How has the Bollywood Heroine Image Changed?

The image of a Bollywood heroine has developed drastically over many decades. DESIblitz explores and analyses these changes.

How has the Bollywood Heroine Image Changed? - f1

"I am open to doing intimate scenes in a film."

When one generally thinks about a Bollywood heroine, the image that comes to mind depends on several factors.

These elements can include favourite actresses, performances and what generation the audience is from. For example, the audience from the 60s will envision a different image to a viewer in 2021.

The heroine’s code of clothing, her body language and facial expressions all play a part in the image consumption.

Some say that older Bollywood heroines have more class and elegance. Others opine that 2021 Bollywood heroines are sexier and bolder.

In turn, those rooting against the newer Bollywood heroines think that they are too vulgar. While criticising the performances of actresses in Indian movies, critics often use the phrase, “just eye-candy.”

Delving further into these differences, we explore how the image of the Bollywood heroine has changed over the different decades.

Clothing and Body Language

A film is a visual experience and its success largely depends on what the audience sees in front of them. Apart from the film’s story, this can include many other things.

People are always drawn to colour, performance, and style. Within India, Bollywood has always had a massive influence on fashion.

The way an actress moves onscreen and her costumes are pivotal to the way a Bollywood heroine’s image is perceived.

So how has this changed?

The 1940s and 50s: Traditional to Modern

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In the 40s, Suraiya was the leading Bollywood actress. Suraiya Ji is a singing and acting legend who had done iconic work in films such as Jeet (1949) and Badi Behen (1949).

In these films, Suraiya Ji wears traditional sarees and her hair is rarely loose. This represents the conservative nature of Indian women for that time.

In a 1994 press conference, Suraiya Ji discusses her disdain at the difference between film censorship of her time and newer generations:

“There are some films now which are made and I am amazed at how the censor board is passing them!”

Suraiya Ji also went on to criticise the level of sexual scenes in new films. All this shows how strict the image of Bollywood heroines was during the 40s.

In the 50s, Madhubala wore the crown of stardom. Unlike the 40s persona, her image seems more liberal.

People notably regard Madhubala Ji as a style icon. In 2019, the Times of India lists six iconic fashion statements of the Tarana (1951) actress. These include hip-wide trousers and off-shoulder dresses.

If a top 50s Bollywood heroine is known for setting fashion trends, then that image was certainly changing.

Madhubala Ji dances seductively in a wavy dress in ‘Aaye Meherbaan‘ from Howrah Bridge (1958). Her sultry expressions are infectious.

Her boldness indicates the development of an actress’s image.

The 60s and 70s: Revealing Images

How has the Bollywood Heroine Image Changed_ –The 60s and 70s_ Revealing Images

The 60s and 70s saw a shift in the image of Bollywood heroines in terms of clothing. A trend that began towards the end of the 50s was growing rapidly.

Filmmakers such as Raj Kapoor and Yash Chopra were unafraid to showcase their leading ladies in a revealing manner.

In Raj Ji’s Sangam (1964), Vyjayanthimala stars as Radha Mehra/Radha Sundar Khanna. As an adult, she first appears in a lake scene.

Radha swims while she wears a swimsuit. Her bare legs kick the water as she teases Sundar Khanna (Raj Kapoor).

In the song ‘Budda Mil Gaya,’ her body language is bold and daring. She also wears tight jeans. There is a lot of leg movement and at one point, she sits on Sundar’s lap.

In a scene from Yash Chopra’s Waqt (1965), Meena Mittal (Sadhana Shivdasani) is visibly changing clothes in a swimming cubicle. According to IMDB, the censors almost cut the scene due to its sensuous nature.

The song, ‘Aasman Se Aaya Farishta‘ from An Evening in Paris (1967) also showcases Deepa Malik (Sharmila Tagore) in swimwear.

All these songs and films became big hits, depicting that such themes and picturisation of Bollywood heroines were popular.

