10 Bollywood Movies That Salute Badass Women
Once upon a time, we had heroines and vamps in Bollywood, and the twain did not meet. Women were primarily delineated in black and white, in the extremities of virgin and whore, and even when the wild girl was tamed, as in Purab aur Paschim for example, she would embody her metamorphosis into the good girl trope by switching her wardrobe contents from slinky gowns and mini skirts to maa-approved salwar kameezes and sarees.
But even then, there were female protagonists who bent the norm, pushed the envelope, and defied the notions of the traditional ‘heroine’ as one who was, at best, an adjunct to the male protagonist who more often than not was the pivot of the narrative.
And now, in the context of contemporary popular Hindi cinema, female protagonists who defy gender stereotypes openly, or subvert them to create narratives that are intriguing and which depart from the pale are no longer the rare bird making their occasional presence felt in an ornamental cinematic topiary replete with alpha males. Here, then, are some of my favourite women protagonists in Hindi cinema, past and contemporary, who make one reassess the cliché of the ‘heroine.’
1. Mother India: The protagonist, Radha, played by Nargis, became the emblem of the newly independent India. Struggling to raise her children in the face of abject poverty and desertion by her husband, she does not hesitate a moment before shooting her vagrant son to death. The stoicism implicit in the character, and of course, Nargis’ splendid portrayal, elevated this movie--despite its bleakness of theme and narrative--into an iconic one that, till today, is the touchstone for strong female characters in Indian cinema.
2. Guide: The protagonist, Rosy, played by Waheeda Rehman, was based on a character created by RK Narayan in his book, The Guide, which was made into this movie. An educated woman from a family of temple-dancers, Rosy is married to an archaeologist who is completely disinterested in her, and is contemptuous about her passion for dance. Stifled in a loveless marriage, she finally gathers the courage to walk out of it, pursue her passion for dance, and have a 'sinful' relationship with Raju, the guide.
3. Sahib, Biwi aur Ghulam: Based on Bimal Mitra’s Bengali novel, Sahib Bibi Golam, the tour de force of this movie is the desperate, lonely, neglected character of the Choti Bahu, played marvelously by Meena Kumari. One of her best roles ever, she morphs through the course of the movie from a gentle, beautiful noble woman into a decrepit alcoholic, who disappears without a trace when her behaviour becomes an embarrassment to her family. The scenes where her desperation and longing for attention and love from her husband, and her willingness to do what the nautch girls do to keep him enthralled—namely sing, dance and drink alcohol--are brilliantly portrayed.
4. The Dirty Picture: This biopic of the southern siren Silk Smitha, the character played by Vidya Balan took norms and conventions head on in this bold story of a woman who wanted fame and success and was unconcerned about the brackets the world would put around her name. A fabulous performance by Vidya Balan made you admire the character in all her insecurities, ambition and swift descent into depression and eventual suicide.
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5. Queen: A traditional girl, Rani, played by the powerhouse Kangana Ranaut, gets dumped just before the pheras, but decides to go on her honeymoon anyway. The experience, being away from the cosseted conformist life she leads, compels her to come into her own, out of her chrysalis and discover her own inner strength. A performance that was played subtly, and with delicate nuances and yet had the viewer identify and root for the protagonist, Queen was the tipping point in Kangna’s career that catapulted her into the league of performers beyond the ordinary. She was badass in a way that totally subverted badass.
6. Mirch Masala: Smita Patil plays Sonabai in this Ketan Mehta directorial; she is pursued by the lecherous Subedar who wants to seduce her, and will not take no for an answer. She refuses to give up her self respect and offer herself to slake the Subedar’s lust, and in her defiance, the women of the village--some of whom initially had requested her to give in for the sake of saving the village from the wrath of the Subedar--eventually recognise the strength of her defiance, and come together in the spice factory to stop the Subedar in a show of unprecedented unity. Played marvellously by Smita Patil, the character is sensuous, strong and a woman who, despite being unlettered, has a lot women with education could learn from.
7. Ek Haseena Thi: Sarika, played by Urmila Matondkar, is a single girl living in the city who falls for the smooth-talking Saif Ali Khan who uses her as a mule for a crime syndicate and abandons her to her fate when she has the misfortune of getting caught, convicted and sentenced to seven years in jail. How she transforms into a tough-as-nails woman through her stint in jail, and the manner in which she painstakingly extricates revenge from Saif Ali Khan’s character is what makes the movie edge-of-the-seat viewing.
