An Ode to the Bollywood Actress

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Tanika Lane gives a rundown of the most influential actresses Bollywood has to offer.

Kajol, Madhuri Dixit, Sridevi, Aishwarya Rai, Kareena Kapoor, Kangana Ranaut – there are innumerable names which spring to mind when I think about how many wonderful actresses India has to offer. Some excel in radiating the elegance and tradition of Bollywood through dance and song, others excel in projecting spellbinding pieces of dialogue and proving more than a match as ferocious heroines to their male counterparts. In honour of International Woman’s Day 2019 then, I wish to praise three actresses that I think best represent the industry today. Alia Bhatt, Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra are extraordinary performers who can seamlessly blend the old-school elements of Bollywood with significant matters that women are forced to address around the world. Being half Indian-Mauritian has granted some experience of the limitations which face our culture as it is one not comfortable talking about sex, talking about abuse, granting equal opportunities for women, and doesn’t fully appreciate the gravity of mental health either. It’s like people argue that Lizzie Bennet is not a progressive enough heroine to represent the 21st C. female, but what people naively forget is the context: yes, her achievements are sub-par by our modern standards, but she was still able to tackle the injustices which her own society demanded. The same is applicable then to East vs. West – the work that these three have courageously crafted being essential to bringing such important issues further into the light in their own country, supplementing the work of their glorious predecessors but also setting a significantly high bar for all actresses – of every nationality – to follow in their succession.

Alia Bhatt

It is incredible how much young actress Alia Bhatt has managed to dominate the Bollywood industry in an astonishingly short space of time. From the way she was able to shake off the undeserving shadow of nepotism (considering how her family name is one of the most influential in the industry) along with the drag that was her break-out performance in Student of the Year (2012), Bhatt has gone on to wield a stunning range of performances that even the most experienced actresses have yet to attempt in their career. Some of her most notable performances include a kidnap victim who develops Stockholm Syndrome in Highway (2014), this being more astonishing considering this was only her second movie after SOTY. Her most critically acclaimed role has been that of a rape and drug abuse victim in Udta Punjab (2016), an experience which she has divulged in interviews was an incredibly traumatic experience despite the fruits of her labours having flawlessly paid off.

Whilst these two masterpieces are as extraordinary as they are harrowing, my favourite film of Bhatt’s still has to be Dear Zindagi (2016). As mental illness still harbours a lot of stigma and misunderstanding in India, to see a film tackle this issue with such sophisticated optimism and sensitivity was a truly inspiring thing to behold – something which the West arguably has lost a grip on in the hullabaloo of prestigious castings and aesthetic writing. Bhatt’s character struggling with so many of her inner conflicts and then being able to accept them as part of who she is, alongside combating outdated cultural ideals surrounding the duties of young girls in Indian society, is then one of the most genuine and refreshing films out there tackling mental health. Her latest film Gully Boy (2019) also promises to be a progressive piece as it explores the increasing popularity of Rap in the ghetto in India (100% on Rotten Tomatoes, if that’s anything to go by). So, if there was anyone whose films I could recommend as incorporating traditional Bollywood panache in tandem with depth and philosophy, I cannot promote this little wonder-woman enough to those willing to give it a proper taste and try.

Deepika Padukone

It would be an understatement to say that Deepika Padukone is the reigning queen of Bollywood, likely due to the sheer sublimity of her acting ability. Listed by Time last year as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, Padukone made her big break into the industry by starring in Om Shanti Om (2007) alongside Shah Rukh Khan. This undoubtedly has had a big impact on the rate of her success as she starred alongside the so-called ‘King of Bollywood’, however Padukone has done more than enough to have earned her place outside of Khan’s shadow. My favourite performance of hers, and still one of her most critically praised, has to be Leela Sanera in Bhansali’s adaption of Romeo and Juliet: Goliyon ki Rasleela Ram-Leela (2013). Her vivacious yet vulnerable heroine is so captivating that you cannot help but fall in love with her instantly – a fact which her co-star and now husband, Ranveer Singh, can surely attest to as she captures the essence of the overwrought lover and powerhouse Regine all on one screen. Another impressive performance includes the Piku (2015), the grumpy and pessimistic protagonist embodying the film’s comedy and drama all in one as she struggles to deal with her over-bearing father (played by Bollywood mogul Amitabh Bachchan) in their odyssey-by-car journey to Kolkata from Delhi.

