Bollywood’s reigning queens over the decades have always had some thread of distinct commonality between themselves.
Who is the reigning queen of Bollywood today? One camp will say its Deepika Padukone, another will pitch its vote for Kareena Kapoor, some will vouch for Katrina Kaif or Priyanka Chopra. The rat race is on, and is just as hot and fast-paced as it has always been.
One may wonder what is common between them – they are all from different parts of the country and have different cultural backgrounds. That makes one think, there is actually a faint common thread that has run between the reigning queens of Bollywood, through the decades.
Take a trip down Bollywood’s memory lane. It has never been planned that way. But it has happened. Bollywood’s reigning queens over the decades have always had some thread of distinct commonality between themselves. In the silent twenties, two Maharashtrian actresses Durga Khote and Lalita Pawar ruled the cine world.
In the thirties, Devika Rani, who hailed from Rabindranath Tagore’s family was the undisputed screen goddess. Devika Rani’s popularity and electrifying screen persona had directors like Himangshu Rai tackling women-oriented issues on socially-relevant subjects such as untouchability in Achchyut Kanya. The formidable Devika Rani organized the first ever seminar on the film industry in 1955, graced by none other than the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
Came the forties, and we had Noorjehan, Khurshid and Leela Chitnis using star power to raise national consciousness in the British-ruled India. Leela Chitnis singing “Chal chal re naujawan” in Bandhan and “Door hato aye duniawalon Hindustan hamara hai” – a barely camouflaged warning to the British Raj by Khurshid in Kismet became the anthem in India struggling for independence in the early 40s.
Even after independence, the patriotic fervor continued with Nalini Jaywant and Ashok Kumar’s Samadhi bringing to life Subhash Chandra Bose and Indian National Army’s heroic battle for independence.
The fifties and sixties belonged to Waheeda Rehman, Meena Kumari and Madhubala – three Muslim actresses who ruled Bollywood like none else before. Their sheer acting talent forced directors to make films that revolved around them.
Can we ever forget Waheeda Rehman’s suppressed emotions in Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool; Madhubala’s open challenge to Akbar as Anarkali in Mughal-e-Azam, or Meena Kumari’s alcoholic melancholia as Chhoti Bahu in Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam?
On the other hand, Nargis became Raj Kapoor’s inseparable screen partner while Maharashtrian talent Nutan walked away with the awards for best actress year after year thanks to Bimal Roy’s films. Mala Sinha was the sole contribution of Bengal while South India was represented by Vyjayanthimala.
Bengal’s queen of hearts Suchitra Sen shot into the national limelight with Bimal Roy’s Devdas but retreated to Kolkata just as quickly unable to adjust to Mumbaiyya filmi duniya. Her brief stint with Bollywood in the black-and-white era included the two films she did with the reigning debonair hero Dev Anand, Bambai Ka Babu and Sarhad, and she create a lasting impact in that very brief space.
In the sixties, Kolkata’s dimpled beauty Sharmila Tagore, a discovery of Satyajit Ray took Bollywood by storm with a stunning debut in Kashmir Ki Kali.
But it was only in the early seventies that the Bengal tigresses took over led by the dynamite Jaya Bhaduri who grabbed awards with frightening regularity every year with her single-plaited, sari-clad charm. Abhimaan, Kora Kaagaz, Mili, Koshish, Parichay – in film after film she displayed a new spontaneous acting style, free of mannerisms and theatrics.
The doe-eyed beauty Raakhee was right behind with remarkable performances in films like Jeevan Mrityu, Tapasya, Kabhie Kabhie and Sharmilee while Moushumi Chatterjee established a monopoly over chirpy girl-next-door type of roles. Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi, the two svelte leggie Muslim beauties took care of the uber-modern roles, flaunting their hour-glass figures in bold western attire and electrifying dance sequences.
Alongside South India had started making its presence felt too, spearheaded by the original dream girl Hema Malini and Rekha. From Dream Girl, Sholay and Seeta Aur Geeta to Charas, Rajput and The Burning Train, Hema formed one of the most romantic screen pairs with her husband-to-be Dharmendra while Rekha teamed with Amitabh Bachchan to deliver hits like Do Anjaane, Khoon Pasina, Mr Natwarlal, Suhaag, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar and Ram Balram.
The era of Southern belles truly began with the eighties when the duo of Sridevi and Jayaprada started churning out the typical Madras-masala films with Jeetendra, prancing on top of a million brass pots on Marina beach. Sridevi delivered some of the biggest hits of the decade such as Nagina and Mr. India, while Jayaprada teamed up with the then on-the-decline megastar Amitabh Bachchan for films such as Sharaabi and Aakhri Raasta. The Madras movie mills also produced stars such as Rati Agnihotri.
Dimple Kapadia’s comeback with Saagar brought back the North Indian girls like Poonam Dhillon in the fray but it wasn’t until Juhi Chawla’s stunning hit Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak towards the end of the eighties that Punjabi girls came to dominate tinsel town. The trio of Juhi, Raveena Tandon to be later joined by Karisma Kapoor, figured in the biggest hits of the nineties decade.
The only challenge posed to the Punjabi brigade was the phenomenal talents of two superb actresses Madhuri Dixit and Kajol. The ek-do-teen girl reigned as the Number One actress in the rat race for a long time till Kajol formed a sizzling pair with rising superstar Shah Rukh Khan to shoot ahead of Madhuri in the rat race. Another rising star Urmila Matondkar handled the oomph roles with elan.
Now Kajol, born of a Bengali father and Marathi mother, is one actress on whom both Maharashtra and Bengal can claim rights. Soon her cousin Rani Mukherjee shot into limelight with “aati kya khandala”. Tabu and the rising talent Nandita Das became staple diet for serious cinema.
Once the new millennium arrived, the role of Hindi film heroine underwent a significant change. The former beauty queens, led by Aishwarya Rai, Sushmita Sen and then Priyanka Chopra took the big step into Bollywood from the world of modelling and redefined the space held by the screen goddesses. It became just as necessary to have tall, svelte, hour-glass figures as histrionic talents.
Giving them tough competition were Kareena Kapoor, Deepika Padukone and Katrina Kaif. The common thread among all of them? You will be hard put to find any decade that produced more finely-tuned, workout-conditioned figures.
Bollywood’s queens of hearts have been through many trends and transitions and adapted themselves gracefully to the changing times. And they continue to rule…
More to read in our International Women’s Day Special
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