I have long wanted to make a list of my favourite actors and actresses, both in Hindi cinema and from Hollywood, but I put the idea on the backburner. Until recently, when Ava, over at The Pink Beedecided to do a list of her friends’ favourite heroines with a decided twist – she mentioned their career arc, some of their more important roles, and then picked a song that she liked about each of them. Since I’ve only one working brain cell at the best of times, and am now brain-dead following recent tumultuous events here in my adopted land, I decided I needed some candyfloss to clear my brain. So I decided – unashamedly – to poach Ava’s idea. (I did ask – and get – permission, however.)
Here is the first list. My favourite heroines from the 40s to the 70s. Be warned that it's a very subjective one. These are actresses I like for various reasons; some are incredibly beautiful, some are immensely talented, some are fortunate to be both. I like them all, and am grateful to them for having filled many hundreds of leisure hours with their charm, grace, beauty and craft.
So. To you, ladies: Salut! For brightening up my dreary days, for drawing me deeper into the characters you portrayed, for showing me the complexity of emotions with all their inherent contradictions, for being the perfect escape valve and allowing me to lose myself for a few hours at a time, I'm eternally grateful. You may have aged in real life, or are no more, but you will live on in our consciousness, captured forever on celluloid, reigniting the memory of watching you in dark theatres, dust motes flying around in the light of the projectors – even while we watch old favourites again and again on TVs or laptop screens in the comfort of our home.
To all you fine ladies, and to those who went before you or who came after, thank you!
Debut: C.I.D (1956)
Forever enshrined as: 'Chaudhvin ka Chand'
Memorable roles: Pyaasa, Khamoshi, Guide, Kagaz ke Phool, Teesri Kasam, Reshma aur Shera
My favourite role: Alka in Kala Bazar
Having made her debut in a couple of singing-dancing roles down South where she was based, Waheeda Rehman was 'discovered' by Guru Dutt and signed as the second lead/vamp in his protégé's film. Simultaneously, he also signed her as the second lead in a film that he was making: Pyaasa. Two diverse roles, and an instinctive mastery over the craft of acting meant that this self-assured, self-respecting young woman had her feet placed firmly on the staircase to success. Her incredible beauty, her unmistakeable talent and her extraordinary dancing skills meant that she was destined to carve out her own niche in the world of films. She was also one of the few actresses who aged gracefully, and lived her life quietly and happily away from the limelight.
Why I like Alka: It is very rarely that you find a female (or male) character who is so self-aware, and so forthright about her likes and desires. She is ready and able to shape her own destiny, and is very frank about not being a doormat who will suffer every vicissitude of fate. Her uncompromising morality is infused with a gentleness that makes it palatable (not self-righteous).
The song: While there are many, many songs picturised on Waheeda that I love, and indeed, I can think of no better song that brings her to mind than Chaudhvin ka chand ho, it is sung to her; of the songs that she sings on screen, this is the one that I like very much indeed: Raat bhi hain kuch bheegi bheegi from Mujhe Jeene Do.
Debut: Nagina (1951)
Forever enshrined as:
Memorable roles: Bandini, Seema, Sujata, Sone ki Chidiyan
My favourite role: Sujata in Sujata
Nutan was born to be an actress. A powerhouse performer, she imbued even the most pedestrian of roles with a whiff of grace and charm. Having made her debut on the silver screen as her mother's daughter in Hamari Beti, the next year saw her become a full-fledged heroine – both Nagina and Humlog released in 1951. She certainly didn't set the screen on fire – the actress who Gautam Rajadhyaksha idolised as 'having no bad angles', was dismissed as a skinny ugly duckling. Her mother promptly send her off to a finishing school in Switzerland for a year. When she returned, it was once again to a handful of mediocre roles until Seema came her way in 1955. That was her breakthrough movie, and Nutan sank her teeth into the role of Gauri, a young woman sent to a delinquent home where, met with unconditional love and acceptance, she is forced her to realise that an uncomplicated friendship and a selfless love are hers for the taking – if she will only accept them. Many of Nutan's songs are either sung to her (Jalte hain jiske liye) or in the background (O re maajhi).
