'Real' Women in Bollywood

Continuing a discussion on @genderlogindia after this post of mine, there was a discussion on the 'real women' in Bollywood - who seem to be in short supply. I immediately indulged in my favourite pastime - Bollywood research - and looked at the top 10 grossers for each year, going back about forty years. In about 400 films, I found about twenty films in which the lead actress was 'real' and yet a 'heroine'. That is to say, I did not consider Rohini Hattangadi in Saaransh or Rani Mukherji in Talaash. They were – of course – very real but not really heroines. I also avoided characters who were differently abled or suffering from a disease (Priyanka Chopra in Barfi, for example).
Then, I sat and cribbed about my favourite ‘real women’ who are from very successful films even though they are not among the top 10 blockbusters of a given year. To solve this dilemma, I fell back on the usual awards night trick. I created two lists – one popular and one critic’s choice.  
And here they come...

Popular Choice Real Women
Deepika Padukone (Love Aaj Kal) – She was indecisive. She was impulsive. She was career focused. She had a heart of gold. She was also selfish. She was completely real, except for her legs. They seemed to have come from some mythical land of milk and honey.  

Priyanka Chopra (Kaminey) – A gangster’s sister, she was the regular Maharashtrian girl with a silly name (Sweety) and a sillier boyfriend (Shahid Kapoor). She danced at her own wedding like a filmy heroine but her steps weren’t choreographed and had a charm of their own. She got her boyfriend to take condoms on an overnight trip but abandoned them when the going got too hot.

16 Heroines (Chak De India) – Hailing from different parts of India, these girls brought the smell of sweat and dirt with them. They wore no makeup. They got angry when their careers were ignored. They got determined when their honour was at stake. They were jealous, naughty, defiant, combative, strong-willed and – when you look carefully – breathtakingly beautiful.  

Aishwarya Rai (Guru) – The Gujarati village girl transformed with her husband. She was his business partner and calmly stepped forward to take responsibilities when a crisis arose. She was there at parties, shareholder meetings and courtrooms. She was his force whether he was out fighting corporate battles or medical ones. In other words, she was his Shakti.

Manisha Koirala (Company) – I haven’t seen a gangster’s moll. Then how do I know Manisha was realistic? I saw her as the busy boss’ wife in a corporate wife. She had nothing to do. She was bored. She was into mild substance abuse. And he suffered the minions politely and with a smile. She liked some of them and tried to patch up when differences arose but had to give up, since she was always on the periphery.

Preity Zinta (Dil Chahta Hai) – An orphan caught in a near-abusive relationship looked for companionship and found a cocky lout instead. But she didn’t let his smart-alecky burst her dreamy notions of romantic love nor did she lose her dignity with her boorish boyfriend. She handled both relationships maturely – like real women do.

Juhi Chawla (Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak) – In an unreal world of death before dishonour, she was the breath of fresh air. She was a college girl who went on picnics, got lost in forests while trekking, took pictures of handsome strangers and was bashfully forthright about her feelings for handsome strangers.

Shabana Azmi (Arth) – She left her adulterous husband and forged an identity of her own. She struggled to find a job. She found love but was unsure about it. She supported her maid’s daughter’s education. In short, she was the woman next door till her husband wanted to come back to her. Would you have taken me back if I had done the same thing, she asked. And gently shut the door in his face.

Raakhee (Trishul) – Her boss’ son called her ‘computer’. In the 1970s, a computer was a machine “jo har sawaal ka sahi jawaab deti hai”. She was a no-nonsense working woman, who was honest and hardworking. She even remembered cement quotas from long-forgotten files and never complained about working hours.  

Parveen Babi (Deewaar) – She was the first Hindi film prostitute who did not sell her body for her mother’s medicine or her brother’s education. She was a victim of circumstances but she did not let it show. She wanted to get married and settle down but she did not impose that wish on the man she loved. She solicited customers in high-end bars but she fell in love with a stranger.

Critic’s Choice Real Women
Vidya Sinha (Chhoti Si Baat, Rajanigandha) – The working woman getting wooed by colleagues or co-passengers on bus stops and Samovar restaurant must have been quite common in 1970s Bombay. What’s so heroic about her? Her boyfriends were the ones jumping through the hoops. Yaar, kuch to baat hogi ki ladkon ko itna paagal kar de!

Urmila Matondkar (Ek Hasina Thi) – She was a regular girl working at a travel agency when a smooth charmer walked in and shattered her life. Her gullibility was ruthlessly exposed but she made an even more ruthless plan for retribution and got her vengeance. And not for a second did she look anything but the girl next door.  

Chitrangada Singh (Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi) – The whole world and their cousins fell in love with Geeta. She was in love with a Naxal sympathiser. She married an IAS officer. She was wooed by a wheeler-dealer. Eventually, she did something nobody expected her to do. And you fell in love with her, her casual top knot, her wistful eyes, her handloom saree.  

Konkona Sen Sharma (Wake Up Sid) – She did not like jazz and said so without any pretensions. She wanted to write but was willing to bide her time. She was wary of spoilt brats but was loyal to them if they became friends. She was talented but slightly embarrassed to make that claim. She was new to a city and fell slowly - but surely - in with it and its people.     

Anushka Sharma (Band Baajaa Baraat) – Even before she graduated, she had a business plan. She knew where she would get trained. She knew how to keep business and personal relations separate. She knew what to spend and what to invest. And she knew she was not about to marry just yet. She was your regular Janakpuri girl, just the right mix of silk and steel.

Yami Gautam (Vicky Donor) – She started off superbly as the Bengali bank manager having to suffer the Punjabi alpha male. She ended brilliantly as the young wife coming to terms with her inability to conceive. You could say she was yummy and a mummy.

Vidya Balan (Kahaani) – A pregnant woman looking for her husband in a city about to celebrate its most boisterous, crowded festival. A wife totally in love with her husband whom nobody has seen. A patriot who was willing to take on corrupt officials and homicidal insurance agents. Vidya Bagchi, you sexy thing.

The Critic’s list is shorter because three entries got consumed in the Popular list.
By all accounts, Shudh Desi Romance looks like the film that will contribute an entry or two to either of these two lists. Will update after I watch it. 


Unknown said…
I liked Rani Mukherjee in Hum Tum, Preeti Zinta in Kya Kehana both with No guilt or regrets after pre marital a sex with a creep played by Said.
Parama Ghosh said…
Loved the post. totally agree with all of them....except your expectations from Shudh Desi Romance. The film as a whole is very unreal and unconvincing.
Parama Ghosh said…
BTW, I loved Rani Mukherjee in Saathiya. She too, I think was very real.