Women hold a sacred place in Indian cinema. Pre-Christian rituals of worship are imbued on a screen projecting images of full-lipped goddesses. The inherent beauty of the female figure, the agility of the dancer, the playful sauciness, and above all, the promise of sex, is what endears these eight women to billions of moviegoers. Sex is less taboo and dirty in Indian cinema when rendered in a certain artistic, quasi-religious sort of way. Indeed, its procreative potential and its ability to excite the human consciousness grants it a divine status. Audiences don’t just drool and fantasize over these goddesses. Like their more cerebral Hollywood counterparts, Marlene Dietrich and Sharon Stone, they’re admired for their charisma, craft, elusiveness and unpredictability. As mutable as the Apsaras they recreate onscreen, these actresses grow more complex with each new film, tantalizing us with a spirited song sequence or surprising us with a new side of their acting, nuanced and original, that we didn’t expect to see.
Four of the eight actresses hail from South India, the heart of classical Indian dance. Dance is a vital aspect of worship in Hinduism. Shiva created the universe through dance, resolving and sustaining the cosmos via a sinuous ballet. A woman who is accomplished in the technique and discipline of classical dance is deeply respected for her beauty and her intelligence. South India’s starlets remind one of the primeval goddesses represented in cave sculptures: woman in its original, undiluted form.
One of the most popular stars of the 40s and 50s, Vyjayantimala, was the first big star from South India, no small feat in a North Indian-dominated film industry. With her astounding virtuosity at Bharatnatyam, her classical Earth Mother beauty, and her sensitive performances she paved the way for the other South Indian actresses. Hema Malini, the darling of the 70s, shared Vyjayantimala,’s talent for dance and arresting good looks, though she defined her persona as a wise-cracking, brassy skeptic along the lines of Jean Harlow. Sridevi, the reigning movie queen of the 80s (the most prolific of all eight, she sometimes had up to 10 movies out at the same time) upped the ante on slapstick and sex appeal—the Carole Lombard of Indian cinema. Rekha, the last of the South Indian beauties, a star of the 70s and 80s, seems to become more fascinating with age, starring in provocative roles that challenge the existing norms of India’s sometime hypocritical policies.
In the 70s, India like the rest of the world, was swept up in the tide of cultural revolution that came with political dissent. As the Women’s Rights movement spread internationally, Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi embodied modernity. While the Indian heroines thus far wore tasteful, conservative saris and bindis, Aman and Babi were unashamed to show off their lovely figures in bikinis and mini-skirts. They were looked upon as “Western” heroines whose rejection of conventional attire and attitude (the subservient wife or fiancé) stunned and titillated audiences who were unaccustomed to seeing an Indian woman so unapologetically cosmopolitan.
By the time Madhuri Dixit entered the scene the ideal of the screen goddess began to unravel. Actresses struggled to be seen as artists and not merely as nubile, plastic dolls. The late 80s and 90s, when more Indians were working abroad and longed to return to India, tradition and ritual came back full-force in Indian cinema. Dixit was the phenomenon of those years. A spirited dancer and vivacious personality she possessed a homespun beauty of Miss Middle India, a glamorous homebody equally at ease in an evening gown or cooking at home. She enjoyed the popularity Rita Hayworth did in the 40s, her picture emblazoned on every man’s wall in all far corners of the world. But the overwhelming celebrity as an international sex symbol became too much for Dixit, who retired from movies seven years ago to marry an NRI doctor and live a quiet life as a soccer mom near Denver, Colorado.
Kareena Kapoor is the most of recent of the lot and the one who seems to have the most fun. A star of the new millennium, when Indian society enjoyed more progressive liberalism and more respect for an independent, sexier woman, Kapoor is less inhibited than her predecessors, and less pretentious She dances, not classically, with enthusiasm and abandon. Her love of the limelight is inherited; the granddaughter of Bollywood founding father, Raj Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor combines the Old World glamour with New World attitude.
All of these women realize that being a sex symbol in India, a country that reveres sex but is still reluctant to talk about openly, is a challenging mantle to assume. As the object who graces the dreams of the both rickshaw driver and the Sultan of Brunei, she bridges men together with collective longings. But eroticism aside, the Bollywood sex symbol’s true talent is cerebral; she tantalizes with what’s left unseen, with fantasies unanswered. It takes a clever woman to realize that her sex appeal is half of what she has and half of what everyone thinks she has.
Vyjantimala circa ‘50s
Hema Malini circa ‘70s
Rekha circa ‘70s
Sridevi circa ‘80s
Zeenat Aman circa ‘70s
Parveen Babi circa ‘70s
Madhuri Dixit circa early ‘90s
Kareena Kapoor circa ‘90s
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