Why I like Sujata: She's unfailingly cheerful, but cannot hide her hurt at being rejected time and again. She doesn't suffer in silence either; she actually makes a push to find out why she's being treated differently. Her affection for her younger sister, her love and respect for the only parents she knows, her burgeoning love for a young man who is her sister's husband-to-be (though the sister doesn't care), they were all brought to life by an actress who lived that character on screen.
The song: Of the songs that she has lip-synced on screen, the one that I really like is Kali ghata chhaaye from Sujata. A young woman, brought up to be 'beti jaisi' ('just like a daughter, only not quite), in the home of an upper-caste engineer, is faced with little slights daily from the 'mother' she loves so dearly. Her mother is not unkind, not deliberately, but her prejudices about caste don't allow her to see Sujata as a living, breathing human being with desires and longing of her own. Here, Sujata is coming alive to hitherto unknown desires.
Career: 1939 - 1972
Debut: Bachchon ka Khel (1946)
Forever enshrined as: 'Chhoti Bahu'
My favourite role: Chhoti Bahu in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam
She's forever fated to be the tragedy queen, kohl-rimmed eyes brimming over with unshed tears; reel mimicked real, or vice versa, and an image was built up, carefully burnished and eventually died for – it was the ultimate sacrifice. Yet, she was one of the finest actresses of her time; very subjectively indeed, the finest actress of her time, her range transcending white saris, bharatiya nari roles, and glycerine. She was one of the few actresses of the time whose films were powered by her screen presence. She had very few roles with the ruling troika – Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand, preferring to star opposite Ashok Kumar, Pradeep Kumar and Bharat Bhushan. She had impeccable comic timing (witness her in Azaad, Kohinoor and Miss Mary, for instance) and was remarkable as a dramatic actress, subtly underplaying her role, modulating her lovely voice so it expressed so much with seemingly little effort. (She made history in 1963 by winning all the Filmfare nominations for 1962 Best Actress, winning for Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. She was essentially, throughout her career, competing against herself.)
Why I love Chhoti Bahu: She's a complex character; traditional to the core, losing herself within the four walls of her marital home, yet wanting more, wanting to be her husband's lover as well as his wife, wanting his presence in her life, and willing to fight for his company, to claw her desired future out of her bleak present. Even if it means destroying herself.
The song: While she immortalised Chhoti Bahu and Sahibjaan on screen, giving voice to their loneliness and despair, one of my favourite songs picturised on her has to be Ajeeb dastan hai yeh from Dil Apna aur Preet Parayi. From a film that was unexpectedly not weepy given the theme of self-sacrifice, this song is a perennial favourite. I love everything about it – the lyrics, the music, the rendition and the picturisation. Having lost the man she loved, and who loved her, Karuna is forced to continue to work with him as if nothing had occurred between them. She's stoic, her expression and voice only giving her away to her best friend, as she wishes her beloved a long and happy life – with someone else.
Debut: Neel Kamal (1947)
Forever enshrined as: 'Anarkali'
My favourite role: Asha in Kala Pani
Long before Madhuri Dixit enchanted viewers with her million-dollar smile, Madhubala lit up the screen with her effervescent charm and that thousand-watt smile. Pitted against a veritable constellation of worthy contemporaries, Madhubala not only carved out a niche for herself but consolidated her position as one of the leading lights of the silver screen. Her undeniable beauty perhaps blinded people to the talent that lay beneath, but she had an extraordinary comic timing, and even when she was not laughing or smiling, she looked like the laughter was but a smile's breadth away from spilling over. She had some path-breaking films, and some spectacularly successful ones, but could never capitalise on either, partly due to her own ill health, and partly due to the stranglehold her father had on her career decisions.
