawla: The quintessential bubbly heroine of the 90s. But she did do her bit with 3 Deewarein, My Brother Nikhil and I Am. I am also tempted to include Daraar and Arjun Pandit for they were off the beaten track although badly executed (the 90s after all!).
Preity Zinta: Again her name finds a mention with Rani Mukherji for ruling the late 90s till mid 2Ks. With her all her efforts to do off beat roles in spite of staying within the mainstream, she is not ‘quite there’ for me. But credit must be given to her for Kya Kehna and emulating Barkha Dutt in Lakshya!
Sushmita Sen: To put it bluntly she’s the poor man’s Tabu. But in my opinion she was a little too sophisticated for her own good. Now she chooses to be more of a socialite than an actress. But some of her films, though not really either critical or commercial successes are worth a mention. Ankhein, Samay, Chingaari are indeed some of her better films.
Raveena Tandon: Perhaps the most unexpected inclusion but amply justified. After starring in innumerable no-brainers and pointless action flicks she got a break in E.Nivas’ Shool and did not disappoint. Then she again went back to the usual fare. In early 2Ks she delivered two of the best films of her career: Satta which dealt with the nexus of politics, underworld and corrupt policemen and Kalpana Lajmi’s Daman dealing with marital violence. For the latter she also won the National award.
Yes, that rounds up my list for the time being. I have deliberately not taken the most obvious name. She deserves an entirely separate column. Such is her aura. And of course there is also the ‘hatke’ brigade. Coming soon!