More often than not, the average female Bollywood lead is no more than a garnish, ornamental to begin with and then dissolving in patriarchal narratives.
Now and then however, comes a role that demands audiences take note of women being counted for something more than beautiful props: women of substance, unwilling to be submissive.
As International Women's Day is celebrated around the world, here's a list of female leads that broke the mould.
Mother India: This Mehboob Khan magnum-opus was actually a remake of his earlier 1940 film Aurat. Mother India was India’s official nomination at the Oscars and was socially relevant much ahead of its times. The plot revolves around Radha and her struggle to rise above her circumstances by the sheer strength of her willpower. The film made a powerful impact with its representation of post-independence India.
Bhoomika: This film, broadly based on the memoirs of the well-known Marathi stage and screen actress of the 1940s, Hansa Wadkar, tells the story of a Bollywood actress Usha and her journey to find self-fulfillment and identity. The film is a landmark with the way it traces the acting styles of three decades through Usha’s career in cinema. Smita Patil won her first National Award for the film.
Arth: This semi-autobiographical film is written by Mahesh Bhatt and is based on his extra-maritial relationship with Parveen Babi. Though the subject was not a new one, the triumph of the film lies in the portrayal of the complexities of relationships by Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil, arch rivals of the time. Gossip magazines were abuzz about their rivalry and whose performance was better in the film. Though both shone in their respective performances, it was Shabana Azmi’s role as a rejected wife trying to seek her own identity which stood out.
Mirch Masala: Ketan Mehta’s classic 1987 film ‘Mirch Masala’ is based in a village where the men decide that handing a woman over to her tormentor is the best solution and how women stand up against the mighty and defend their honour as well as that of the village.
Aandhi: Directed by Gulzar, this film was banned by Indira Gandhi during the infamous Emergencyas it was rumoured to be loosely based on her life. But Suchitra Sen's Indira Gandhi-sque pace (one hand on her saree pleats and another waving at the people), white hair-strands with oversized shades had too much in common with the Iron lady of India. Her stellar performance as Aarti Devi is undoubtedly her career best.
Aastha: The film exploring the subject of women’s sexuality outside marriage is deftly handled by Rekha. Her controversial role as a housewife moonlighting as a prostitute received commercial and critical acclaim.
Damini: Meenakshi Shehasri plays a woman married to a rich family who refuses to cover up the rape of her maid servant by her brother-in-law. The film is mostly remembered for Sunny Deol’s ‘dhai kilo ka haath’. Meenakshi’s performance as a woman seeking justice was memorable as well.
Astitva: A film about a woman’s search for her own identity and deals with sensitive subjects like adultery and male chauvinism.
Dirty Picture: Based on the life of the South Indian dancing diva and actress, Silk Smita's lustful life, 'The Dirty Picture' paints a concupiscent portrait, complete with bouncing love handles. The film received a resounding thumbs up from audiences and critics alike. And of course, Vidya Balan was stupendous in the lead role as the beautiful and flawed Silk.
Dor: The film is about two women who come from different backgrounds and how fate brings them together. A young woman who becomes a widow shortly after marriage, is trapped by tradition where as another faces the daunting task of saving the life of her husband. Gul Panag and Ayesha Takia were commendable in their respective performances.
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