Posted by Vivek on March 11, 2011 | No Comments

The leading ladies of Indian cinema, are many and doing a series on them would be akin to writing an encyclopedia, we profile here those that changed the environment that they inherited:

Indian cinema was a male dominated visual medium to start with. In fact men would enact women’s characters. It was all about the hero. All that changed in 1951, when a Sikh woman, Harkirtan Kaur, who went by the screen name of GEETA BALI, emerged with Dev Anand in BAAZI, then with Guru Dutt in BAAZ. She not only matched the males, but proved to be THE SCENE STEALER. The first of a kind. She would kick ass, match the heroes, wit for wit and in fact her short but event life of 35 years, was best encapsulated in a song her character sang Taqdeer Bana Le Apne Pe Bharosa Hain (have the confidence to make your own fate).  Geeta Bali changed the landscape and image of the Indian heroine.

A woman who traced her roots to Afghanistan, had begun to emerge at the same time. MADHUBALA was that one actor, who could be and do anything. From the coy beauty, to the trouser clad buffon, she enacted roles which were far ahead of her times. From the cigarette smoking character of KAL HAMARA HAIN (1959) to the glam doll of HOWRAH BRIDGE, she conquered every screen that she set her foot on. From the comedy of CHALTI KA NAAM GAADI, to the intensity of MUGHAL E AZAM, the queen of Indian cinema, was highly sought after even by Hollywood, although family pressures kept her away from that world.

Glamour hit the Indian cinema, not as much from its heroines, as from a dancer who enacted supporting roles. The Burmese born, HELEN, would appear for a dance, right from the 50’s through the late 70’s, but the dance was enough to set the audience hearts thumping. Long before the item number, was the classy rendition of sensuality by Helen, who totally changed the landscape of glamour in an industry that lacked none of it, but she took it to a different level.
Then in the early 70’s a journalist, who did her schooling in Los Angeles, burst into the scene, not as a lead actress but a supporting one. But when HARE RAAM HARE KRISHNA was released, ZEENAT AMAN took the entire nation by surprise and from thereon began the journey which would make her the most sought after actor in a film, film after film. She was in your face, she was not inhibited and not one to shy away from life, but actually quite the opposite. Zeenat Aman changed the very perception of the Indian heroine and the world was never the same again.

However, during this era of Zeenat Aman, two other actresses emerged, who co existed, but whose career paths took very different turns, yet very path breaking one’s. REKHA and SHABANA AZMI. Both started off as glam dolls, but then came the difference. Both also were known for their acting prowess. Shabana was one of the first who merged the two worlds of commercial and arthouse, like never before and Rekha achieved what few had. Approx 20+ years after Rekha’s debut, a Bollywood film, KHILADIYON KA KHILADI was made and surprise, surprise…the glam element was still Rekha. She had overcome the most difficult hurdle in Bollywood, that of the 40+ heroine. She was the first and films still routinely get made around her.

The common consensus was that to make it in Bollywood, the actress had to move to Mumbai and enact certain kinds of roles to move up the ranking chart, but NANDITA DAS was different. With an air of nonchalance she continued living in her Barsati in Delhi, doing only those roles that excited her, shunning away the brightlights, but shining brighter than most when she emerged on the screen. She boldly went where none had tread, but like her pioneering predecessors, changed everything before her.

In this International Woman’s Day Week, we salute all those women who bring their best to Bollywood and the Television industry and enrich the entertainment industry, just by being their unique selves.

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