Why I love Asha: Asha is intelligent and resourceful. Like many Nav Ketan heroines, she is more than an appendage to highlight her hero's manliness. She knows what she wants, and she knows how to get it. She's a working woman, and when she's asked to hide the truth, she has the courage to do the right thing, even if it means she's in danger. It's always refreshing to see a heroine who, when she thinks her lover has been unfaithful, actually asks him about it and believes him when he explains.
The song: Her role in Mughal-e-Azam was certainly the high point of a very successful career, and there's one song from it that never fails to move me: Humein kaash tumse muhobbat na hoti... Given that Dilip Kumar and she shot the move without speaking to each other, the song is especially poignant.
Debut: Taqdeer (1943)
Forever enshrined as: 'Mother India'
My favourite role: Rita in Awara
There's something about Nargis that appeals to me. I don't usually mention her name when I'm talking about my 'favourite actresses', restricting myself often to Meena Kumari, Nutan and Waheeda Rehman, but I have equally often been surprised (pleasantly) by how enthralled I am watching Nargis on screen. She has a gamin charm that transcends the fourth wall, making you believe she's speaking to you, and is so natural that the encomiums bestowed upon her seem to fall short of her undoubtable talent. From all her roles, and there have been many that have appealed to me – the staunchly principled Vidya of Shree 420, the conflicted Nimmi from Aag, the forthright Rita from Awara, Nina, the innocent victim in Andaz, Varuna and her dual-personality in Raat aur Din, the twin sisters of Anhonee... A fine dramatic actress, she showed off her talent for comedy in Chori Chori, where she played Kammo, a runaway heiress who discovers a little too late that she's not actually in love with the man she had run away to marry. Ironically, this would be the last film she would do with the man she loved, lending an unintended irony to Jo din ke ujaale mein na mila dil doondhe aise sapnon ko, Iss raat ki jagmag mein doobi main doondh rahi hoon apne ko... and Chaand ki behki nazar keh rahi hai pyaar kar zindagi hai ik safar kaun jaane kal kidhar....
Why I like Rita: She's truly a modern woman – educated and working (she's a lawyer). In love with a man from the wrong side of the tracks (a fact she only learns later), she is willing to stand up to her foster father for his sake, even as she offers her beloved a chance at redemption. Later, faced with the fact that he might go to prison, she pits herself against a far-more accomplished adversary – and wins.
The song: But the song that will forever remind me of her, of an untrammelled itch to be free of life's trappings, of luxuriating in that freedom once she attained it is Panchhi banoon udti phiroon from Chori Chori. I think it comes closest to who she really was – a woman who yearned to be totally, completely free.
Debut: Bahaar (1951)
Forever enshrined as: 'Chandramukhi'
My favourite role: Janaki in New Delhi
Vyjayanthimala was barely 18 when she signed her first Hindi film, a remake of her debut film, Vaazhkai. Nagin (1954) was her breakthrough film: people mention watching the film just for her dances. Soon, her impeccable diction, her dedication and hard work, coupled with her fabulous dancing skills saw her catapult to the top of the league. It was Devdas (1955) that saw her being recognised as a serious actress; she narrates how Bimal Roy was almost dissuaded from signing her, but she was thrilled to be offered a role that would also channel her acting ability. Her instinct was right; the role of Chandramukhi gave her her first Filmfare award, one that she scorned because it was for 'Best Supporting Actress'. While the next couple of years consolidated her position at the box-office, it was 1958 that gave her Sadhna and Madhumati – two of her best known critically acclaimed and commercially successful roles. Ganga Jumna would prove the apex of a long and successful career, but the failure of Amrapali, a film into which she put her heart and soul, caused her to lose interest in her career.
Why I like Janaki: I have always liked Vyjayanthimala, but it was while watching her play Janaki in New Delhi, a not-as-well-known film opposite Kishore Kumar that I realised how subtly she underplayed her character, and how appealing she made her Janaki – she's a very self-assured young woman with the courage of her convictions, and the willingness to fight for her principles. She's a sensible woman, who not only listens to her confused lover, but is willing to accept why he did what he did.