In the 70s, Raj Ji made Bobby (1973), which starred Dimple Kapadia as Bobby Braganza. As a teenager, in some of the iconography, Dimple is seen in short, skimpy clothing and swimwear.

During a 2016 appearance in Aap Ki Adalat, Rishi Kapoor, lead actor of Bobby stated the image changed for Bollywood actresses after Bobby:

“Before, actresses in Indian films were called ‘women.’ After Bobby, they came to be known as ‘girls’.”

Rishi’s recollections aptly describe the change in how the industry and the audience perceived women in Indian cinema.

After the 70s: Liberal Intimacy

How has the Bollywood Heroine Image Changed_ – After the 70s_ Liberal Intimacy

The 70s onwards show Rishi Kapoor’s aforementioned idea develop further. The clothes and body language of the Bollywood heroine changed even more.

In movies between the 80-90s, actresses including Rekha, Sridevi, and Madhuri Dixit are seen wearing western clothes. A lot of jeans, skirts, and colourful blouses are visible onscreen.

Rani Mukherji dazzles in short skirts in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) as Tina Malhotra. She is a college bomb and the way her image is presented proves that.

With the entrance of social media and advancing technology, these representations are actually sometimes as important as the role itself.

The audience loves to see intimacy and physical contact on the screen. Therefore, in some films, there are a lot more kissing and sexual sequences.

Kareena Kapoor Khan asserts that she has no issue with such scenes if the script requires them:

“I am open to doing intimate scenes in a film. Whatever the script requires, I do it.”

Actresses including Mandakini, Zeenat Aman, Rekha, Kajol, and Kareena have all removed their clothing for filming such scenes.

However, some people, such as Suraiya Ji, were evidently unhappy with the supposedly vulgar manner in the portrayal of Indian heroines.

So, it could perhaps depend on how the audience takes these depictions.

Types of Roles

The 1940s and 1950s: Changes begin

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A key part of a successful film is what characters the audience meets in the cinema auditorium. They can determine the fate of a movie.

Bollywood heroines are becoming more dynamic and vibrant in the roles that they perform.

In the 40s, movies with strong female characters did release. Films like Vidya (1948) and Andaz (1949) have strong women at the forefront.

However, they were not as common as male-oriented films. In the 50s, characterisation shows a transition, with more female-oriented films leading the industry. In 1957, Nargis played a broken mother in Mother India. 

Her challenging role of Radha is of an archetypal Indian woman. Despite this, she shone with gusto. Her expressions in emotional scenes and rage in moments of anger are still remembered.

Madhubala also gave a flamboyant performance in Mr and Mrs 55 (1955) as Anita Verma. Anita’s comedic, rapid dialogue delivery and how she finds love within a sham marriage is identifiable and memorable.

Highlighting an important Indian institution like marriage ascertains the development of the types of roles for heroines.

The 1960s: Strong Women

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Actresses like Vyjayanthimala and Waheeda Rehman achieved monumental success in the 60s.

For example, the former appears in films such as Gunga Jumna (1961) and Sangam (1964). In both films, she plays a character who is the epitome of willpower and strength.

As Dhanno in Gunga Jumna, Vyjayanthimala Ji is determined with a steely grit to her.

On the other hand as Radha Mehra /Radha Sundar Khanna, she overshadows male co-stars Raj Kapoor and Rajendra Kumar. Caught between love and marriage, she wins the empathy of the audience.

Gunga Jumna and Sangam won Vyjayanthimala Ji Filmfare ‘Best Actress’ awards in 1962 and 1965 respectively.

In Guide (1965), Waheeda Rehman plays Rosie Marco/Miss Nalini. Rosie is a frustrated housewife who falls in love with Raju, a tourist guide (Dev Anand). In his company, she becomes a famous dancer.

Guide presents Waheeda Ji displaying her wide acting range. In the form of Rosie, her variations of moods are outstanding.

