By  Sharada Iyer

Be it the silent era, the swinging sixties, the revolutionary eighties or the current age, the actresses in Hindi cinema have dazzled us for a century with their brilliance, grace, elegance and immense talent  and have thus become entrenched in the psyche of cinema lovers forever…

From the aristocratic First Lady of Indian Cinema-Devika Rani to the current superstar of Bollywood Deepika Padukone , the female artistes of our industry have given invaluable contribution by adding beauty, glamour, allure and pizzazz to every project and  lit up our lives with their sheer charisma and magnetic screen presence as a lover, wife, sister, mother, mistress, courtesan, vamp, dancing girl or other supporting roles.

Sadly, they have always been accorded secondary status in this male-dominated industry of ours and even their remuneration has generally been way below their male-counterparts which is really unfair. Often the importance of these actresses has been side-lined to pamper the egos of their male co-stars and yet, they have taken all this in their stride with a quiet dignity and have kept up the evolution of the actress in every decade by constantly adapting and re-inventing their image to match the changing scenario of films. Each one of them brought with her a special quality, a unique charm and an unmatched enigma and lit up the screen with her luminescence, essayed a gamut of roles and brought to life some outstanding characters


Circa 1913– It was a time when films were considered to be disreputable and acting as a profession was looked down upon. The restriction was more so in case of females and even prostitutes did not want to be part of this profession. It was in this scenario and out of sheer desperation that Dadasaheb Phalke cast a male actor Anna Salunke in the role of Queen Taramati in his first film Raja Harishchandra.

However, Phalke was luckier with his second full-length feature film, Mohini Bhasmasur (1913), for which he requested the director of a travelling drama company to lend him two of their actresses – Durgabai Kamat and her daughter Kamlabai Gokhale and they became the first actresses of our industry (An interesting piece of information-the actor Vikram Gokhale happens to be the great-grandson of Durgabai and grandson of Kamlabai)


For a while, Anglo-Indian actresses were sought after for their white-skin, popular among them being Patience Cooper, who was a dancer with Bandman’s Music Comedy before joining Madan Theatres and Sulochana Ruby-Myers, who worked as a telephone operator before she joined films. Patience Cooper is also credited with the first double roles of Indian cinema – as twin sisters in Patni Pratap and as mother and daughter in Kashmiri Sundari. Sulochana’s on-screen pairing with Dinshaw Billimoria was a big hit and so widespread was her popularity during the silent era that she is said to have drawn a larger salary than the Governor of Bombay at that time!

Later, Zubeida, a muslim princess who had started acting from the age of 12 re-wrote history by becoming the heroine of our first talkie-Alam-ara.(Incidentally, model Rhea Pillai is her granddaughter)

The arrival of the highly educated English-speaking Brahmin girl Durga Khote in Ayodheycha Raja (1932), changed the perception that it was only low-caste or outcaste women who entered the film industry. Widowed at the young age of 26, she turned to the film industry to seek work to support herself and her two sons and in doing so paved the way for women from ‘respectable’ families to enter the industry.

Her contemporary Devika Rani (grand-daughter of Rabindranath Tagore’s sister) was not only a stunningly beautiful and accomplished actress, but also well-versed in cinematography and techniques of film-making. When she took over the reins of the famous studio Bombay-Talkies, she became the only female studio chief and till date holds the record. Her hit-pairing with Ashok Kumar turned him into a star overnight and she is also credited with discovering the next superstar Dilip Kumar. With India’s first English-Hindi bilingual Karma in 1946, she garnered rave reviews from the English press both for her beauty and histrionics.

Fearless Nadia’s success story as a female stunt-queen remains unique as she dazzled the public with her dare-devilry and audacious stunts without ever resorting to stuntmen. She whipped the bad guy, fenced with villains atop moving trains, swung precariously from chandeliers and did other such stunts with ease and grace. Hailing from Australia, Mary Evans  grew up in Mumbai and Peshawar and took on the name of Nadia and ended up giving a new and bold  image to the film heroine, the kind of which has never been emulated after her. For a foreigner who neither spoke our language nor fit into the usual stereotypical images Nadia’s success story remains remarkable.

Shanta Apte, Shobhna Samarth, Leela Chitnis, Kamini Kaushal and Nirupa Roy are actresses who started acting in 30’s and 40’s and continued acting for a long time.