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8. Mughal E Azam: Madhubala plays the courtesan Anarkali, bringing the right blend of beauty and ambition enough to sway the weak-willed Salim, in the magnum opus Mughal E Azam. She defies not just society, but also the mighty Mughal emperor Akbar, to stake her claim on Salim, his son, and his heir apparent. The rebellion against Akbar by Salim is not just his rebellion; it is the vaulting ambition of Anarkali the courtesan, who would be queen and has played her cards well enough to bend Salim to her will.
9. Chameli: Kareena Kapoor plays Chameli in this movie, a hardened sex worker who is thrown together in the company of a white collar Rahul Bose for the course of one night. Though the role demands a certain hardness of character, Kareena tempers it with charm and a quiet grace. She completely redefines the image she had been associated with, and sinks into character infusing it with a gritty vulnerability that makes it unforgettable.
10. Kahaani: Vidya Bagchi, played by Vidya Balan, is a heavily pregnant woman who has come down to Kolkata from London, ostensibly to hunt for her missing husband. She battles odds, prejudices, blocks from every quarter, to find what she is seeking. And the end, when it does come, is a complete twist in the tale; suffice to say you definitely did not see that coming.
And with that, I close my list of ten female protagonists, who were badass sometimes overtly, at others subversively.
Here is a crowdsourced list of popular badass Hindi film female protagonists from the wonderful people off twitter. And if there are some characters you liked and we’ve missed out, feel free to add them in the comments.
Sridevi in chalbaaz, cause Swag! Smita Patil in Mirch Masala. What a fearless character
Kangana in Tanu weds manu/Queen, Sridevi in Chalbaaz.
Kamini played by simi garewal.par excellent performance with rare combination of beauty and beast!!
Anarkali in Mughal-e-Azam? Can't think of anyone more spunky and badass than that character!
Sridevi was really spunky and kicked ass as Manju in Chaalbaaz(1989)
Piku! Hands down . Many more :) but just love the way she handles her eccentric , crazy , fiercely independent yet caring self
Kusum from Tannu Weds Mannu 2 (Kangana Ranaut)
actually Mastani, for her grit and integrity. And quiet strength & incredible sense of self . Wasn't too bad too no?
fearless Nadia in all her movies
and Shivani in Mardani. The best female cop portrayal . Literally kick ass. Love this entire thread !
Rekha in khoon bhari maang. In leather over crocodiles.
Bobby (vidya balan) in Bobby jasoos. Very underrated but So badass!
also ofcourse Vidya Bagchi in Kahaani.
Kangana in Queen.
vidya balan in Ishqiya
Tabu in 'Astitva'. Courage & integrity in an ordinary life. Dialogue delivery- hit home but kept deliberately non dramatic
Rekha in Khoon Bhari Maang. Esp for those times, it was one big change in women's role in cinema.
Urmila in Rangeela. Career oriented go-getter who barely balanced personal life.
I am saying. It's one of my favourite movies ever. Ek Haseena Thi
Smita Patil - Mirch Masala. Too easy!
Also you must've got Queen and Kahani from a lot, but what about everyone from Angry Indian Goddesses
Priya Bakshi (Preity Zinta) : movie Kya Kehna
Rani Mukherjee Mardani. Ms Balan Kahaani. Rekha Umrao Jaan Meenakshi Sheshadri Damini. Madhuri Mrityudand & Lajja. ARB Sarbjit
Kareena Chameli. Manisha Dil Se. Nargis Raat Din. WaheedaJI Guide.(sorry i cant give character names, they can look up IMDB :-)
Geeta (Hema Malini) in Seeta Aur Geeta (confession with misgiving: probably planted feminism in my 7-yr-old self)
Supriya Pathak in Raam leela because she did not spare her own daughter :)
Anushka Sharma - NH10. Sridevi - Army.
Sridevi in Chalbaaz.. considering it was a film made in the 90 s and I think the film was ahead of its time
madhuri dixit and Juhi chawla's characters in Gulaab Gang
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