The song: Of course, the song that comes to mind when I think of her is from another film altogether: Chhad gaya paapi bichhua from Madhumati, where she dances up a storm, enacting the story of a woman stung by a scorpion. She plays the eponymous character as well as her doppelganger, Radha, and her reincarnation, Madhu. As the hill maiden who is molested and killed and whose soul thirsts for revenge, Vyjayanthimala made use of both her excellent dancing skills and her acting ability.
Debut: Love in Simla (1960)
My favourite role: Kavita in Prem Patra
After making a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance as a back-up dancer in Mud mudke na dekh (Shree 420), Sadhana enrolled in Filmalaya's acting school from where she was launched alongside Shashadhar Mukherji's son, Joy. Alongside, she was also working in Parakh, where she played a simple village girl. It was interesting to see the contrast. The audiences loved her – her gamin charm, her slim beauty and her voice modulation all made her the darling of the masses, and lyricists wrote odes to her beauty. An underrated actress, Sadhana was a natural in front of the camera. With an innate sense of style, she could as easily slip into character as the glamorous Meena as she could into the traditional Husna or the simple Rani/Renu/Kavita/Seema from various films.
Why I like Kavita: I have liked Sadhana in almost all the films of hers that I have watched, but Kavita remains with me. She's a very strong character, a young girl whose one misstep leads to a fellow student being unjustly suspended from college. Sadhana does a good job of bringing out Kavita's guilt, her nascent attraction towards the young man who now hates her, her initial reluctance to write to him but her happiness at receiving his reply, her genuine affection and love for him, and her distress at having to deal with the fact that he thinks she is another woman altogether.
The song: There have been many songs picturised on Sadhana, but the one that is a perennial favourite is O sajna barkha bahaar aayi from Parakh. The cheery pitter-patter of the rain, the quiet enchantment of love – the music, the lyrics, the singing, the picturisation where a very young and very pretty Sadhana, in love with the village school master, is enjoying the rains, its music echoing the beats of her heart – it never ceases to make me smile.
Debut: Kashmir ki Kali (1964)
Forever enshrined as: 'Kashmir ki Kali'
Memorable roles: Amar Prem, Aradhana, Mausam, Anupama, Namkeen, Satyakam
My favourite role: Sulekha in Chupke Chupke
Sharmila Tagore was probably the first of 'crossover' actresses who straddled the divide between mainstream glamorous roles and serious 'art' cinema. She was, after all, a Satyajit Ray discovery, having acted in two of the Master's films before making her debut in a fluffy good-looking movie with a handful of gorgeous songs, a handsome hero and nothing much to do. She was also extremely unconventional, doing things a 'heroine' would not dream of doing: for one, she was an extremely intelligent, articulate woman and had very strong opinions on what she wanted to do. From nearly running away after Kashmir ki Kali to hanging on to her bouffant in the face of Hrishikesh Mukherjee's disapproval (a decision she says she regrets) to repackaging herself into a glamourous avatar in An Evening in Paris and appearing in a bikini on the cover of Filmfare, to leaving at the heights of her career to marry Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, only to return to flash her dimples for Aradhana, then leaving again to have her son, only to come right back and show off both her tiny waist and her histrionic abilities in a variety of roles, Sharmila rewrote the rules of Hindi filmdom.
Why I like Sulekha: She was an immensely relatable character. A young woman who hero-worships her brother-in-law to an extent that her newly-wedded husband begins to feel a bit insecure. So he sets out to fool the 'jijjaji', and Sulekha agrees to help though she is sure of her jijaji's prescipience. But she also cannot help feeling rather happy that her husband is getting the better of the whole escapade, and she takes an unholy pleasure in helping him make a fool of her brother-in-law. It was Sharmila's first full-length comedy and she seemed to be having fun.
The song: Like Sadhana before her, Sharmila was fortunate to work in films which had wonderful songs. From the many songs that I love, the one song that immediately comes to mind when I think of Sharmila is Raina beeti jaaye from Amar Prem.