In the book, Bollywood’s Top 20 (2012), Jerry Pinto delves into the significant differences in Waheeda Ji’s role in Guide to the typical Bollywood heroine:

“It is not quite the kind of role that established women stars took on easily in 1965. That was the year in which Meena Kumari was weeping her eyes out again because Raaj Kumar insisted on drinking.

“Rosie does no such thing. She enjoys her wordly success and gets on with the business of living.”

The sentiments of Jerry show that Waheeda Ji performed a woman of substance and someone who knows her own mind. She won a Filmfare ‘Best Actress’ award in 1967 for Guide. 

The 1970s-1990s: The Rise of Feminism

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It is refreshing to see both male and female directors showcase strong women. These filmmakers and actresses all shape an attractively independent Bollywood heroine.

In the 70s, Raj Kapoor formed a penchant for making films featuring a strong female protagonist. Dimple Kapadia wowed in Bobby, giving Indian cinema an original take on the Bollywood heroine image.

Raj Ji’s Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978) presents a scarred Zeenat Aman with a beautiful singing voice. This proves that beauty is not everything. As Roopa, Zeenat possesses feminism in spades.

Between the 80s and 90s, Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla were the reigning queens. Shahid Khan from Planet Bollywood praises Sridevi’s gravitas in Mr India (1987):

“A definite feast for Sridevi fans…some who still argue that the movie should have been called ‘Miss India’ instead.”

Shahid’s point shows the power a Bollywood heroine has in a movie. Madhuri Dixit is also extremely popular for her meaty roles of the 90s.

Madhuri has several award-winning films to her name including Dil (1990) and Dil To Pagal Hai (1997).

In 1993, Meenakshi Seshadri starred as Damini Gupta in Rajkumar Santoshi’s Damini – Lightning. This film about a brave woman standing up for rape justice against her own family is a classic.

The scene where Damini lifts a sledgehammer against a group of attackers is feminism in all its glory.

The 2000s and 2010s: An Era of Firsts

How has the Bollywood Heroine Image Changed_ – The 2000s and 2010s_ An Era of Firsts

In the 2000s and 2010s, several woman-centric films show the power of Bollywood heroines. One of these is Queen (2013).

Kangana Ranaut stars as Rani Mehra. She is a simple girl who is dumped by her fiance Vijay (Rajkummar Rao).

A solo honeymoon turns into an epic journey of self-discovery. In a review, Shubhra Gupta from The Indian Express speaks glowingly of her the heroine’s masterful performance:

“Kangana Ranaut revels in her solidly-written role, and delivers a first rate, heart-felt performance. She does hurt like no other Bollywood heroine currently can.”

The final scene where Rani walks away, leaving a wistful Vijay behind has viewers cheering for her.

Veere Di Wedding (2018) is also a first for the Bollywood heroine image in many ways. It is a film about four young women finding themselves.

It is one of the few Indian films which contains a masturbation scene and one where women openly discuss sex and sexual desires.

Rachit Gupta from Times of India labels the film as “a different path.”

He recognises the aforementioned firsts in the film. He also appreciates the effort the movie  makes to show the reality of female sensuality:

“We’ve rarely seen women on screen who are so uninhibited about their life, sexuality and desires. In that respect, Veere Di Wedding is a brave effort indeed.”

Rachit continues to talk about the attraction of the film to a more young audience:

“This film will find an appeal with the younger generations who can relate to the discussions and dilemmas.”

The types of roles for actresses are definitely continuing to evolve. Breaking away from stereotypes and brave storytelling have all changed the image of the Bollywood heroine.

Music and Dance

The 50s and 60s: Elegance and Melody

How has the Bollywood Heroine Image Changed_ – The 50s and 60s_ Elegance and Melody

The 50s and 60s are known as the ‘Golden Age’ of Bollywood. Melodious music adorns Indian cinema of that period.

The Bollywood heroines of that time personify elegance and grace. In the 50s, there were not so many noticeable dances and little choreography.

However, actresses got away with strutting, strolling, and smiling their way through in these songs.

