Dus Numbri – Incredible Female Performances

As part of the features section on Upperstall, I have been trying to start a series on Ten Best or ‘Dus Numbri’ on various aspects of Indian cinema for quite some time. To get it off the ground, I hounded various colleagues better qualified than me to contribute – amongst others fellow Upperstall blogger and Documentary filmmaker Paromita Vohra for the Best Indian Documentaries down the years, Editor friend Jabeen Merchant to list what she thinks are the Best Edited films in Indian cinema and Screenwriter Anjum Rajabali for his take on the ten best scripted films in India.  It was an enthusiastic response with them all wanting to do it but with all of them being busy professionals as well, things didn’t really move beyond honourable intentions.  So thinking that the best way is to lead from the front and get things rolling, I’m finally starting the series on this blog with what I think have been the ten great female performances in our cinema.

Gauri – Sant Tukaram (1936)
Gauri broke new ground in this early Prabhat classic with her earthy and rustic portrayal of Tukaram’s wife. Her realistic (for its time) performance is easily the life of the film be it energetically squeezing cow dung cakes for fuel or berating Tukaram to fulfil his responsibilities as head of the family. Ever the practical woman, she refuses to ascend to heaven preferring to stay back and look after the children. It is a scene stealing act that overpowers even Pagnis’ magnificent performance in the title role! And to think Gauri initially joined Prabhat Film Company as a menial!

Nargis – Mother India (1957)
What more can one say about Nargis’ performance of a lifetime in Mehboob’s classic tribute to Indian womanhood that narrowly missed Oscar glory?  Even the hard-to-please Baburao Patel in his Filmindia review had to concede, “Remove Nargis and there is no Mother India. Nargis is both the body and soul of the picture. Never before has this girl given such a superb and dynamic performance. Nargis reaches such rare heights of emotion that it will be difficult to find another artiste in the entire film world today to compare with her. Nargis lives the role better than Radha could have lived it.” Nargis won the Filmfare Award for Best Actress as well as the Best Actress Award at the prestigious Karlovy Vary Film Festival, the first Indian actress to win a major award outside India.

Madhubala – Mughal-e-Azam (1960)
Sadly, Madhubala’s incredible beauty often took away from her tremendous ability as an actress. She was brilliant in comedy with her sense of comic timing spot on and she came up with performances of high dramatic calibre in Amar (1954) and especially Mughal-e-Azam. K Asif’s masterpiece shows the finely modulated depth she could bring to her performances if given the opportunity. It is without doubt the greatest performance of her career as she immortalized the tragic character of Anarkali as no other actress and made the role her own. The romantic sequences between her and Dilip Kumar are amongst the best depictions of romance ever seen on the Indian screen. Who can forget the scene of Dilip Kumar stroking her impassioned face with a feather to the strains of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan in the background? It is shocking that she lost the Filmfare Award for Best Actress to Bina Rai for her comeback in Ghunghat, easily one of the worst decisions in Filmfare’s history.

Supriya Devi – Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960)
Supriya Devi gives an absolutely stunning performance in Ritwik Ghatak’s masterpiece, Meghe Dhaka Tara  as the sole breadwinner in a poor refugee family. The film was one of the rare ones, which allowed her to break her star image and break new ground as a performer. She later recounted that under Ghatak’s able direction, she was able to discover her hidden talents and in her portrayal, she had to dig deep into her personal experiences as a refugee from Burma. Her heart-rending cry reverberating amidst the mountains at the end of the film, “Dada! I want to live!” makes one’s hair stand on end. It is one of the greatest and most emotional moments in the history of Indian cinema.


Meena Kumari – Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962)
Meena Kumari’s portrayal of Chhoti Bahu, to me, is perhaps the greatest woman performance ever seen on the Hindi screen. Produced by Guru Dutt, the film sees her play Chhoti Bahu, the youngest bride in an aristocratic zamindar family who strives to make her errant husband return to her by turning to alcohol even at the risk of self-destruction. Meena Kumari is simply haunting in the film right from her unforgettable introduction as a startled Bhootnath looks up at her when she remarks on his name being beautiful. The build up reminds one of Orson Welles’ introduction in The Third Man (1949). She is superb in every scene she appears in the film. Just see her when she has become a desperate alcoholic and pleads with her husband to stay with her and then angrily turns on him to tell him how she has prostituted her basic values and morals just to please him. To put it simply, she is unforgettable. That year Meena Kumari made history as she garnered all the three Best Actress nominations for the Filmfare Award – For Aarti (1962), Main Chup Rahungi (1962) and, of course, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam for which she won the award.

