As we celebrate yet another Women’s Day, we take a look at 10 of Hindi Cinema’s much-loved heroines of the yesteryears. Decades after active careers have faded out, they still cause one to skip a heartbeat or catch one’s breath, when remembered. Their iconic roles, and impeccable skills, combined with beauty, grace and intelligence gives them a place in our hearts forever, writes Suguna Sundaram
NARGIS DUTT (1929 -1981)
Fatima Rashid, daughter of Jaddanbai, a Hindustani classical singer and Abdul Rashid, a Punjabi Hindu converted to Islam, made her cinematic debut at age six in 1935. She would later be known as Nargis, one of Hindi Cinema’s path-breaking and iconic actresses, even called the greatest actress ever.
Nargis’ notable films were Aag (1948), Andaz (1949) Barsaat (1949), Awara (1951) Aah (1953) Shree 420 (1955) Raat Aur Din (1967), and many other classics. She did multiple films with Raj Kapoor (with who she was romantically linked for a decade, and their pairing made it to the famous RK logo), Dilip Kumar, and Ashok Kumar. Nargis was immortalized in her role in Mehboob Khan’s epic drama Mother India (1957), which set more than just her career blazing, literally and otherwise.
Nargis was an actress of tremendous grace, but there was an indecipherable sorrow in her eyes that always seemed to look beyond. She had a striking presence and yet a softness about her, both, on, and off screen. She was one of the earliest Hindi screen actresses to be awarded the Padma Shri (the fourth highest civilian award) in 1958.
Three decades in Hindi cinema, marriage to the much younger Sunil Dutt (1958), troubled parenting with a then wayward son Sanjay Dutt, two daughters Namrata and Priya, a pioneer in charitable work, the spirit behind boosting the morale of the Indian Army in her times, National Awards, and even a fledgling political career was all put to rest when she died of pancreatic cancer in 1981. Her name and face adorn street corners and postal stamps today, and her colossal presence is still missed by the public and her family.
MEENA KUMARI (1933 -1972)
Meena Kumari was born Mahjabeen and unbelievably, started working in films at age four, and had her first release in the year 1939. For someone who did not see her fourth decade in life, her career ran over three-and a half of those decades, with close to a 100 films, in which time she earned the reputation of a heartbreakingly beautiful actress, poetess and Tragedy Queen, possibly synonymous with her tragic real-life story.
Her most famous films were Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah, Guru Dutt’s Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), Mere Apne, Parineeta, Baiju Bawra, Dil Apna Aur Preet Paraye (1960), Dil Ek Mandir (1963), Phool Aur Patthar (1966) Dushman amongst others.
Deprived of a formal school education, young Mahjabeen took it upon herself to read and educate herself as she was an avid reader. Rechristened Baby Meena, she did many films as a child artiste. Her first impactful was Baiju Bawra in 1952. Bimal Roy’s Parineeta followed in 1953 and she was much lauded for her performance in the film. Like she was for his 1958 release Yahudi as well. Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam was chosen as India’s official entry to the Oscars. Meena Kumari did several films with Ashok Kumar, Dharmendra, and Raaj Kumar. She was stunningly beautiful and wore her sorrow like a beautifully embroidered Chaddar around her. She exuded an enigmatic mystique in her mien and was the description of modesty in herself. In the seventies, the queen of melancholy shifted to character roles, barring Pakeezah, the seed of which was sown two decades before. Meena Kumari was already ill when the film began but completed it despite failing health. She died soon after the film saw its grand release and began a successful run of several months.
Meena Kumari had a haunting sensuality to her voice and sang and recited Urdu poetry so ridden with angst and pathos, they invariably brought tears to the listeners eyes. She wrote under the pen name of Naaz. And like the films she essayed roles in, her poems were often pertinent and sometimes scathing comments on the ills in society.
Her secret marriage to the much-married filmmaker Kamal Amrohi in 1952, fragrant with love and roses in the beginning, was fraught with tears and trauma in the latter years. Disagreements, ego issues, rumoredly even physical abuse, long separations from her beloved husband, violent upheavals and finally total alienation from each other (in 1964), all drove Meena Kumari to seek solace in the bottle, much like her Choti Bahu character in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. Whilst she essayed the traditional Bharatiya naari through many of her films, she ended her cinematic journey as the nautch girl Sahibaan – an act unlikely to be matched.
Cirrhosis of the liver was the diagnosis in 1968, which plagued her for the next four years till her death in 1972, at age 39. Ironically, whilst separated in the prime of their youth, Kamal Amrohi desired to be buried next to his wife Meena Kumari upon his death (which came in 1993).
MADHUBALA (1933- 1969)
Madhubala was, is, and will possibly remain one of the most enigmatic beauties to grace Hindi cinema. Another actress to have begun as a child artiste, she soon graduated to doing lead roles in films. Madhubala was born Mumtaz Jehan, and was driven by hardened circumstances into turning breadwinner for her vast family. Mumtaz was given the name Madhubala by director Mohan Sinha in 1947. Her style and sensuality drew comparisons to many Hollywood legends and beauties.
Two decades plus and a treasure chest of nearly 75 films included Mr & Mrs 55 (1955), Howrah bridge (1958), Kala Pani (1958), the unforgettable Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi in 1958, Barsaat Ki Raat, and K Asif’s epic Mughal-E-Azam in 1960.
Madhubala married Kishore Kumar in 1960, they had starred in a few films together, even though she was linked with Dilip Kumar (who over the years has been linked with a number of the yesteryear heroines and beauties) for a long time. Kishore Kumar married her despite knowing that she had but a few years to live, but they were an odd couple, and it was an unhappy marriage.
Madhubala (Baby Mumtaz) and Meena Kumari (Baby Mahjabeen) were linked through their tragic star-crossed destinies as well as their life stories. They were contemporaries since childhood. Madhubala also starred in a string of unsuccessful films before she met with success, despite receiving kudos for her own performances. Neelkamal in 1947, and Kamal Amrohi’s directorial debut Mahal in 1949 catapulted her into the league of stars, even attracting international attention with her immense talent and incredible beauty and allure.
Madhubala was diagnosed with congenital heart defect in 1954. But she still ruled the screen for the next half a decade. Her portrayal of Anarkali remains unbeaten in its sheer beauty, pathos and intensity. The 1960 release after more than half a decade in the making, took a physical toll on the actress too, whose health was rapidly deteriorating. But it broke all Box Office records at that time, and gave her the role of a lifetime. Unlike her contemporaries, strangely, Madhubala never won any awards in her life, despite having worked with stalwart directors, top popular heroes and heroines. She was romantically linked to many of her heroes and even Kamal Amrohi, who wanted to marry her. Her love story with Dilip Kumar was a battleground of murkiness created and destroyed by her domineering father and his scheming shenanigans, doomed never to see fruition in marriage.
Madhubara had all the air of mystique that is the hallmark of a star. She was immensely popular and loved by the public for her vibrant on-screen persona, but rarely seen. The tragedy was in the fact that in her latter years, there was no surgery or medication for treating her condition. She died in early 1969 at a very young 36 years of age. Half a century after her death, she remains an icon of beauty and talent (one underplaying the other sadly), for generations of heroines.
NUTAN BAHL (1936 – 1991)
Nutan was the eldest daughter of actress Shobhna Samarth, and debuted in Hindi films as a teenager in 1950. Her laughing eyes, elfin charm, beatific smile and sometimes awkward grace made her a darling of the masses. Her nearly four score films in four decades include her prolific and varied lead performances in films like Anari (1959), Bimal Roy’s Sujata (1959) and Bandini (1963), which was possibly her best ever performance in life, Tere Ghar Ke Samne (1963), Saraswati Chandra (1968) to name just a smattering. Unconventional was second nature to her. From leading lady to dashing heroes like Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor, Ashok Kumar, Sunil Dutt and Dharmendra, she gracefully accepted the segue into character roles as she mellowed with age and her charm only increased like fine wine. Marriage in 1959 did not stop her from working for two and a half decades more. Nutan was conferred the Padma Shri in 1974.
Nutan was an actress par excellence, understated, or powerful, traditional or teasing, mature or mischievous, she tread the gamut effortlessly. Nutan’s haunting intelligent face adorns a postage stamp released by The Government of India in 2011. Her death from cancer in 1991, left a void that will never be filled. There can only ever be one Nutan.
VYJAYANTHIMALA BALI (born 1936)
The multi-faceted Vyjayanthimala was a South Indian star simultaneously making it big, maybe bigger in Hindi cinema, in what was actually the golden phase in Bollywood. Like many of her contemporaries, she was a mere teenager when she starred in her debut film in 1949, which was in Tamil. Nagin (1954), Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955) and Madhumati (1958), Naya Daur (1957), and Jewel Thief (1967), were hugely successful commercially and established her as a prominent and talented heroine. Ganga Jamuna(1961) and Sangam (1964) took her to new heights and she and Dilip Kumar made for a repeatedly delightful pairing. She almost quit films in 1966, when Amrapali bombed at the Box Office. She had seen success so consistently, that the film’s failure dejected her deeply. But luckily, she soldiered on and managed many more hits before she finally called it a day. For her contribution to and her work in Bharatnatyam, Vyjayanthimala was presented the prestigious Sangeet Natak Academy Award. But Vyjayanthimala excelled in all forms of dancing, be it classical, Indian folk, or western style, so much so that she was credited with having changed the standard of dance in Hindi cinema. She was trained in Classical Music and dance, was well read and well spoken, and honed and groomed with all the tools afforded by her familial affluence.
Vyjayanthimala portrayed pure innocence as well as she did supreme confidence. Her pose and carriage were regal, even when she played country belles. Her large limpid eyes spoke volumes, like a true dancer’s soul, whether they conveyed love, longing, or loss, anger or arrogance, purity or pathos. She could play childlike, or courtesan with equal elan. Her repeated success across films, with a multitude of leading male stars earned her the envious label of female superstar. She was sheer drama!
After her retirement from films, Vyjayanthimala was enticed by many big directors and production houses, to do films with leading actors of their time. But she refused to succumb to those offers, she did not want to make a comeback. She had a run with politics in the South as well, which threatened to muddy her pure and idealistic views, and she retired from politics as well.
WAHEEDA REHMAN (Born 1938)
Waheeda Rehman ruled as a leading lady in Hindi cinema for over two decades, and she acted in many regional films as well. She remains one of Bollywood’s most beautiful heroines, and one of its finest actresses. A trained Bharatnatyam dancer, her superb dancing skills led her to movies when she wanted to study medicine. Tightened family circumstances for her, were a pot of gold for Indian cinema. She literally danced her way into cinema in the 50s. Her personal relationship as well as her films with Guru Dutt are legend – CID (1956), Pyaasa (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), Chaudvin Ka Chand (1960) and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). The National award-winner made a fabulous screen couple with the handsome Dev Anand and they did numerous successful films together like Kala Bazar (1960), Viay Anand’s classic Guide (1965) and many others. Their chemistry sparkled.
Waheeda also worked well with many other directors and actors. Her cinematic repertoire includes Teesri Kasam (1966), Ram Aur Shyam (1967), Khamoshi (1969) all of which earned her accolades and awards. Waheeda started doing supporting roles long before she should have, she could still have played the heroine for a decade more than she did, since she continued to work in cinema actively till the nineties [Kabhi Kabhie (1976), Trishul (1978), Namak Halaal (1982), Mashaal (1984), Chandni (1989), and Lamhe (1991)]. She had a late marriage, well into her thirties, to a one-time co-star Kamaljit, in 1974. Her aloof mien and haughty dignity in public ensured that her private life remained private all along. It still remains so.
The Padma Shri came to Waheeda Rehman in 1972, followed by the Padma Bhushan (the third highest civilian award) in 2011. She leads a reclusive life in Mumbai, even though she is still sought out by directors for supporting roles, which she is very choosy about playing.
SADHANA (1941- 2015)
Daughter of Sindhi migrants from Karachi, Sadhna Shivdasani grew up watching films and loving that world. Her father supported and helped her enter Bollywood as a teenager. But it was producer Sasadhar Mukeree who introduced Sadhna and her famous hair cut in 1960, in Love in Simla, directed by RK Nayyar, who would later become her husband (in 1966).
In a 40-year-long career, Sadhana’s filmy gems included Parakh, Hum Dono (1961), Mere Mehboob(1963), Woh Kaun Thi (1964), Ek Phool Do Maali (1969), Rajkumar (1964), Waqt (1965), Arzoo (1965), Mera Saaya (1966), and many such popular and highly successful films. She worked with all the big names and leading men of her times. She quit films in the seventies. Thyroid issues played havoc with her eyes and she did not want to be caught on screen looking anything but her best. She was a trendsetter in many of the fashion changes and ideas she introduced in her dressing and styling. She had an innate sense of chic. And carried herself with a pertness and understated poise.
Sadhana developed cancer late in life and died a lonely death in 2015.