Whilst it is these two roles that have earned Padukone Filmfare awards (India’s answer to the Oscars), the role for which she deserves the most respect for has to be Padmaavat (2018). Also a Bhansali production, this period drama concerns the legendary Rani Padmini and her decision to lead all the women within the kingdom of Chittor to commit jauhar (mass-suicide) after the defeat of her husband and king before the enemy breaks in. The controversy surrounding the picture was gargantuan to say the least: being banned in different parts of India for multiple religious disagreements; protested against due to historical and cultural inaccuracies; feminists in uproar as to whether or not such a horrific act as jauhar should be presented with such stimulating aestheticism – and all the while the Rajput community being so incensed by the mere rumour as to whether or not a scene existed where the Muslim King fantasises about sleeping with the Hindu queen that a bounty of 10 crore (so over £85, 000, 000) was put out for the removal of Padukone’s head. Regardless, Padukone pursued the release of the film and didn’t shy away from the controversy. She is additionally very open about feminism and her experiences tackling depression; another of her achievements being the establishment of the Live, Love, Laugh foundation for mental health awareness in India. Finally, to top it all off, her latest exciting project will be portraying acid-attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal in Chhapaak scheduled to come out later this year. She is a legend – enough said.

Priyanka Chopra

Regardless of whether she is in India or America, it is indisputable that Bollywood was lucky to ever have Priyanka Chopra. The fact that her status as the newly-wed wife to Nick Jonas has plagued her image as she continues to be comparatively unknown in the western world is both heart-breaking and extremely annoying, because here is an individual that deserves your undivided respect. Everyone likes to tirade about Chopra being built up as a sex symbol since the age of nineteen; whether she almost broke up the marriage of Shah Rukh Khan, or even if that’s her real nose. Yet nobody talks about how she, like Padukone, has claimed her place on Time’s list as one of the 100 most influential people in the world and sits pretty on the Forbes’ list as one of the World’s Most Powerful Women. In addition to this, she was awarded the Padma Shri (the fourth highest civilian award by the Republic of India) in 2016, has won five Filmfare awards, and has been appointed as UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador for Child Rights twice.

In terms of her acting, Chopra’s abilities are more than a little intimidating. Her first role in Aitraaz (2004) alone established her as a leading actress as this, coupled with a personal favourite in Yakeen (2005), allowed her to embrace the image of the psychotic femme fatale with unrestrained panache. If this wasn’t evidence enough of Chopra’s capability to revolutionise depictions of female sexuality within India, her role in Fashion (2008) is iconic for taking on something as taboo as the modelling industry, her command of empathy in tandem with toxicity being simply awe-inspiring. Since then she has flourished in other types of roles such as the autistic Jhilmil in Barfi! (2012), the titular figure in the biopic Mary Kom (2014), and as a talented businesswoman reprimanded by her in-laws for not being enough of a housewife in the brilliantly ambitious Dil Dhadakne Do (2015). Her most successful endeavour to date then is perhaps, despite being the supporting character, the overshadowed yet resilient wife in the historical love story Bajirao Mastani (2015) as critics were pretty much unanimous about how Chopra was more evocative than the leading couple put together. So yes – even if Quantico is not a national phenomenon and Chopra’s first Hollywood bonanzas are the materialistic likes of Baywatch (2017) and Isn’t It Romantic (2019), even then she has still succeeded in being the first South Asian to ever win a People’s Choice Award and has integrated into the western social media stream with ease. Priyanka Chopra then is a credit to filmmaking as she embraces her sexuality with enviable sophistication; her intellectuality bolstered with determination. But sure – let’s carry on dismissing her as our favourite Jo Bro’s foreign wife, and pretend we care about international female representation.

Tanika Lane

Image Courtesy of Junglee Pictures/Dharma Productions