Nutan – Bandini (1963)
Nutan had taken a break from acting when Bimal Roy convinced her to return to the screen to what would be arguably her greatest ever performance. Bandini’s story is based on a book by Jarasandha, a former jail superintendent who wrote fictional versions of his experiences (Louha-Kapat (1953), Tamasha (1958), Nyaydanda (1961)). Set at a time when women had no choices, the film’s protagonist Kalyani had the courage to not only make choices in her life but choices which at times might appear to be even wrong ones as she gives up everything for love. Totally devoid of melodrama, Nutan plays the role internally with her passions raging from within with great delicacy and subtlety. One just has to see the entire gamut of emotions fleeting across her face even as a welder is in action in the film’s key sequence as she decides to murder her lover’s wife. It is a masterful performance by one of Indian cinema’s greatest actresses.

Suchitra Sen – Saat Pake Bandha (1963)
This one was tough. Suchitra Sen has also given iconic performances in Deep Jwale Jai (1959), Shabtapadi (1961) and Uttar Falguni (1963) but ultimately her Award winning act in Saat Pake Bandha gets my nod. Saat Pake Bandha sees her give one of her best performances ever, a finely nuanced act, as she evolves from a young college girl to a married woman unable to save her marriage. Suchitra ably portrays her helplessness as she gets caught in the crossfire between her mother and her husband with neither really caring about the effect all this is having on her. Her close-ups with her face going through a myriad of expressions are astonishing to say the least. The film would win her the Best Actress Award at the Moscow Film Festival, the third International award for an Indian actress, following Chunibala Devi at Milan for Pather Panchali (1955) and Nargis’ win at Karlovy Vary for Mother India (1957).

Madhabi Mukherjee – Charulata (1964)
Even if the only role she ever played was the title role in this Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece, Madhabi Mukherjee would still be considered among the all time greats of Bengali cinema, such was her impact in the role. As the bored and neglected housewife in Victorian Calcutta of the 1870s who gets attracted to her husband’s cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), Madhabi makes the central role of Charu her own. She lives the role. Madhabi  is Charulata. Till date Madhabi in Charulata remains the benchmark for what an ideal Tagore heroine should be and it is said that when Ray returned to Tagore with Ghare Baire (1984), he stylised Swatilekha Chatterjee in a manner simlilar to Madhabi in Charulata.

Waheeda Rehman – Guide (1965)
When Waheeda Rehman agreed to take on the role of Rosie in a cinematic adaptation of RK Narayan’s novel, The Guide, she was told she was committing professional suicide. After all, she was playing a woman who walks out of her marriage and subsequently lives-in with another man who helps her becomes a famous artiste. It went against Indian tradition complained the purists. However, it is to Waheeda’s credit that she was able to humanize Rosie and get the viewer’s sympathy with her rather than against her. She is simply outstanding in the film in her portrayal of an adulterous, career-minded, strong woman. Never has she looked, acted or danced better! Though RK Narayan disowned the film, he had absolutely no complaints with Waheeda’s Filmfare Award winning act as Rosie.

Smita Patil – Bhumika (1977)
Bhumika is inspired from and is a fictional recreation of the autobiography of the famous Hindi and Marathi screen actress of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Hansa Wadkar. Within the film, Smita Patil’s depiction of different roles in the films that she performs in, not only traces the evolution of acting styles in Hindi cinema over three decades, but also demonstrates her remarkable histrionic ability as she effortlessly straddles the various acting styles with an ease that only a gifted performer is born with. It is a performance of the highest order and deservedly won her the National Award for Best Actress.

Outside the ten, I would have liked to include these fine female acts  as well – Devika Rani (Achhut Kannya(1936)), Savithri (Kalathur Kannamma (1960)), P Bhanumathi (Annai (1962)), Sheela (Chemmeen (1965)), Nanda (Ittefaq (1969)), Tanuja (Anubhav (1971)), Jaya Bhaduri (Guddi (1971)), Sharada (Swayamvaram (1972)), Shabana Azmi (Ankur (1974)), Jennifer Kapoor (36 Chowringhee Lane (1981)) and Madhuri Dixit (Mrityudand (1997)).

NB: This list is my personal choice and is naturally based on films that I have seen. Also, as there would be several of you who would agree with some of my choices and many who would disagree, do add your comments and choices as well.

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  1. Valid observation Sachin. That’s because I think once the era of the angry young man started, the heroine’s roles began reducing in importance. Mainstream Hindi cinema has never thereafter really been able to write believable substantial roles for women. Even till recently for instance, Kareena had a decent role and was good though not great in ‘Jab we Met.’ But it was enough to sweep all the Best Actress awards everywhere, which just shows the paucity of good roles for women.

    The New Indian cinema of the 1970s and 1980s did have substantial enough roles for women like Smita Patil in ‘Chakra’, ‘Umbartha’ or ‘Mirch Masala’ or Shabana in ‘Mandi’, ‘Khandhar ‘or ‘Paar.’ And Malayalam cinema in its golden age during the 1980s had some very interesting roles for actresses like Shobana but unfortunately haven’t seen too many of these films.