Both the female singing stars of our industry –Noor Jehan and Suraiya started their careers as child artistes and owing to their golden voices were bestowed with the title of Mallika-e-Tarannum. While Noor Jehan shifted to Pakistan after partition, Suraiya remained here and went on to become the highest paid actress of her time. Their evergreen songs remain popular even today.

After independence, the films of late 40’s and 50’s veered towards social and realistic cinema and the industry witnessed the entry of the pioneers and some of the finest actresses of the Black & White era, viz., Nargis, Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Nutan, Geeta Bali, Nalini Jaywant, Nanda, Vyjayantimala, Waheeda Rehman and Mala Sinha. Their vivacity, simplicity, loveliness, stunning screen presence, extraordinarily natural acting and exquisite close-up shots lent an inimitable emotional colour to the black and white films. Some of the iconic roles etched out by these heroines in Awara, Amar, Mughal-e-Azam, Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, Parineeta, Nagin, Mother India, Pyaasa, etc. remain unmatched to this day.


While some started their journey as child artistes and went on to become great actresses like Nargis, Meena Kumari, Nanda, Madhubala, and Neetu Singh, some like Mumtaz started off in side roles and rose to fame through sheer hard work. Some met with success overnight and became stars with their debut film itself like Saira Banu , Sadhana, Sharmila Tagore, Asha Parekh, Waheeda Rehman, Jaya Bhaduri, Shabana Azmi, Dimple Kapadia, Preity Zinta,  Kareena Kapoor and Deepika Padukone.


Hindi cinema’s tryst with South-Indian actresses is incredible. They have not only reigned as superstars in different eras but given to Indian cinema the ‘dancing actress’. Their proficiency in classical dance always gave them a slight edge over their contemporaries. Vyjayantimala,  Waheeda Rehman,Hema Malini, Meenakshi Sheshadri, Sridevi, Jaya Prada, Rekha, Aishwarya Rai  and now Deepika Padukone are some of the superstars in this category.


Sharmila Tagore, Suchitra Sen, Raakhee, Jaya Bhaduri, Moushmi Chatterjee, Kajol, Rani Mukherjee, Konkana Sen, Bipasha Basu, etc., may not have been proficient in dancing skills but when it comes to histrionics, they remain unbeatable. Sharmila Tagore had the guts to don a bikini in An Evening in Paris after acting in  some serious Satyayajit Ray films, and the very next year play a mother to Rajesh Khanna as well as do the cult romantic number ‘Roop Tera Mastana…’ with him in Aaradhna. Jaya Bhaduri’s small size notwithstanding her powerhouse of talent commanded respect from every male actor of her time. Kajol and Rani remain peerless actresses of their age-group.


Shobhna Samarth, Lalita Pawar, Nutan, Tanuja, Smita Patil, Padmini Kolhapure and Madhuri Dixit are some of the priceless talents in this category and their contribution to the industry is tremendous.


Actresses like Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi ushered in the era of glamour, sensuality and complete westernization of the Hindi film heroine. In fact, many of the current lot of heroines – Katrina Kaif, Kareena Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra and Sonam Kapoor– have got hooked on to this image. The heroine of today is bold, sexy, extroverted and modern in her roles, her attitude as well as in the way she dresses and represents some of the changes seen in real society as well.


Many actresses have donned the roles of vamps with amazing sagacity. Without them the heroines would have never glowed in their virtuous avatar.

Lalita Pawar’s persona as the evil mother-in-law is legendary. Starting off as a heroine, an unforeseen tragic incident paralysed part of her left eye and face and she had the audacity to slip into character roles very early in her career which finally fetched her stardom.  Also commendable are the negative characters portrayed by Kuldip Kaur, Nigar Sultana, Nadira, Shyama, Bindu, Shashikala, Manorama, Achla Sachdev and Aruna Irani..

A special mention is necessary for Helen who remains the classiest, most dignified, sensuous and sensational dancing girl of the industry.


The current lot of Alia Bhatt, Parineeti Chopra and Kangna Ranaut are carrying this priceless legacy with their immense talent and doing us proud. In fact, in the last few years, the heroines have experimented and tackled a variety of characters in films like Queen, The Dirty Picture, Highway, English Vinglish, Kahaani, Mary Kom, Ram Leela, 2 States, Ishaqzaade, etc.

Thus the screen divas continue in their relentless pursuit to explore newer vistas and carve newer niches…



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