No other medium is more suited for magnifying physical beauty than the cinema. Women in particular are the darlings of this particular art form. Beautiful actresses are synonymous with the movies. The majority of the industry’s glamour is linked to starlets, so much so that the entire Academy Awards Ceremony is more of a showcase for their poise and resplendent gowns than it is for the outstanding films and performances of that year. The enchantment of the medium is the enduring memory of images, and many are of beautiful faces: Audrey Hepburn’s pixie grin as she tilts her sunglasses in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Greta Garbo’s stony, enigmatic face in the closing shot of Queen Christina, Grace Kelly smiling surreptitiously behind the steering wheel in To Catch a Thief.
Indian cinema’s leading ladies are a bevy of Old World beauties. India’s rich, varied history - Dravidian, Persian, Vedic, Mughal - are all etched on their faces and bearing. While the Bollywood Sex Goddesses, voluptuous curves and saucer-shaped eyes, look like they’ve stepped out of an ancient temple carving, the Bollywood Beauties look like they’ve climbed out of a Rajput miniature painting: delicate, dewy-eyed, and demure.
They each impart a graceful forbearance to their acting, allowing the audience to linger on faces with admiration and to be awed by their talent.
Nargis is the grand dame of this lot, her entire presence and persona setting the precedence for all the other stars who followed her. Emerging as the leading actress of the '40s, just as Indian cinema was in its early stages, steadily growing into a commercial powerhouse, Nargis stood out like a pillar of loveliness against her formidable leading man, Raj Kapoor. She would star opposite other popular stars like Dilip Kumar and Sunil Dutt, but it was Kapoor with whom she would make the most movies and form the most lasting relationship. Their real-life story in some ways resembles the romance of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey, a prodigious, absorbing working relationship that resulted in their best performances, but was restrained by the confines of society (Kapoor was married, and divorce in the '40s would have ruined him as a star).
Still, Nargis’s elegance and statuesque beauty made her an icon for hundreds of women. But in the late '50s, Nargis made a dramatic change in her screen persona by taking on the role of the beleagured village matriarch Durga in Mehboob Khan’s salt-of-the-earth epic, Mother India. Many critics questioned the casting: could Nargis, famous for playing sophisticated socialites, take on such an unsparing role? Nargis knew it was the role of a lifetime: part Scarlett O’Hara, part Stella Dallas, it was one of those fabled, charismatic strong women parts (like resilient frontier wife, or the chipper, but hardscrabble Homefront widow) coveted by actresses at that time. And she played Durga with such quivering intensity and passion that it elevated the movie to mythic status, with Nargis as the body and soul of a country coming into its own power after Independence.
Meena Kumari and Madhubala were both masterful in period roles. Their inwardness and tempered sensuality was a throwback to the vision of Mughal princesses, adorned in jewels, shrouded in veils. Kumari shone in tragic, suffering wife or mistress roles; she was one of the few Indian actresses who could register despair without making it look contrived or artificial. Her most memorable role, Pakeezah (“The Pure One”) has her playing, like Garbo in Camille, the misunderstood courtesan, striving for the love of a nobleman who is forbidden to marry her. Shortly after Pakeezah was completed, Kumari died due to a lifelong heart condition. In her most emotionally wrenching scenes, one can’t help but marvel at her acting, and feel a tinge of sadness at the pain, both mental and physical, she must have been experiencing throughout.
Madhubala graced the screen in a number of hit films in the '50s, but it was her role as the willful slave girl torn between the Indian Emperor, Akbar, and his son, heir to the throne, Salim, in K. Asif’s Mughal-E-Azam that made her a part of movie legend. No one song has been sung or copied as often as Madhubala’s rendition of “Pyaar Kiya To Darnaa Kya?” ("If you've fallen in love, what is there to fear?”), sung in defiance to the Emperor who challenged her love for his son. It was a bold, memorable part and all of India loved her for it.
