Nutan in Bandini (1963)
Love, jealousy, redemption — Nutan plays a gamut of emotions in one of her finest performances in Bandini, Bimal Roy’s last film. Set in pre-Independent India, she brings depth and dignity to Kalyani, a spirited girl from a village who falls in love with a revolutionary, moves to the city and finds a job after he leaves, only to discover that the neurotic patient that she is attending to is her lover’s wife. From that moment of jealousy when she poisons her, to her redemption in prison, and finally in choosing her older love over the young prison doctor who proposes to her — Kalyani shows us a sacrifice that evokes no pity and gives us a film that moves us without becoming a tear-jerker.
Hema Malini in Seeta aur Geeta (1973)
Hema Malini brings a burst of freshness to her role as the feisty sister to her demure twin, Seeta, in this separated-at-birth, united-in-the end saga, where she plays a double role. While Seeta grows up with evil aunt, played by Manorama, Geeta is a street performer in a poor neighbourhood, until they swap places, courtesy a series of misunderstandings. As the bindaas Geeta sets about putting the house in order, she has the most unsanskari repartees for her aunt. In one scene, when she’s perched atop a fan and her aunt says, “Neeche aaja, beti”, she doesn’t hesitate to reply, “Upar aaja, moti”. That scene best encapsulates the easy exuberance and spunk that only Hema Malini could have brought.
Shabana Azmi in Arth (1982)
Any discussion of Arth probably needs to have this “disclaimer” — both Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil essayed their roles impeccably. Azmi’s character, Pooja, has a more holistic trajectory and she shines in her depiction of Pooja, an orphan who craves stability. Her husband gifts her a flat, but a happy home it is not to be when she discovers his affair with Kavita (Patil). From a docile housewife to a pleading, desperate woman trying to hold her marriage together, to a financially-independent woman who understands the necessity of letting go, Azmi beautifully unravels the bitter truth, the arth, of life and its non-relationships.
Rekha in Khoon Bhari Maang (1988)
Beware the wrath of a woman fed to a crocodile, who turns out to be the only true friend Rekha has in Khoon Bhari Maang (KBM) — because it only takes a small bite out of her face and doesn’t actually eat her for lunch. Just by selling a pair of solitaire diamond earrings, Rekha funds not only her flight to Switzerland but also her plastic surgery. That’s what you call a comeback, folks. In a way, KBM is the story of Rekha’s life. You can trick a woman into thinking she deserves little, and take advantage of her. But how can one ever win against Jyoti, a revengeful light so bright that her costumes pale in comparison? With eyeshadow and mascara so fierce, Rekha taught us what throwing shade is all about. Rekha cautions us to what happens when we don’t recognise our former friends, when they try on new clothes and makeup.
Sridevi in Chaalbaaz (1989)
“Naach gana mere bas ka nahi hai.” Oh Rajinikanth, if there was ever a time you were proven wrong, it was by Sridevi in Chaalbaaz. And not once, but do-do baar! Agar Manju is modern, toh Anju is taandav. Together, they are dynamite. Chaalbaaz is a great example of Sridevi’s prodigious talent — she took what Hema Malini did in the “lady-oriented” Seeta aur Geeta and made it her own. As Anju, she portrays vulnerability and grace, but let it not be mistaken for some sanskari nonsense. As Manju, she is a firecracker, with a comic timing that remains unparalleled to this day. She fights like a woman in a Rajinikanth and Sunny Deol world — with sarcastic wit, heels and, on one memorable occasion, a churi (bangle) and a chabuk (whip).
Konkona Sen Sharma in Mr & Mrs Iyer (2002)
Post Godhra, Aparna Sen’s brilliant Mr and Mrs Iyer was one of the first to tackle communalism with sensitivity and realism. In that endeavour, the film’s female lead, Konkona Sen Sharma’s character of Meenakshi Iyer deserves much credit. She, of the high caste Tamil-Iyer Brahmin family, has to travel on a bus with her child along with he, of the “other” community, Jehangir Raja Chowdhury (Rahul Bose). Meenakshi is afraid of polluting her beliefs: “Please don’t touch me,” she says after learning Raja’s real identity. But the same woman doesn’t think twice before introducing him as Mr Iyer when his life is under threat. Towards the end, she also introduces Raja to her husband as Jehangir. The transformation in the character is devoid of any contrivance and Sharma get its right — down to the Tamil-inflected twang of the English and the odd silent moment she shares with Jehangir before real life kicks in, every time.
Kangana Ranaut in Queen (2014)
Kangana Ranaut has several scene-stealing moments in Queen, but the one that really shows us what Rani Mehra is all about is when she is mugged in a dark and deserted lane in Paris. “Maine usko aisa sabak sikhaya hai, ki Dilliwalon ke saath woh panga nahi lega ab life mein kabhi,” she tearfully, but confidently, tells Vijayalakshmi (Lisa Haydon). She might as well have said these lines to Vijay (Rajkummar Rao), the fiancé who dumps her a day before their wedding. Nothing can get Rani down. Ranaut is pitch-perfect in her role as an inexperienced, naïve Delhi girl, who decides to go on her honeymoon alone and discovers herself. And even when the film becomes a United Colors of Benetton advertisement, Rani stays original and fresh.
Tabu in Haider (2014)
Bollywood often inflicts the well-meaning viewers with its convivial, yet forgettable, presence of mothers. They are either silent spectators in family crises, or loud, overbearing caricatures. Which is why Tabu in Haider, essaying the role of the emotionally complex Ghazala, reels us into her world, and jolts us out of our complacence. She is more than a concept — she is flesh and blood, malevolent and vulnerable in the same breath, tugging and shoving away those around her, all against the backdrop of the simmering insurgency in Kashmir. She is a mother, but she doesn’t put her own needs on the backburner. And, when the time comes, she shows that she is also capable of great sacrifices.
Richa Chaddha in Masaan (2015)
From the time she is caught in a hotel room with her boyfriend and he commits suicide, to overcoming every barrier that her small town throws at her, to getting out of home to start a new life, Richa Chaddha’s portrayal of a small-city girl in Masaan is overwhelming. She overcomes grief, prejudice and professional limitations with exceptional resilience, and embraces her past without shame or regret. It not only sets her free, but also makes her push her own boundaries. If feminism had an everyday face, one that emerges from small towns, riddled with narrow-mindedness and bigotry, it is Devi’s. Even the name is symbolic.
Alia Bhatt in Udta Punjab (2016) and Highway (2014)
A city-slick girl who transformed with the terrain she traverses through, bundled up in the truck of her kidnapper. A former hockey player from Bihar-turned-labourer in Punjab, trapped in the vortex of the drug trade. There are ways in which Alia Bhatt adds such depth and nuance to her characters in Highway and Udta Punjab, that we couldn’t choose one over the other. As a hostage in Highway, Veera Tripathi resists, breaks and, finally, finds herself. In Udta Punjab, she is young, vulnerable and just as resilient. We find ourselves sifting through the complex emotions of the young migrant forced into a cycle of sexual abuse and drugs. There’s a lesson in personal freedom in Bhatt’s portrayal of these two characters, who push against the wall with all that they have, even when it doesn’t budge. It also tell us that most damsels in distress are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves.