Bollywood, till recently, has been considered a male bastion – and remains, in so many ways. With the triumvirate of the Khans still reigning supreme at the Box Office, any film with a female lead, like Queen, will rarely see one of the big stars take second seat to the actress.

But there have been times in the past when Bollywood has given us some hope, with films that are memorable for their female leads, with performances that have blown us away with their depth and portrayals. Here are 15 of our chosen ones – 15 times Indian actresses ruled our screens:

Kangana Ranaut in Queen & Tanu Weds Manu (Returns)

The current ‘Queen’ of Bollywood doesn’t mince words when it comes to her opinions on Bollywood, her sordid affairs and her movies. From being left at the altar in Queen to her tyrannical presence as Tanu and Datto, her performances in these movies have tried to look into some of the unconventional aspects of love affairs and marriages. 


Sridevi in Sadma

Today’s mobile generation might remember her for English Vinglish, but it was in Sadma that Sridevi stole our hearts for playing the role of Nehalata, a young girl who meets with an accident resulting in severe head trauma. Even though megastar Kamal Hassan shared the screen with her, Sridevi’s performance in this film is widely regarded as one of the best performances across Indian cinema.


Nandita Das & Shabana Azmi in Fire

Most people remember this movie for the protests against it. Rarely does anyone talk about the performances, especially by Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi — the two play sisters-in-law, who seek solace and love with each other after their husbands deny them any. A controversial movie even today, the film is a significant insight into the hypocrisies of arranged marriages.


Rekha in Khoon Bhari Maang

Perhaps the most bad-ass performance by a woman to ever grace Bollywood’s screens, Rekha plots the ultimate revenge in this instant classic. A wealthy widow lured into love by an evil Kabir Bedi, who eventually throws her to the crocodiles (literally), Rekha returns to wreak havoc on all those who scorned her — and hell hath no fury….

Rekha Khoon bhari maang (2)

Nargis in Mother India

Rich in symbolism and allegories, Nargis personified an entire nation in this classic. In rejecting and killing her son Birju, Radha (played by Nargis) exemplifies all that is asked of a mother. Made at a time when India was breaking the chains of colonialism, Nargis’s performance in this hypernationalistic film is widely considered one of the best performances ever.


Madhuri Dixit in Anjaam

Anjaam saw a difference side to the otherwise peppy performances that Madhuri came to be known for. This thriller drama saw her most breathtaking performance yet as the scorned wife and avenging mother against the villainous lovelorn Shahrukh Khan, with whom she was paired for the first time in this movie. Even though she took the Filmfare award for Hum Aapke Hai Koun..! and is generally known for her iconic dance moves, Anjaam showed us her calibre as an actress. 


Vidya Balan in Kahaani

Oh Bollywood — where were you all these years! Kahaani was one of the few mainstream films to not have a male lead (finally!), where Vidya Balan carried herself with elan and sensitivity in this thriller. If you haven’t watched this film and marvelled at her performance, you’ve been living under a rock.


Tabu in Astitva

This Mahesh Manjrekar movie starring Tabu, and based on emotional spousal abuse, had everyone at the edge of their seats out of sheer discomfort. Tabu’s Aditi committing adultery is also the story about Aditi finding her own identity outside of her marriage, wherein lies the feminist tinge to the tale. A life marred by boredom, the movie’s essence is the arrival of a letter from her past that has her husband questioning her fidelity and thereby the role of a wife within the sanctimonious institution of marriage.


Seema Biswas in Bandit Queen

Bandit Queen marked Biswas’ goosebump-inducing debut as the lower-caste rebel Phoolan Devi. Based on the real life encounters of the bandit, this gripping storytelling was marred by a lot of controversies especially for its naked horrific portrayal of Phoolan Devi’s rape.


Jaya Bachchan in Guddi

This 1971 movie marked Jaya Bachchan’s debut as a young teenaged girl infatuated with the Bollywood hearthrob, Dharmendra. If one thought the movie would be about him, then oh, boy! were they in for some disappointment! Chasing her dream man, Guddi uncovers the dark underbelly of Bollywood. Her evolution from a skirt-wearing school kid to the saree clad Kusum singing “Bole re Papihara” marks the transition from the reel to the real. But it is Guddi’s affability and her sheer innocence that makes this movie and her performance endearing.


Parveen Babi in Deewar

Parveen Babi was the quintessential poster girl of the 1970s, but her pathbreaking role in Deewar is shadowed by Amitabh Bachchan’s performance. In playing Anita, a liberated single woman who broke every stereotype of the ‘traditional Indian woman’, Babi stole her way into the hearts of audiences. Unfortunately, Bollywood showed how limited it was when Babi began to be offered roles that had her only playing the ‘Westernised’ woman.


Suchitra Sen in Aandhi

Based on the life of Indira Gandhi, who was personified as the goddess Durga herself (and who got the film banned!), Aandhi is about a woman-politician who has to choose between remaining a dutiful wife or charting a career for herself. Suchitra Sen, the noted Bengali actress, allegedly agreed to do the role only after insisting the script would undergo no further changes. And what a performance it was: matched with Sanjeev Kumar, who plays the husband who refuses to support his wife’s aspirations, Sen’s performance is regarded as one of the finest in Bollywood.


Madhubala in Mughal E-Azam

Only Madhubala could convincingly play the role of Anarkali, the woman who stole a prince’s heart. Surrounded by thespians such as Prithviraj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar, Madhubala stole the hearts of millions, easing into the role with her grace and quiet sensitivity, Indian cinema’s very own Helen of Troy.


Zeenat Aman in Hare Rama Hare Krishna

Paralleling the flower child movement of the mid American 60s, Zeenat Aman’s flawless performance as Jasbir/Janice had everyone enthralled, especially her sheer devil-may-care attitude. India’s Woodstock movement was exemplified in the song Dum Maaro Dum which immortalized her as the chillum-smoking hippie-exuding charisma. It’s no wonder that she became the reigning queen of 70s sensuality.


Smita Patil & Shabana Azmi in Arth

Another tale of marriage misdemeanour and infidelity, Smita Patil soon grabbed attention with her performance as the other woman in Arth. Pitted against Azmi in the movie, her onscreen performance also eventually spilled onto her real life when she fell in love with a married Raj Babbar. But she is truly remembered for her feminism bringing awareness to the plight of women in society, which meant pushing those movies that favoured such themes.



Read about 15 women who changed Indian cinema with their works, in the Women in Indian Film series by Zubaan Books, exclusively available here:


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