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The Decline of the Bollywood Heroine


By Kouser Fathima

Bollywood heroines have always been synonyms with grace, beauty, and talent but sadly now the role of heroine is reduced to that of song and dance appearances. In spite of all the talk of female empowerment, very few heroine-centric movies are made. The role of Bollywood heroine has regressed.

Although the first Indian movie, Raja Harishchandra, had a male actor essaying the role of the female protagonist, the coming years saw the emergence of many talented heroines.  Although movies like Kagaz Ke Phool, Anari, Sangam, Jewel Thief, and Khilona had a strong male lead, the heroines had important roles in the movies. With time and due to the adaptation of various classics into movies, the role of heroine became longer and more nuanced. In the adaptation of Devdas, both the female protagonists, Paro and Chandramukhi, had complex roles, beautifully performed by Suchitra Sen and Vyjyanthimala. The characters were strong, witty, and independent in their own way.

Be it Nargis in Mother India, Meena kumari in Saheb Biwi aur Ghulam, Nutan in Bandini and Sujata, these characters had a strong persona and individuality. In Mother India, Nargis plays the role of a villager, whose husband dies, leaving her with small children and a debt to be repaid. In Saheb Biwi aur Ghulam, Meena Kumari plays the role of a rich zamindar’s wife, who takes to alcohol after being neglected by her husband. She starts enjoying the company of the simple and naïve neighbour, Bhootnath. Heartbroken and lonely, she ultimately dies. Bandini had Nutan playing a jail inmate with a past she had no control over but is remorseful. Life gives her a second chance, when the prison doctor proposes to marry her but destiny has other plans. Their characterisation was so strong that they overshadowed the male leads. Even in movies like Mughal-e-Azam, with two highly acclaimed male actors, Madhubala as Anarkali stood out.

In the late sixties and seventies, we saw the emergence of romantic sagas, which had interesting roles for the leading ladies such as Sharmila Tagore, Asha Parekh, Sadhna, etc. Many movies addressed issues like extramarital affairs, pre-marital pregnancies, and single motherhood with great aplomb. Sharmila Tagore in Aradhna, Hema Malini in Andaaz, Shabana Azmi in Masoom essayed these roles perfectly without any over the top theatrics. Aradhana, a love story of an army officer, had a meaningful role for the leading lady. In Andaz, Hema Malini played a young widowed mother.

The eighties saw the emergence of Art or Parallel Cinema filmmakers from the film institute, who started experimenting and challenging the stereotypes. Simple and realistic films with bold messages were made: Masoom, Sparsh, Mirch Masala, Aakrosh, etc. This school of filmmaking gave the film industry two very talented actresses, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil. Both had a strong body language and could carry any role, including the non-glamorous ones, with great ease.

Interestingly, these heroines had a long career span and they continued to be part of many good projects, even after their marriage. They were signed and cast against leading male heroes. Nutan, Nargis, Sharmila Tagore, Mumtaz, and Hema Malini had very successful careers even after marriage and kids.

Compare the scenario to the present-day status of Bollywood heroines and the changes in their roles. Most heroines have a role so small that if you blink you miss them. For example, Kareena Kapoor in Ra One and Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Priyanka Chopra in Agneepath and Krish, Deepika Padukone in Happy New Year. Yes, we do have talented actors such as Priyanka Chopra, Tabu, Vidya Balan, Deepika Padukone, and Queen Kangana, who have done fantastic women-centric movies. But most of them have not been able to repeat the magic after one or two movies. The shortage of good women-centric scripts and the unwillingness of makers to make heroine-oriented movies are clearly visible. Add to this, the hesitation of male leads to cast these heroines in their movies. When some of the prominent heroines are cast against the superstars, their roles are insignificant, only reduced to the song and dance routine.

The career span of most present-day heroines is limited. Madhuri Dixit, who had one of the most successful and longest careers before marriage, couldn’t recreate the same magic after her wedding. She had acted with almost all big male stars, ranging from Anil Kapoor to the Khans and Kumars of the industry. Ironically when she came back, none of her old co-stars cast her as heroine in their movies. Other married heroines, who tried to make a comeback, also received a poor response. Even the much younger beauty queen, Aishwarya, is still struggling to regain her position and to be cast opposite the superstars. After her fantastic performance in Chameli, Kareena Kapoor has not dared to take up similar challenging roles and is content doing item numbers in blockbusters.

The saree-clad docile girls of yesteryears were stronger and more individualistic than the present day heroines. There is a need to write strong author-backed roles for the Bollywood heroines before she is completely lost in the frenzy of male-dominated blockbusters. Currently, one of the most successful male stars, Salman Khan’s movies have very little role for the heroine, be it Sonakshi in Dabang or Kareena in Bajrangi Bhaijaan. The roles of these heroines are restricted to few dialogues and songs.

This trend is surprising, given the fact that women in real life are more independent, confident, and more active in many fields these days. Homemakers to working women are trying to be seen and heard, in contrast to the Bollywood heroine, who is reduced to being an arm-candy to the male superstar. Bollywood economics, film makers, and the entry of corporate money into the industry have changed the dynamics of Bollywood. Huge profits made by male stars have made the industry profit-driven, with only few genuine filmmakers working for the real love of filmmaking.

Dr. Kouser Fathima is a Bangalore-based dentist who writes on issues concerning women, especially Muslim women. Email: Twitter: @drkf_18


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2 Responses to “The Decline of the Bollywood Heroine”

  1. women in bollywood blog

    Interesting piece but would partially disagree. Yes the superstar vehicles have regularly very fluff roles for women but even then Anushka in P.K. and Sultan, or Deepika in Chennai Express, or Kajol in Dilwale are important parts of the movie. But Bollywood isn’t just the Khan movies – its also “Queen”, “Piku” and “Neerja” – three massive hits of the last 3 years with female leads. I’ll be writing about this on my new blog – if you care to check it out, I’m still looking for suggestions of what to discuss first. My very first piece is on the biggest female-oriented hit this year – namely, “Neerja”.


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