For example, a famous song from the 50s is ‘Pyaar Hua Ikraar Hua‘ from the film Shree 420 (1955). It shows Vidya (Nargis) walking behind Ranbir Raj (Raj Kapoor).

There is no significant dancing from Nargis Ji, but the audience still adores and remembers this song. The brightness in Nargis Ji’s face is a canvas for romance.

Whilst dancing had not been dominant in the 50s, the little that did appear was a joy to watch. In ‘Ude Jab Jab Zulfen Teri‘ from Naya Daur (1957), Rajni (Vyjayanthimala) presents some excellent steps.

The 60s went onto showcase the image of women with more bashfulness. Heroines including Madhubala, Vyjayanthimala and Waheeda Rehman all performed great dance numbers.

Waheeda Ji proves what a great dancer she is in ‘Piya Tose Naina Laage Re‘ from Guide (1965). As Rosie Marco / Miss Nalini, she sways and moves through the song with elegance and dignity.

Suhasini Krishnan from The Quint has an emotional reaction to the song, which she found very touching:

“I found myself tearing up – I was simply moved by how beautiful it was.”

Suhasini’s reception of the song shows the charm of Waheeda Ji.

One can deduce from this information that the 50s and 60s carry an image of elegance and sophistication of Bollywood heroines.

The 70s and 80s: Rise of Choreography

How has the Bollywood Heroine Image Changed_ – The 70s and 80s_ Rise of Choreography

One can notice that choreography is almost essential for heroines in Bollywood. In Bobby (1973), Bobby Braganza (Dimple Kapadia) dances her heart out in ‘Jhoot Bole Kauwa Kaate.’

A very famous routine exists in ‘Jab Tak Hai Jaan‘ from Sholay (1975). Within that number, Basanti (Hema Malini) dances until sweat pours from her face.

A viewer known as ‘Knowledge is Fun’ comments about Hema Ji’s amazing dance in this song on YouTube:

“What a brilliant performance by Hema Malini!”

Hema Ji outshines her co-actors in this song. The viewers melt like the remnants of the shattered glass she dances upon.

The 70s and 80s contain heroines with ‘vamp’ personalities. These include heroines who have a seductive yet charming image.

In the aforementioned Sholay, Helen appears in what is perhaps one of the first item numbers in Bollywood. Item numbers are songs, which are added to films and they usually feature guest appearances from stars.

Helen features in the song ‘Mehbooba Mehbooba‘ with Jalal Agha. This song is mostly remembered for the vocals of RD Burman.

It picturises Helen as a vamp dancing for Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan), with Jalal playing the rubab instrument.

In Umraao Jaan (1981), Rekha stars as a courtesan called Amiran/Umraao Jaan. She performs in many ghazals and her eyes are like ovals of seduction. Rekha notably also dances utilising ‘kathak steps.

In the 2016 biography, Rekha: The Untold Story, Yasser Usman quotes the actress as she reminisces about learning the challenging choreography:

“[Director] Muzaffar Ali had invited many nawabs of the bygone era. These nawabs were exclusively called to monitor my Kathak steps.

“Many a time, they guided me and came up with valuable suggestions, thus making my dance stand out.”

Rekha’s recollections determine how important dance is for the image of a Bollywood heroine.

The 90s and Beyond: Objectification and Item Numbers

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If dance was essential for Bollywood heroines in the 70s, by the 90s, it either made or broke a song.

In the 90s, actresses including Madhuri Dixit, Juhi Chawla, and Karisma Kapoor pioneered dance routines.

Songs like ‘Ek Do Teen’ from Tezaab (1988) and ‘Le Gayi’ from Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) showcase complex choreography.

However, the 90s also marked the beginning of objectifying songs that arguably presented women as playthings.

In Darr (1993), Rahul Mehra (Shah Rukh Khan) drenches Kiran Awasthi (Juhi Chawla) in champagne. This is from  the romantic ‘Tu Mere Saamne.’

With Kiran represented as Rahul’s source of amusement, this could be objectification.