  2. As i go through the list i see none from the 80’s,90’s & the current decade. Does that mean we have stopped writing stronger woman characters or with the changing social structure of our country, the women have been empowered socially but they dont register on screen

  3. Agree wholeheartedly with your choices. Karuna Bandopadhaya in Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito deserves a special mention. Smita Patil in Mrinal Sen’s Akaler Sandhane too was great – the manner in which she handled an alien language is just amazing.

  4. Which Main? What Cross?
    Have heard a lot about Kanagal’s work with Kalpana but yes, guilty of not having seen his films…

    There’s nothing sad about Madhubala’s beauty. She was an incredibly beautiful woman, perhaps the most beautiful Indian actress ever. What I was trying to say is that unfortunately she wasn’t taken as seriously as an actress as her immense talent demanded because her beauty overrode everything else.

    You must watch Saat Pake Bandha. The DVD is out. It was re-made as Kora Kaagaz in 1974 and good as Jaya Bhaduri was, Suchitra was simply matchless.

  5. It’s a perfect list. Though I have to see ‘Saat Pake Bandha’, I find Suchitra Sen lovely. And I haven’t seen ‘Bhumika’ as well. Time to catch up.

    I think Hema Malini in ‘Laal Patthar’ is also very good.

  6. Agree with the list. Am thinking really hard if you missed anybody. I think you may be biased against Ms Azmi and all other new crop actors…what about Manisha Koirala, Tabu…two names I can think right off.

  7. Point noted Mr. Pinto. More than revealing my biases, I would say this list is based on films I’ve seen but yes, I agree this list has got performances here mainly from Hindi and Bengali with one from Marathi with one each in English and Malayalam in the special mentions. In that sense there is a huge gap from the South especially, which I’ve admitted in the piece itself. I would look at this once I get into more Dus Numbris and yes definitely open it up language wise as we have an extremely rich and varied cinema culture across India.

    It was between Waheeda in Guide and Shabana in Ankur or Arth for me but people can differ in choices and ultimately Waheeda got my nod. I think in Guide she has gone beyond just looking beautiful and dancing well and created one of the most memorable female characters in Indian cinema.

    Konkana is a good artiste but as I see more and more of her performances I feel she is repeating herself and honestly no performance of hers, Mr and Mrs Iyer included, to me makes it to this list. Each of the performances on the list to me are superior. Again, it’s a personal choice…

  8. I think you should have stuck to Hindi cinema or Bengali cinema. It’s as if you think there are two cinemas out there: Hindi and Bengali. You could have done a list of the ten best performances in Hindi and the ten best performances in Bengali. This might even have encouraged others to offer Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Marathi lists.
    But by framing the list this way, you’re revealing your biases. Two canonical cinemas. No others.
    I would think the omission of Shabana Azmi is inexcusable. I don’t think Waheeda Rehman did much in Guide other than look beautiful and dance beautifully. The famous excavation scene, when looked at now, seems a bit forced. The risk she took was in accepting the role. Everything after that was within the purview of the act.
    And Konkona SenSharma?

  9. Yes Ram, Jennifer was indeed brilliant in 36 Chowringhee Lane and I really wanted to be able to include her in the list but…Certainly, hers was the female performance of the year in 1981.

  10. my list, not in order of preference- madhubala- chalti ka naam gaadi, beena rai- ghunghat, hema malini- sholay, jaya bhaduri- guddi, nutan- bandini, madhabi mukherjee- charulata, leena chanravarkar- manchali, jharana das- amada bata (untrodden path- odia movie), sadhana- who kaun thi, mala sinha- gumrah.

  11. Thanks for your feedback Nadi. But I disagree. There is a strong co-relation between the role and the performance. True, they were all well etched out characters but it is the performances of the actresses that finally brought the characters alive and rendered them immortal in the annals of our cinema’s history.

  12. my favorites too.

    was nice to read about them.

    However, you are falling into the same trap that all of us do-

    mistaking the role for the perfomance.

    your 10 best female perfomances are actually your 10 favorite women characters in cinema.

    yes, agreed that in all these cases, the acting has been good; but how come we never remember one ‘ordinary’ character which has been depicted very efficiently- ‘performed well’?

