My five favorite heroine roles

Sanni recently posted about her five favorite heroine roles in Hindi films. What a great idea! I am shamelessly stealing it.

Hindi films are of course generally more about the hero(es) than the heroine. And by generally, I really mean always. But there are some performances that transcend that handicap, and also there is the occasional heroine-centric film made. So here are my favorite roles and the actresses who brought them to life, where the heroine manages to hold her own against—if not completely outshine—the hero.

Vyjayanthimala as Champabai in Sadhna (1958):
One of my favorite Hindi films ever, this movie stars Vyjayanthimala as a nautch-girl who is hired by Sunil Dutt to pose as his fiancee so that his ailing mother can die in peace. She portrays the character with a dignity and poignancy which highlights the film’s message that women who work in such professions are not bad women, but helpless women, who should be given opportunities, not scorned. Vyjayanthimala won the Filmfare Award for Best Actress for this role.

Hema Malini as Takubai in Rihaee (1988):
This should really be Hema Malini in everything! but this film particularly should be noted for its female point of view (it was written and directed by a woman, Aruna Raje). Hema’s innate strength is utilized fully in this story of a village woman who has an adulterous affair with a stranger passing through, only to find herself pregnant just as her husband returns home from three years away working in the city. When she is put on trial by the village panchayat, the women of the village all rally to her side.

Neetu Singh and Shabana Azmi as Neetu and Shabu in Parvarish (1977):
These two are hilarious as thieving sisters; they even manage to outshine Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna! I don’t think Neetu Singh ever got her fair due in the film industry. She is one of my favorite heroines: she is always a bright spot even in a dull film, and I just love her. I guess this is the only real “masala” film in my list, but their performances will always stand out in my mind as highlights of that fabulous movie, which has many good things in it.

Tabu as Nimmi in Maqbool (2003):
By turns malevolently seductive and achingly vulnerable, Tabu steals the show as “Lady MacBeth” in Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation. She is single-handedly responsible for the chain of events which destroy Abbaji and Miyan, their men and their families; at the same time she is a victim of her gender, which renders her virtually powerless in a world of powerful men.

Nargis as Radha in Mother India (1957):
Who can ever forget Radha and her epitomization of rural India’s strengths and hardships. What a performance! Enough said.

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48 Comments to “My five favorite heroine roles”

  1. Well done! Wonderful post. I’ve only seen Mother India and look forward to seeing all of the others, especially Rihaee & Sadhna .

  2. Yes, those two in particular are among my favorite movies…and so is Parvarish, although it’s not as “serious.” But it’s a frothy good time, with a great cast!

    Maqbool is a great movie, but a little too grim for me to view repeatedly. Mother India is too long to view repeatedly, since I have the attention span of a two-year-old.

  3. Here are some off the top of my head that I loved:

    Leela Naidu in Anuradha
    Sadhna in Asli Naqli
    Madhubala in Half Ticket
    Waheeda in Teesri Kasam
    Geeta Bali in Albela
    Juhi in QSQT
    Madhuri in HAHK
    Gayatri Joshi in Swades

  4. Good ones! I thought of putting Madhubala in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi here too, she was great in that and really held her own against the Kumar brothers.

    And Geeta Bali definitely needs a mention. She was a lot like Hema Malini in that she pretty much dominated the screen when she was on it. Plus she had the good sense to marry Shammi :-P

    • When it comes to comedy and actresses, Hema Malini in “Sita aur Geeta” deserves a special mention. Even after so many years and having watched in so many times. its still funny. I remember watching it with my dad when I was young and him rolling on the floor laughing. thats something u never forget

  5. Fun post.

    I wonder what Shabana Azmi would say to you choosing *Parvarish* out of the vast riches of her CV. If I may presume, I think she would be tickled … she has been known to cite *Amar Akbar Anthony* when asked to name her favorite role (though her “serious” answer is *Arth*).

