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.