Most of us know about and root for spunky mainstream Bollywood ‘heroines’ who remind us that they’re actresses first. Leading ladies like Deepika Padukone, Anushka Sharma, Kangana Ranaut and Kareena Kapoor walk the fine line between commerce and art, content and mass appeal, and continue to evolve as their careers go on. Then there are the all-out glam girls, who aspire for little more except mega-hits and studio vehicles – Katrina Kaif, Sonakshi Sinha, Asin, Jacqueline Fernandez and a few more. They even succeed at the numbers game, and perhaps nobody should begrudge them their space and success.
But there are some real artists – performers born to be on stage and on screen – who, after many years, still find it tough to find a place in viewers’ hearts. In most other countries, they’d be honored and lavished with far more attention, simply because of their understanding and respect of craft. Here are five actresses – who many have seen off and on in Indian films over the years – that are way ahead of their peers, and perhaps deserve many more opportunities in the mainstream:
Many first recognize her as the shy, timid maid Alice from Monsoon Wedding. Back in 2001 itself, she disarmed audiences with her expressions – as if she understood exactly how she looked and what each twirl of her lip portrayed. Over the years, the Bengali actress experimented with films, good and bad – Turning 30, Q’s trippy indie Tasher Desh and Dibakar Banerjee’s critically acclaimed Shanghai. But she once again hit home hard with her unconventional choices recently – she appeared as a Bangladesh Liberation war rape victim in the underrated and brutal Children of War, followed by perhaps the best performance (male or female) as a girl being forced to grow up as a boy in the post-Partition tale Qissa. She even appeared, with all her magic still intact, as the frog-in-a-pond housewife, the yin to Konkona’s yang in the acclaimed short Nayantara’s Necklace, reminding filmmakers that it is their loss that they have overlooked her presence for more than a decade.
The Punjabi actress, who plays the fiancee to Shome’s boy character in Qissa, is another very competent actor who burst onto the scene with the gritty, psychologically complex black-and-white indie Kshay in 2012. She played a housewife, who, as one part of a young couple struggling to stay afloat in Mumbai, focuses all her attention and energies to procure a fancy idol of the Goddess Lakshmi. This turns into an obsession, and damages her marriage and life; her downward spiral is frightening and realistic, thanks to Dugal’s instinctive performance. Before Kshay, she appeared in a few forgettable mainstream misses (Hijack, Agyaat, Tahaan). She was noticed in Qissa for her vivid portrayal of an innocent gypsy girl confused by the sexuality of her lover; the film was an ode to two of the bravest and strongest performances seen on screen in recent times.
The Delhi-born actress was first noticed as the ‘hyper-kinetic’, nervous news reporter (under Rani Mukerji) in No One Killed Jessica. She showed real glimpses of talent in the one scene where she had to conduct a sting operation with an actor in a hotel room. She once again appeared as a reporter in PK, under Anushka Sharma, but was largely wasted in the role. Finally, she got her due in the hit web-series Pitchers – she shined as the slightly eccentric Shreya, the career-oriented, caring girlfriend of lead character Naveen Bansal (Naveen Kasturia). Even though their distinctly urban, yuppie relationship is a bit inconsistent and undercooked, Gagroo proved that she has much to offer in her ‘interpretation’ of mainstream roles, too.
She has had far more exposure on screen than the junior actresses on this list, and has been a theatre veteran and solid performer on stage for more than two decades. However, her true integration into mainstream cinema happened with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s impassioned Black – where she excelled as the evocative, loving mother to a deaf, blind and mute child. Her face, when Michelle manages to speak her first word under the tutelage of Amitabh’s teacher character, is forever etched in the memories of moviegoers. Many shed a tear when she did during that scene, and after that, her movie choices haven’t been as substantial or memorable. She shined briefly in Guzaarish too, as well as in Rockstar, Talaash and The President Is Coming, but she has now been stereotyped as the stern, good-hearted mother to pretty/young faces in most of these films.
Perhaps the most mainstream of them all so far, the young Pune-born actress has had a stellar 2015 – but will start to worry about being overexposed after appearing as many variations of the same character. She stood out in Badlapur, charmed in Hunterrr, didn’t quite fit into Manjhi, and overdid the surreal in the short film Ahalya. Quite amazing, that just a year ago, nobody knew that she existed. This is not all that surprising, considering she had done a lot of regional cinema and bit roles in offbeat Hindi movies like I Am and Shor In The City. She appeared in the decent satire Kaun Kitney Paani Mein too, but one is beginning to wonder if she can break past her fixed presence as a natural, ethereal face with some substance. 2016 will be an important year for her, as Parched, a strong Leena Yadav film, enters the festival circuit, while she has also landed a lead role opposite superstar Rajinikanth himself in the Tamil mob drama Kabali.