    I’d have to give some thought to my own list; with a number as small as five I’d need to think about the criteria. Character I most identify with? Character I most enjoy watching? Best performance? The possibilities are endless!

  6. I know; also I didn’t say much about her but talked about Neetu instead (because Shabana does get her rightful place in film history).

    But she and Neetu are so funny and smart in this film. And looked like they were hugely enjoying themselves :-) I just LOVE them. It’s a similar film to “Amar Akbar Anthony”—even the cast is largely the same.

  7. Nice post memsaab. I absolutely agree with your thoughts on Neetu Singh (Amar Akbar Anthony is my favorite movie starring her). I haven’t yet seen Maqbool, and shall look forward to checking it out now. Here are some I enjoyed (in no specific order):

    Madhuri Dixit in Devdas
    Bhagyashree in Maine Pyar Kiya
    Jaya Badhuri in Abhimaan
    Hema Malini in Sholay
    Gracy Singh in Lagaan

  8. Neetu, Shabana, Hema, Nargis, Tabu – vah, I love them all! Wonderful choices, I wouldn’t change a thing. Actually, I’d also include Rekha in there – but from a good ol’ masala movie, e.g. Suhaag or Immaan Dharam. And my Nargis movie would definitely be Awaara. (That said, haven’t seen Mother India yet!)

  9. Bollywood Fan: good list, I agree they are all good! :-)

    PPCC Peep: I’m not on board with Rekha yet, mostly because I haven’t seen many of her films—I tend to avoid movies from the ’80s as largely unbearable. But perhaps I should give her a try (I did really like her in Umrao Jaan)…And I think Nargis sadly wasted most of her productive years on Raj Kapoor. I liked Awara better than his other films, but again it was mostly all about him, him, him (and his father).

  10. Memsaab, wonderful post. Like sitaji, I’m going to try to see all of the films you mention.

    For my own list of heroines (trying not to duplicate anyone else’s choices, or slight heroines such as Tabu or Kajol or Juhi), I would nominate Madhuri Dixit in Beta or Khal Nayak (like theBollywoodfan I also think she’s the most appealing character in Devdas), Preity Zinta in Kya Kehna, Shabana Azmi in Fire (OK, it’s not strictly a Bollywood film), Madhubala in Mughal-e-Azam, and Rani Mukherjee in Chori Chori (although, like Madhuri, Rani tends to be the center of interest of any film she’s in).

  11. I would add to your list and the others’

    Hema Malini in ‘Seeta aur Geeta’. I can watch this film again and again, not only is Hema Malini really gorgeous in this film, but she does a great job with a double role. And she manages to upstage Sanjeev Kumar and Dharmendra.

  12. Rani in ‘Chori Chori’! How can I not agree with that :-) although I think Ajay holds his own too—their chemistry together is what I love about the film.

    Sanni had put Hema in ‘Seeta Aur Geeta’ on her original post, and I absolutely agree that she is great in that. As I said, it should really be Hema in everything she did :-)

  13. Of these films, I’ve only seen ‘Mother India’, but they sound very intriguing and I will have to look out for them. I haven’t come across any of Vyjayanthimala’s movies yet, but Tabu, Shabana and Hema almost always make their roles memorable. I LOVE Neetu Singh too – I’ve loved her in everything I’ve caught her in, even in otherwise mediocre films, and I certainly agree that she hasn’t gotten her due. Nargis’ performance as Radha in ‘Mother India’ is amazing and would definitely be on my list too.

  14. Rekha – I find her present avatar creepy as well, but she really was very good in her day.

    I’d nominate Umrao Jaan, Utsav (Rekha was fantastic in that movie), and surprisingly, Rekha in Khoobsurat – one of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s later films, it doesn’t hold up as well as his older ones, but Rekha was good in her role, and it really was her movie…it is also surreal to see her romancing Rakesh Roshan in that – pudgy and with a really bad wig on…but I still think he was cute!