Debut: Faulad (1963)
Memorable roles: Khilona, Aap ki Kasam, Roti, Tere Mere Sapne
My favourite role: Nisha in Tere Mere Sapne
From a child actor to playing side roles to playing heroine in B-grade films before moving to second leads/vamps in A-list films, Mumtaz had a long, hard journey before she achieved success. While she always credited Dara Singh for making her a heroine (the duo acted in a number of films together), it was Raj Khosla who gave her her big break in Do Raaste, as a regulation 'heroine' opposite Rajesh Khanna. It was a short role but she had four songs picturised on her. Soon, she would be catapulted to being Sharmila Tagore's competition, given that both of them starred in a number of films opposite the superstar. Mumtaz was not conventionally beautiful, but she had oomph. Funnily enough for a woman who looked like a little girl for most of her early career, with her snub nose and bright eyes, Mumtaz transitioned successfully into being the glamour puss, her joie de vivre and a smile that lit up her eyes making her absolutely sparkle on screen. Then, she proceeded, through a series of movies, to show the industry that she also had talent. Films like Khilona, Tere Mere Sapne, and Aap ki Kasam were the highpoints of a career cut short by her marriage.
Why I like Nisha: She is principled and compassionate. She's the voice of his conscience, and is strong enough to leave him when his principles are compromised. It was a bravura performance.
The Song: While there's one song from Aap ki Kasam that I absolutely adore, it is this song that I most remember Mumtaz by, from long before she became a heroine in her own right – Ye hain reshmi zulfein from Mere Sanam. She married innocence with sensuousness as she played her lover's game for him, setting out to seduce the hero so her paramour can take incriminating pictures of them.
Debut: Sapnon ka Saudagar (1968)
Forever enshrined as: 'Basanti'
Memorable roles: Sholay, Seeta aur Geeta, Lal Patthar, Abhinetri, Andaz, Khushboo
My favourite role: Geeta in Seeta aur Geeta
Initially rejected for being 'too thin', Hema Malini got her first break as a heroine opposite Raj Kapoor. This was the beginning of the 'Dream Girl' tag; even though she was never taken seriously as a credible 'actress', Hema would go on to rule the roost for the next couple of decades, playing the romantic lead in more than a hundred films. Along the way, she had her share of good roles - Seeta aur Geeta, Sholay, Lal Patthar, Razia Sultana, Andaz, Rihaaee, Khushboo, Kinara, Andaz, Abhinetri, Ek Chhaddar Maili Si, etc. Like Sharmila before her, Hema lived life by her rules, marrying an already-married Dharmendra at the height of her career. However, she lived her life with dignity, and returned to the arc lights as she continued to pile up hit after hit, and proving to be a box-office force to be reckoned with. Like with Sadhana and Sharmila Tagore, Hema is a joy to watch on screen, filling it with a charisma that is incredibly attractive.
Why I like Geeta: She's spunky and bold and lives life on her terms. She has no issues telling Raka off when he trails after her like a lovesick puppy, and is more than capable of taking care of herself. She is also loving and compassionate, and despite learning that her 'mother' is not her birth mother after all, but has abducted her, separating her from her twin sister, there's a strong sense of affection and loyalty that keeps her from rejecting her foster mother. She's an incredible character, and Hema lived the role.
The song: Ae dil-e-nadaan from Razia Sultan. Hema looked beautiful (when did she not?) and fit the role to a T (the same could not be said for Dharmendra's Yaqub), and the music by Khayyam was a treat. This song, with its silences, echoes the longing of a woman who would like to forget, at least for some time, that she is queen.