  13. Well thought out and comprehensive list… Agree with Monish on Karuna Bandopadhaya in Aparajito, Smita Patil in Chakra was very good too. Can we have a list of Bollywood’s ‘hottest’ heroines/performances

  14. great selection…I tend to agree with most of your choices, especially Madhabi Mukherjee in Charulata, Waheeda Rehman in Guide, Smita Patil in Bhumika, Supriya Devi in Meghe Dhaka Tara, Nargis in Mother India, Suchitra Sen in Saat Pake Bandha and Nutan in Bandini as well as ALL of your special mentions…although women-oriented roles and films feature quite prominently in Hindi cinema, I believe your list is a commendable achievement in highlighting the cream of the crop, and that being said, I hope you do not mind if I confide in you some selections of my own, namely…

    Raakhee Gulzar in Aparna Sen’s Paroma (Bengali) (1984)

    Dimple Kapadia in Kalpana Lajmi’s Rudaali (Hindi) (1993)

    Deepti Naval in Nandita Das’ Firaaq (Hindi) (2009)

    Soundarya in Girish Kasaravalli’s Dweepa (Kannada) (2002)

    Tabu in Gulzar’s Maachis (Hindi) (1996), Mahesh Manjrekar’s Astitva (Hindi/Marathi) (2000), Madhur Bhandarkar’s Chandni Bar (Hindi) (2001), Meghnaa Gulzar’s Filhaal (Hindi) (2002), Vishal Bharadwaj’s Maqbool (Hindi) (2003), Goutam Ghosh’s Abar Aranye (Bengali) (2003) and R Balki’s Cheeni Kum (2007)

    Lakshmi (of Julie (1975) fame) in Mani Ratnam’s Pallavi Anupallavi (Kannada) (1983)

    Sharmila Tagore in Satyajit Ray’s Devi (Bengali) (1960), Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anupama (Hindi) (1966) and Mahesh Manjrekar’s Viruddh (Hindi) (2005)

    Sujatha in K Balachander’s Avargal (Tamil) (1977)

    Mukta Barve in Rajiv Patil’s Jogwa (Marathi) (2010)

    Vanisri (Telugu film actress) in Shyam Benegal’s Kondura (Hindi) (1977)

    Sharada in A Vincent’s Thulabharam (Malayalam) (1969)

    Nandita Das in KNT Sastry’s Kamli (Telugu) (2006)

    Rekha in Manik Chatterjee’s Ghar (Hindi) (1978)

    Swatilekha Chatterjee in Satyajit Ray’s Ghare-Baire (Bengali) (1985)

    Tisca Chopra in Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par (Hindi) (2007) and Nandita Das’ Firaaq (Hindi) (2009)

    Padmini in P Subramaniam’s Adhyapika (Malayalam) (1968)

    Kiron Kher in Rituparno Ghosh’s Bariwali (Bengali) (1999)

    Archana in Balu Mahendra’s Veedu (Tamil) (1988)

    Vidya Sinha in Basu Chatterjee’s Rajnigandha (Hindi) (1974)

    Aditi Deshpande in Gajendra Ahire’s Not Only Mrs Raut (Marathi) (2003)

    Shobha in K Balachander’s Nizhal Nijamagiradhu (Tamil) (1978)

    Konkona Sen Sharma in Aparna Sen’s Iti Mrinalini (Bengali) (2010)

    Leela Naidu in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anuradha (Hindi) (1960) and Shyam Benegal’s Trikal (Hindi) (1985)

    Shabana Azmi in Shyam Benegal’s Ankur (Deccani) (1974) and Mandi (Hindi) (1983), Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh (Hindi) (1980), Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth (Hindi) (1982), Shekar Kapur’s Masoom (Hindi) (1983), Aparna Sen’s Sati (Bengali) (1989), Deepa Mehta’s Fire (English) (1996) and Mahesh Dattani’s Morning Raga (English) (2004)

    Mala Sinha in Yash Chopra’s Dhool Ke Phool (Hindi) (1959) and BR Chopra’s Gumrah (Hindi) (1962)

    Nirupa Roy in Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen (Hindi) (1953) and Yash Chopra’s Dharamputra (Hindi) (1960)

    Kalpana in Puttana Kannagal’s Gejje Pooje (Kannada) (1969)

    Aparna Sen in Satyajit Ray’s Teen Kanya (Bengali) (1960)

    Tulip Joshi in Manish Jha’s Matrubhoomi (Hindi) (2003)

    Lisa Ray in Deepa Mehta’s Water (Hindi) (2006)

    …so it’s like, a triple dose of Dus Numbri, which I hope you would not find too annoying or overwhelming

  15. I would like to add : Shabana Azmi for Arth.

    Agree with most of the others, the ones I have seen, that is.

    I find it very hard to list 10 Best because my memory could be playing tricks, or we get lured into listing the performances/songs that ‘always’ mentioned in such lists. Maybe there can be other parameters like a decade wise list or genre based list or picking the best from the repertoire of an actor.

    In 2014 I feel, we had great performances from Kangana Ranaut – Queen, and Alia Bhatt – Highway.

  16. Thanks for writing in, Ava. Yes a Dus Numbri like this is a tough act to follow unless we make it more specific! That’s what we aim to do with our lists in future.

    Shabana was certainly excellent in Arth but I thought she had the author-backed, obvious role. I actually preferred Smita who had the tougher role as the neurotic mistress and who did full justice to it!

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