Waheeda Rahman was the cerebral darling of the '60s. There was a fierce intelligence to her performances that echoes some of Jodie Foster’s brittle assertiveness and some of Nicole Kidman’s wary grace in her latter day performances (The Hours, The Human Stain). She is effective in Guru Dutt masterpieces, Kaagaz ke Phool and Chaudvin ka Chand as the love-interest aware of the dangers of self-indulgence and defying societal norms, and she dazzles more recently in Rang de Basanti (2006), as the mother seeking justice for her murdered son.
Sharmila Tagore is remembered now for being a '60s fashion plate, the Audrey Hepburn of Indian cinema. Indeed, Sharmila seemed to take many of her visual cues from Hepburn’s late '50s/early '60s roles, playing the demure pixie who entranced the graceful leading men of the era, Shammi Kapoor, Dev Anand, and Shashi Kapoor. But Sharmila’s career is full of work in masterful art films from directors like Satyajit Ray and Mira Nair. From her first role at the age of 14, as the young bride in Ray’s The World of Apu to one of her most memorable recent roles, as the matriarch expelled from Uganda, who learns to accept her daughter’s independence and inter-racial romance in Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala.
Preity Zinta - the bubbly actress who according to popular myth was discovered by director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth, The Golden Age) when she was coming to pick up a friend who auditioned for one his movies. Now one of Bollywood's biggest movie stars, she incites bouts of mass hysteria among Punjabis whenever she passes through Heathrow Airport. There’s a Sandra Dee quality to her sprightliness and a bit of Bette Davis in her imperious beauty. For all her onscreen energy, few directors have been able to harness it toward a captivating performance. Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chata Hai (“The Heart Wants...”) and his marvelous, underrated, Lakshya (“The Calling”), and Karan Johar’s Kal Ho Naa Ho (“Tomorrow May Never Come”) show Preity at her best, nonconformist, feisty, smart, witty and at the same time feminine: the modern Indian woman. More recently, Yash Chopra’s lavish Veer-Zaara shows acting Preity in Meena Kumari-mode, Old-World and elusive.
Who would have guessed what an international sensation Aishwarya Rai would be? The star of Gurinder Chada’s screwball Jane Austen spin-off, Bride and Prejudice, a member of the Grand Jury of the Cannes Film Festival, and a multi-million dollar contract with L’Oreal comestics? She is the awe and envy of her peers, living proof that India has truly gone global. Starting off in pretty girlfriend parts in a string of forgettable films, Aishwarya’s raw talent, her brilliant dancing - fluid and expressive - her spirit, and her staggering good looks attracted directors who saw in her the embodiment of Old World India eroded by modernity. Sanjay Leela Bhansali cast her in her most beloved parts in both Hum Dil De Chuke Sanaam (“Darling, You Stolen My Heart”) and Devdas. Playing traditional Indian women, clad in beautiful saris and jewels, who conceal the anguish and resentment at their confined roles, Aishwarya showed Indian audiences an aspect of women they had often overlooked. Her finest role, in Rituparno Ghose’s Choker Bali (“Sand in the Eye”) was a revelation; she gave us a portrait of a young widow in 1890s Calcutta damaged not by grief but by society’s prejudice, and how that prejudice transmogrifies her into a creature hell-bent on revenge and gratification. Only in her 30s, Aishwariya has many more chapters in her career ahead of her.
But remember, the stars in this segment are not here only because they’re beautiful. They’ve all risen above being judged by their appearance to be taken seriously as actresses. It would be clichéd to say their inner loveliness is what matters the most, but it is what makes these particular performers last in our memory. Long after their makeup and clothes have lost their trendiness, the quality of their performances will linger for us to enjoy and marvel.
Nargis, early '50s
Meena Kumari, Sahib bibi aur Ghulam, early '60s
Madhubala, Mughal-E-Azam, early '60s
Waheeda Rahman, Chaudvin ka Chand, '60s
Sharmila Tagore, An Evening in Paris, '60s
Preity Zinta, c. 2005
Aishwariya Rai, Choker Bali, c. 2003