ASHA PAREKH (born 1942)
Asha Parekh began as a child artist with those films achieving little success. She smartly finished her schooling then and readdressed her career in films, debuting with Dil Deke Dekho in 1959, which skyrocketed her to instant stardom. Rigorously trained in Indian classical dance, she was gifted with an excellent skill that enhanced her acting prowess.
The next decade garnered her six hits with her debut director Nasir Hussain, namely Jab Pyar Kisise Hota Hai (1961), Phir Wohi Dil Laya Hoon (1963), Teesri Manzil (1966), Baharon Ke Sapne (1967), Pyar Ka Mausam (1969), and Caravan (1971). Asha Parekh extended her oeuvre from glamour doll and dancer to accommodate serious, dramatic, or tragic portrayals as well, like Do Badan (1966), Kati Patang (1970), and Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki (1978), winning her awards and accolades in equal measure.
Asha experimented with Gujarati and Punjabi films as well.
By the late eighties early nineties, when it came time for secondary roles, she gracefully bowed off after a few films, and started producing and directing for television in 1995.
Remaining single through her life Asha still graces the odd film function when she takes time off from her philanthropic activities. She remains friends with a few of her surviving contemporaries.
SHARMILA TAGORE (Born 1944)
Sharmila Tagore’s entry into the world of celluloid was at age 14, in the Satyajit Ray Bengali classic Apur Sansar (1959). She was fortunate enough to work with the master auteur over many more films as well, all in Bengali. Her foray into Hindi films began in 1964 with Kashmir Ki Kali (KKK), and there was no looking back for the dimpled, doe-eyed beauty, who had class and attitude in spades. Her ancestry boasted royalty, and none less than Bengals’ most influential family name, the Tagores.
Her sparkling debut was followed by many super hit films with a gamut of directors and actors, across genres, and straddled both Bengali and Hindi films simultaneously. From KKK to Waqt (1965), to Anupama in 1966, to An Evening In Paris in 1967 (where she earned the dubious credit of being the first Indian heroine to appear on screen in a bikini), to Satyakam (1969). Then followed her on-screen coupling with Rajesh Khanna which saw a string of successful films from Aradhana in 1969, Safar in 1970, Amar Prem in 1972, Daag in 1973, and Avishkar (1974). There was more. With Mausam (a National Award-winning performance for Sharmila) and Chupke Chupke in 1975, Sharmila’s trajectory rose up, up, and beyond. Another ten years of periodic appearances in films and Ms Tagore called it a day in 2010. In this period, the Goutam Ghose-directed Bengali film Abar Aranye in 2002, earned her a second National Award, even in a supporting role. Sharmila Tagore was honoured with the Padma Bhushan in 2013, for her contribution to Indian culture through her films.
Sharmila Tagore’s marriage to Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, ex skipper of the Indian Cricket team, also the Nawab of Pataudi was the stuff fairy tales are made of. The Bengali beauty is now engrossed in playing grandmother to her many grandkids, from her offspring Saif and Soha. (Her unmarried daughter Saba handles their estate in Pataudi). Sharmila essays the rare appearance in the odd film, just enough to keep her numerous admirers still keen.
SAIRA BANU (born 1944)
A 17-year-old Saira Banu, debuted in 1961 with Junglee, opposite Shammi Kapoor. Immediately noticed for her histrionics, Saira’s career was off to a successful start. The untrained Saira took classical dance lessons, and Urdu diction classes in order to rank herself with her more professional colleagues, and soon became a leading lady in romantic films. Her girlish charm, doll-like face and figure, and effortless prattle on screen endeared her to the public in no time. The next quarter century was hers to explore. Which she did, with Bluff Master, Aayi Milan Ki Bela, Shagird (1967), Jhuk Gaya Aasman, Purab Aur Paschim, Padosan, Victoria No 203, and many many more hits.
In 1966, the 22-year-old Saira Banu married the much older (twice her age then) Dilip Kumar, her co-star of Gopi, Bairaag and Sagina (1974). She worked with a great many superstars of that time, and upcoming stars like Vinod Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan. Post 1976, a decade of unsuccessful releases made for her the decision to give up films and acting, which she did in 1988.
Saira Banu devoted the rest of her life to spending quality time with and looking after her husband Dilip Kumar, whose remarkable career lasted a decade beyond hers, and who currently at 98 years and in his second childhood, still remains the Badshah of Bollywood.