  15. I got to watch Rekha and Hema Malini shooting a new film (called Sadhiyan, with Rishi and Shatrughan Sinha’s son Luv–what a name!) for a while when I went to India in January. They both still look phenomenally beautiful! I will look for Utsav and Khoobsurat; it’s not that I dislike Rekha, it’s just that I haven’t seen her in much.

    • My guess is Shatrughan Sinha’s son is named after Rama’s son “Luv” which means “a minute division of time, the 60th of a twinkling, half a second, a moment”

    • Shatrughna sinha’s twin sons are named Luv & Kush- thenames of Ram& Sita’s twins from Ramayan (Story of Ram, one of the two books pretty much all Hindus used to grow up with, the second being Mahabharat)

  16. Great picks all around! These picks do probably say more about the viewer than they do about Hindi cinema and its heroines. I went for sassy, talkative & independent young heroines because while I like other types of female roles, I don’t get that much out of a tragic heroine or a mother character.

  17. Yes, I think any kind of “Top” list reflects the viewer more than anything.

    Probably because I’m older (46) myself, I tend to really love films that condemn sexism (since I’ve been at the receiving end of it more times than I can count); and celebrate women’s strength (because I’m at a stage in life where I finally understand how much power I really do have).

    And I love that women 10 or 20 years younger than I am don’t have to face the same issues that I and my peers did :-)

  18. Ah Parvarish, such a completely fantastic movie. And I agree totally about Neetu – she’s always great.

    As for me, I need to think more, but my only gut answer so far is: Vimmi/Babli, definitely.

  19. And PS – the subtitles on that first picture are perhaps one of the very finest bits of dialogue I’ve ever seen. Vah vah!

  20. They are actually lyrics in a song she’s singing, written by my favorite lyricist and poet, Sahir Ludhianvi. There’s a lot more like that in that film!

  21. memsaab,

    You might also want to consider Zeenat (played by Gul Panag) in Nagesh Kukunoor’s Dor as a candidate. A beautifully written role, played with strength, quiet conviction and oodles of charm.

    Then there’s Chitrangada Singh in Hazaaron Khwaaishein Aisi, Shabana Azmi in Arth (who doesn’t start out strong, but finds herself along the way), Simran in Kannathil Muthamittal (a Tamil movie by Mani Rathnam, definitely worth a watch)…


  22. Good suggestions, Ramsu—I haven’t seen Dor or Hazaaron Khwaaishein Aisi, although I really want to see both. I’m not sure that Arth won’t be too “artsy” for my lowbrow taste! Kannathil Muthamittal is a great film and Simran is wonderful in it, you are right :-)

  23. Dor is soooooooo goooooooooooood.

  24. Agree that most movies of the 1980s were eminently skippable.
    Rekha’s role in Khoon Bhari Maang comes to mind as a strong one.
    Smita in Aakhir Kyon, Shabana in Arth.
    There was a movie in the 1960s – Mere Huzoor which I saw long back.
    It is a Muslim social drama – I thought itsending was way ahead of its times. Also the fact that the mother-in-law actually supports the daughter-in-law against the son. Now, that may be a first !!! :-)

  25. Good List….
    some more add-up…
    kajol in K3g/KKHH
    priety in Veer-Zaara
    jaya BAdhuri in Guddi
    Rakhi in Tapasya

  26. mm im sorry but dont agree with some of the heroines

    my list would be as follows:

    rani- black
    tabu- chandani bar, although maqbool is also an excellent choice
    priyanka- fashion
    shabana azmi- arth
    kangana ranaut- woh lamhe

    • I think Black was one of the most overrated movies in recent times…Rani was good, but it was still all about Amitabh so it doesn’t come close to my criteria for this list…Tabu was good in Chandni Bar but I liked her role in Maqbool better; I haven’t seen Fashion or Woh Lamhe yet, and haven’t been able to get through Arth yet either although I will keep trying :)

  27. Agree with your list. I would add Jaya Bachan and Meena Kumari as well.

    [Shatrughan Sinha’s son Luv–what a name]

    This ‘Luv’ is not another form for ‘love’. It is from Ramayana, the twins of Ram and Sita were called Luv and Kush. Shatrughan Sinha’s two sons are twins and they are called Luv and kush.

