2013 marks 100 years of Indian cinema — home of the unique film genre affectionately referred to as Bollywood — and through the century, there have been many memorable leading ladies, from Nargis, Sridevi and Rekha to Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai, Rani Mukherjee, Preity Zinta and many many more.
For this year’s Women’s History Month, Audrey Magazine highlights some of our favorite Indian actresses ruling contemporary Hindi cinema today. This is the first in our series of Asian Women in Film, where we will be featuring leading ladies from all of Asian cinema.
Here are 10 names to know:
When the former Miss World (2000) began her career in Bollywood, from her 2002 debut in the Tamil film Thamizhan to her damsel-in-distress role to Hrithik Roshan’s superhero in 2006’s Kriish, there was often more talk about her skimpy outfits than her acting skills. Then 2008 happened: Chopra had six films come out that year, and while the first few were unsuccessful, late 2008 brought the release of Fashion, the first role that got critics talking about her talent rather than her looks — especially when she swept all the major Indian Film Awards that year for Best Actress. Since then, even if the film she’s been in haven’t been acclaimed, people tend to point out Priyanka Chopra’s performance as the best part. Case in point: the awards she’d picked up for playing a murderess in 7 Khoon Maaf and an autistic woman in Barfi! in the last two years.
Vidya Balan has been acting in feature films for a decade, but she broke out into stardom recently with her role in The Dirty Picture, the biopic about the adult film actress Silk Smitha who was popular in the 1980s and 90s. The role earned her Filmfare and National Film Awards for Best Actress in 2012, and she followed it up with the crime thriller Kahaani, in which she plays a pregnant woman in search of her missing husband.
Kajol (also pictured at the top of the article) has been a household name since 1995’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ), which kickstarted a filmgoing craze (it is the longest running Indian film in history, and as of Jan 2013, the film is still playing in a theater in Mumbai, 17 years later) as well as a timeless romantic pairing (Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan have acted in six films together). But in recent years, Kajol has brought an even greater depth to her performances. Just check her out as the blind woman in Fanaa or the grieving mother in My Name is Khan. You’ll feel like a really beautiful, soulful woman just punched you in the stomach.
Deepika Padukone made her debut in 2007’s Om Shanti Om, playing two characters that looked identical though they’re from different time periods (it can happen, just go with it). But she gave both characters enough nuance to prove to audiences that she was more than a tall, strikingly-beautiful model — even though she was definitely tall and definitely strikingly beautiful. Since then, she’s taken on different types of characters, from the modern-day romantic lead in Love Aaj Kal to the downward-spiraling toxic friend in Cocktail.
Another actress who got her start in a Shah Rukh Khan film (2008’s Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi), Anushka Sharma soon ventured out on her own and found another leading man that she seemed to have good chemistry with, on and off screen. Acting opposite co-star Ranveer Singh (quick tangent: check out his abs in Audrey’s Daily SHAG here) in Band Baaja Baaraat and Ladies Vs. Ricky Bahl, Sharma really showcased her natural charisma and ability to lead a film. In 2012, she reunited with Shah Rukh Khan in Jab Tak Hai Jaan. Whereas in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, she played the mourning, subdued wife whose life and belief in love needed to be re-ignited by Shah Rukh Khan’s charm, in Jab Tak Hai Jaan, she was the mini-Shah Rukh Khan, who “Shah Rukh Khan”-ed Shah Rukh Khan himself. I know it sounds confusing. But just watch the movies.
Born in Hong Kong to a Kashmiri Indian father and an English mother, Katrina Kaif often seems to have a maturity beyond her years onscreen. By 25, she was playing the Chief Minister party leader in the political thriller Raajneeti — and somehow pulling it off. After memorable turns as a civil rights activist circa 9/11 in New York and a diving instructor helping Hrithik Roshan get over his fear of water (and workaholism) in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, she helped jaded modern audiences believe in “old school” true love again in last year’s blockbuster Yash Raj film Jab Tak Hai Jaan.
Farah Khan has been in the industry for what seems like forever: as a choreographer, she is responsible for so many memorable Bollywood dance sequences that it’s almost impossible to count, but some of our favorites include “Chaiya Chiaya,” “Shava Shava,” and “Maahi Ve.” In addition to her choreography, she’s directed memorable films such as Main Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om. In 2012, she won a Stardust Best Actress Award for her on-screen debut Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi. But even when she’s behind the camera, she is an incomparable leading lady.
Sonam Kapoor (daughter of Anil Kapoor, who international audiences know from Slumdog Millionaire and TV’s 24) made her debut in 2007 with Saawariya, opposite Ranbir Kapoor. At the time, Saawariya got a lot of attention, because although the two of them were newcomers to the industry, the film was co-produced by Sony Pictures, and it was the first Bollywood movie to receive a North American release by a Hollywood studio. Since then, Kapoor has landed girl next door roles in romantic comedies, such as Aisha and I Hate Luv Storys.
A descendant of the legendary Kapoor family, Kareena Kapoor is continuing the legacy started by Prithviraj Kapoor and cemented by Raj Kapoor, as Kareena was most recently named the highest ranking female actress in Forbe India’s Celebrity 100 list. A power player in the industry, Kapoor has been one of India’s highest paid actress in years, starring in blockbusters including Aamir Khan’s 3 Idiots, Salman Khan’s Bodyguard, Shah Rukh Khan’s Ra.One, and most recently reuniting with Aamir Khan in Talaash: The Answer Lies Within.
There are many more, but here are 10 to start with. Who are your favorite Indian actresses?