BY ASHIMA SETHI
Looking for role models? Join Masalaas we round up Bollywood’s strongest female leads who will provide all the inspiration you need.
The first time I watched Charlie’s Angels (2000), I was blown away with the realisation that women could be action heroes who were equal to or more powerful than their male counterparts. Ever since then, I’ve seen the fabric of Hollywood films change, where women’s roles are becoming more dynamic, complex and important. This has yet to happen in Bollywood, where women are often sexualised and portrayed as inferior. However, despite feminist films still being somewhat rare, some of B-town’s films are centred on incredible women. Here are our favourites.
Nargis as Radha in Mother India (1957)
Mother India is recognised by many as one of Bollywood’s first women-centric films. The protagonist is a peasant woman named Radha (Nargis) who faces lots of adversity. She loses her husband, embarks on a mission to rescue kidnapped girls in her village, all while trying to give her children the best possible future. Radha makes endless sacrifices in the hope of social change, many of which are still relatable to modern audiences. As a result, her character is one that transcends time, making her deserving of a spot on this list.
The Four Leads in Lajja (2001)
Lajja follows four women, all named after Goddess Sita, and their battles against patriarchy, including Vaidehi (Manisha Koirala) who leaves her abusive husband despite the threat of being exiled by her family; Maithili (Mahima Chaudhary), who stands up to her would-be in-laws for demanding a ridiculous dowry; Ramdulaari (Rekha) who confronts village leaders about their exploitation of local women; and Janki (Madhuri Dixit Nene), a rebellious dancer committed to living life on her own terms by fighting against slut-shaming. Together, they become a force to be reckoned with, teaching us all valuable lessons along the way.
Vidya Balan as Vidya Venkatesan Bagchi in Kahaani (2012)
In the critically-acclaimed film Kahaani, Vidya Balan plays a heavily pregnant women who goes in search of her missing husband and soon becomes the target of his captors. Throughout the film, Vidya portrays the innocent and clueless wife avatar. However, it is soon revealed that she was actually the mastermind behind an elaborate plot to catch her husband’s killer. Her fighting-spirit and ability to outsmart the people around her nets her a spot on this list.
Sridevi as Shashi Godbole in English Vinglish (2012)
In one of her most memorable roles, Sridevi plays a homemaker named Shashi who enrolls in English classes to stop her husband and daughter from mocking her. In class, Shashi becomes an exemplary student, winning everyone over with her commitment, which leads to her demanding the respect she deserves at home. There’s a lot we love about this movie: it has a middle-aged woman at its heart, reiterating that despite age, women are always capable of achieving their goals on their own.
Rani Mukerji as Shivani Shivaji Roy in Mardaani (2014)
Rani Mukerji’s performance in Mardaani was a hit with audiences and critics who praised her gritty portrayal of a policewoman tackling the dark world of human trafficking. Rani’s honest portrayal of Shivani resonated with many because she is a woman in a male dominated field of work who is often dismissed, and yet, she rises to the challenge. We also appreciate that despite the heavy subject matter, the film aimed at encouraging women to speak up and fight against the injustices done to them.
Kangana Ranaut as Rani Mehra in Queen (2014)
In Queen, Kangana Ranaut is Rani, a jilted bride who embarks on her honeymoon alone with the hope of finding a new perspective about life. Her adventures lead her to several incredible people, including vivacious single mom Vijay Laxmi (Lisa Haydon), who helps Rani get her self-love back. Along with being relatable, Rani’s character doubles as a vehicle in which ‘taboo’ behaviours for Indian women become normalised, such as travelling alone, having friends of the opposite sex and rejecting the belief that a woman’s life is over if her marriage doesn’t succeed.
Priyanka Chopra Jonas as Mary Kom in Mary Kom (2014)
In this biopic about one of India’s most celebrated athletes, Priyanka Chopra Jonas plays Chungneijang Mary Kom Hmangete, a poor little girl growing up in Manipur, India, who has only one passion: boxing. She goes against her father’s wishes and stubbornly pursues her dreams, rising to success under her boxing name, Mary Kom. The film emotionally chronicles her journey and her relatable internal conflicts, particularly whether motherhood will deter her from her distinguished career.
Sonam Kapoor Ahuja as Neerja Bhanot in Neerja (2016)
Sonam Kapoor Ahuja received several accolades for her performance in Ram Madhvani’s biopic about Neerja Bhanot, a courageous air steward who saved the lives of 359 passengers on board a hijacked Pan Am Flight in Karachi, Pakistan on September 5th 1986. In addition to gripping scenes of heroism, Sonam’s bubbly depiction of Neerja in flashbacks reminded audiences that she was just an ordinary woman who, in light of a terrifying situation, put her fears aside to save the lives of others.
Alia Bhatt as Sehmat Khan in Raazi (2018)
Based on true events, Raazi takes place in 1971 when tensions between India and Pakistan were extremely high. Alia Bhatt’s character, Sehmat Khan, is a young Indian woman married to a highly ranked Pakistani army officer who is enlisted as a spy to find out information about Pakistan’s military plans. Female spies are rare in Hindi cinema and Alia’s performance honestly depicted her character’s difficulty juggling roles as dutiful daughter, perfect wife and agent for her country.
Shefali Shah as Vartika Chaturvedi in Delhi Crime (2019)
Netflix’s Delhi Crime, inspired by the fatal gang rape of a student aboard a bus in Delhi, follows a team of police offers assigned to bring the accused to justice. Based on IPS Chhaya Sharma, the real-life woman who successfully solved the 2012 Nirbhaya case, Shefali Shah gives an exceptional performance as Vartika Chaturvedi, a deputy commissioner who is shaken by the brutality of the incident but maintains her composure in the face of personal and professional obstacles. She leads her team with an iron fist and successfully puts the men behind bars.