  28. DEFINITELY Waheeda in Teesri Kasam and Salma Agha in Nikaah. I would vote Nargis for Mother India but that six-month long ad for slashing your wrists as a fun alternative to living was just too much for me. Nandita in Pitaah, and for a lighter role Chitrangada Singh in Sorry Bhai. Also Gayatri in Swades (she’s baaack!) Of all the movies I’ve watched, the one with the strongest female message was Nikaah, but the one with the most well-rounded female lead character was Teesri Kasam.

  29. I am sad to say that I haven’t yet seen Teesri Kasam or Nikaah, although I think they are both in my vast library :) Will need to correct that soon…

    I liked Swades a lot, but didn’t think Gayatri was anything special (or her role, to be more specific)…and LOL at your description of Mother India, which I really like a lot although I won’t choose to watch it again any time soon!!!!

  30. Definitely put Teesri Kasam near the top of your list – Waheeda is outstanding, and the ay the film opens, literally within the first minute or two with this, , is great.

  31. “I think Black was one of the most overrated movies in recent times” I agree, but with more gusto. On jaman, I limited myself to civil language and thus began with this temperate summary:

    “One of the few absoultely evil films I’ve ever seen. This awful manipulative piece of SLB bakvaas has nothing to recommend it.” The review gets less complimentary after that. :)

  32. My top 25 are:

    Sharmila Tagore in Devi – The Goddess (1960) (Bengali)

    Madhabi Mukherjee in Charulata (1964) (Bengali)

    Shabana Azmi in Ankur (1974)

    Smita Patil in Bhumika (1977)

    Soundarya in Dweepa (2003) (Kannada)

    Jaya Bhaduri-Bachchan in Abhimaan (1973)

    Sharmila Tagore in Mausam (1975)

    Nutan in Bandini (1963)

    Tabu in Maachis (1996)

    Suchitra Sen in Aandhi (1975)

    Nargis in Mother India (1957)

    Jaya Bhaduri-Bachchan in Koshish (1974)

    Waheeda Rehman in Guide (1965)

    Meena Kumari in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962)

    Revathy in Mouna Raagam (1986) (Tamil)

    Madhubala in Mughal-E-Azam (1960)

    Vidya Balan in No One Killed Jessica (2011)

    Waheeda Rehman in Khamoshi (1969)

    Vyjayanthi Mala in Sadhna (1958)

    Sharmila Tagore in Aranyer Din Ratri (1970)

    Lakshmi Narayan in Pallavi Anupallavi (1983) (Kannada)

    Padmini in Thillana Mohanambal (1968) (Tamil)

    Padmini Kolhapure in Prem Rog (1982)

    Raakhee in Kabhi Kabhie (1976)

    Bhanupriya in Sitara (1983) (Telugu)

  33. Sridevi in Lamhe,Chandni & Pretty Much Everything She’s In including Kudha Gawah where she steals the show from AB…last person to do that was Rajesh Khanna of course-Anand & Namak Haram!

    Rekha in Umarao Jaan & Silsila

    Meena Kumari in Pakeezah & Sahib, Bibi Aur
    Ghulam….a goddess surely!

  34. Good choices but I would definitely include Mumtaz’s lesser known Aaina

  35. Memsaab:
    I am a frequent visitor to this site but have commented the first time today. What I especially like about you, more than the posts and interesting trivia, is the fact that you take the time and effort to reply to each one of the comments. Really love you for that alone.

    Regds B
    PS: You dont like Aaina or is too depressing/sad?

  36. I want to see the Anipal PDF on your site.How to go about ?

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