The 2000s and 2010s have seen a massive rise in sexy and bold item numbers. In ‘Chikni Chameli‘ from Agneepath (2012), Katrina Kaif dances erotically, with a group of whistling men surrounding her.

Komal Nahta from Koimoi lists this song as a good element in the film. This proves the popularity of such iconography.

A similar item number exists in Brothers (2015) in the form of ‘Mera Naam Mary.’ The song focuses on Kareena Kapoor Khan (Mary).

She wears revealing clothes and swings her hips amid sexually-charged men. However, this song is not as popular as other item numbers.

Critical Views

Shubra Gupta from Indian Express is critical about ‘Mera Naam Mary’, saying:

“[It] is so generic that [Kareena] must have taken expressions and ‘thumkas’ from her previous ones and just rolled them out in this one.”

While recounting the worst Bollywood films of 2018, Anupama Chopra from Film Companion mentions Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety (2018).

She cringes at the sexual, misogynistic choreography in the song, ‘Bom Diggy Diggy:’

“Most of the film made me cringe, especially the chart-busting song, ‘Bom Diggy Diggy’, in which the leads are mock playing drums on womens’ rear-ends.”

The critique of both Shubhra and Anupama indicates the seemingly downward turn of Bollywood music and dance.

Actresses unfortunately seem to be more and more objectified and sexual. People are lapping this up. The image of the Bollywood heroine has undeniably changed through music and dance.

The Future

Pink (2016) and Thappad (2020)

How has the Bollywood Heroine Image Changed_ – Pink and Thappad

With so many dynamics and representations changing, what does the future hold for the image of the Bollywood heroine?

Pink is a courtroom drama featuring three female lead characters, including Minal Arora (Taapsee Pannu), Falak Ali (Kirti Kulhari), and Andrea Tariang (Andrea Tariang).

The veteran Amitabh Bachchan stars as their lawyer Deepak Seghal.

Led by heroines, the film deals with consent and sexual assault. Interestingly, Amitabh requested his name to appear after the actresses in the movie’s credits.

This was because he believed that the real stars of the film were the women.

In Thappad (2020), Taapsee plays a housewife called Amrita Sabharwal. She is a strong woman who divorces her husband due to a single slap.

Both Pink and Thappad contain a different kind of female heroine. They are not simply the archetypal strong matriarch. They are unafraid, unrelenting, and unbreakable.

Moreover, they are willing to go against social norms, even if that means putting themselves at risk.

In a Thappad review, Pallabi Dey Purkayastha from the Times of India writes about Taapsee’s acting range:

“Her portrayal is restrained but at the same time, in every scene she exposes a gamut of emotions — pain, disgust, regret and rage — without saying too much.

“If that is not a stupendous performance, we don’t know what is.”

Taapsee delivers a heart-wrenching performance in an image that could very easily be frowned upon in Indian society.

Pallabi also observes the typical Indian mentality regarding married women:

“Shaadi mein sab kuch chalta hain” (“Everything goes in marriage”).

This is one of several beliefs that Indian film heroines are modelled upon, but it is promising to see that changing.

What next?

Representations are always changing with the Bollywood heroine. From being conservative and supportive to onscreen male consorts, they are transforming into vivacious dancers.

More importantly, the industry is seeing a rise in more feminist material, which pioneer social change. This is, fortunately, leading to a shift in the image of actresses.

However, on the other hand, objectification and intimacy are not slowing down. Perhaps this goes to show that sexual material is easy to provoke in a human being.

In turn, this could increase the chances of the film’s success as well. It is undeniable that heroines have a more independent image. They are not just there to offer support or provide beauty.

Whether it is a matter of elegance or power, Bollywood is stepping in the right direction regarding this image.

After all, a talented actress, a strong character, and a good subject are all the ingredients for an unforgettable Bollywood heroine.

Manav is a creative writing graduate and a die-hard optimist. His passions include reading, writing and helping others. His motto is: “Never hang on to your sorrows. Always be positive."

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