Debut: Guddi (1971)
Forever enshrined as: 'Guddi'
Memorable roles: Guddi, Anamika, Mili, Parichay, Shor, Koshish, Abhimaan, Upahaar, Hazaar Chaurasi ki Maa
My favourite role: Anamika/Kanchan/Archana in Anamika
She came in like a breath of fresh air. A diminutive bundle of talent (she's a gold medallist from FTII), Jaya Bhaduri has been uncompromising in her choice of roles, and in conducting her life and career. In a short first phase of her career, she endeared herself to audiences with her unaffected performances, her full-throated laughter, and an innate ability to become her character. Frank and outspoken, Jaya achieved a stature as an actress par excellence before giving it all up to take care of her family, citing her changing priorities and a lack of interesting roles as the reason behind her decision. She has since returned to acting, choosing to work in a few movies, some of which (Love Song, Hazaar Chaurasi ki Maa, Meherjaan) have given her interesting characters to play on screen.
Why I love Anamika: She's an interesting multi-dimensional character, so full of mystery and intrigue, innocence and guile. There's a roguish delight in Jaya's twinkling eyes and million-watt smile, as she plays damsel in distress and flirtatious wife; she is both a young woman who grasps at what life offers her, and one who offers her truth without a word of explanation.
The song: The first song that comes to mind when I think of Jaya Bhaduri is the irritating Maina kaha phoolon se, but there's this song which I think is so reflective of Jaya's personal philosophy; at least, she lives her life that way. The song is Raaton ke saaye ghane from Annadata. Bearing life's travails on her frail shoulders, Aarti is relatively cheerful during the day. At some point, however, she feels the burden weigh heavily upon her. Yet, even in that moment of despair, there is hope, there is strength, there is confidence.
Debut: Sawan Bhadon (1970)
Forever enshrined as: 'Zohrabai'
My favourite role: Sudha in Ijaazat
'To know her is to be seduced by life.' That's some encomium, and it came from none other than Shyam Benegal. Rekha has a Garbo-esque mystique about her, something that she has carefully cultivated. She is mysterious, enigmatic, charismatic. She's also child-like, curious, imaginative and optimistic. Above all, she's truly one of the last great stars. Having begun life as a child actor to stoke the home fires, young Bhanurekha Ganesan made her debut in Hindi at the tender age of 14 in a film called Anjana Safar (1969) [it ran into problems with the censor board, and was released a decade later]; her first released film, however, was Sawan Bhadon opposite Navin Nischol. Criticised for her weight, her complexion, her dress sense, the young lass took it to heart and underwent a metamorphosis; it was the classic ugly duckling turning into a swan story. En route, she also learnt discipline and professionalism, and began to exhibit a serious talent underneath the war paint. (It's ironical that a lifelong affair with the mirror also coincided with some of her best work as an actress.) A film with Hrishikesh Mukherjee (Khubsoorat) established her as an actress with a flair for comedy. Films like Ghar and Ijaazat consolidated her acting chops. But it is as the doomed-in-love-courtesan that Rekha shaped her image; a slew of films, some downright weird, some crazily successful mainstream cinema, some 'art house' cinema, all furthered the image of doomed love; once again, Rekha cleverly stoked the rumours, with cryptic utterances and oblique references.
Why I like Sudha: She's grounded, mature, independent, and very strong. She loves her husband, and even though she's possessive about him, it's only when he ignores a stated wish that she takes a decision with serious ramifications. She was an unusual character, a complex combination of traditional and modern, and Rekha played her with a vulnerability that made her easy to relate to. She is a working woman, stays alone, and feels herself responsible for her mother's happiness. It was a stunning portrayal, and one that is very close to my heart.
The song: What can I say? So many beautiful numbers picturised on her, beginning with the iconic Salaam-e-ishq, yet the one that I cherish the most is Ye kya jagah hai doston. In this tragic tale of a young girl abducted and forced to become a courtesan, Rekha lived the eponymous role, learning Urdu, modulating her lovely voice and allowing her eyes to do the talking for her. The disillusionment is never more apparent than in this song, in the town of her birth; outside, awaiting her is a surprise reunion, and another separation. Lovely!
So, these dozen heroines are my picks. Who are your favourites? And what roles do you remember them for? What songs picturised on them do you like? Please add them to the comments.
*For purposes of this post, the date of debut refers to their debut in Hindi films, and in full-fledged heroine roles.