India rediscovers its actresses | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 17.04.2013
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India rediscovers its actresses

They look beautiful in their traditional attire; and they love to dance and laugh but they cry too much. That's the common image of Indian actresses in Bollywood films. However, the stereotype is crumbling.

As we know, every beginning is difficult. And so it was with Indian actresses.

A hundred years ago, few would have ever imagined women sharing the limelight, given India's generally conservative society. "In the beginning, only men stood in front of camera," says Namrata Joshi, an Indian film critic. "They also dressed as women to perform female roles."

Back then, being an actress was widely viewed as a dishonorable profession. "Women who came from respectable families should have nothing to do with the stage," Joshi notes.

'Look pretty'

Hunterwali with Mary Evans a.k.a. Mary Evans Wadia a.k.a. Fearless Nadia copyright expired

Mary Evans Wadia, aka 'Fearless Nadia,' was a sensation in 1935

It wasn't until the 1920s that women first dared to take roles in films. But social norms were so strict that to be an actress meant, above all, to "look pretty."

With time, however, actresses proved their talent. In the 1930s, Mary Evans Wadia, known as "Fearless Nadia," became a huge sensation. "In one film, she played a role that had similarities with Robin Hood," says Joshi. "She performed the stunts herself, ran over the top of train wagons and carried men on her shoulders."

"Hunterwali" (A Woman with a Whip) was the first movie in which a woman played the lead role. It went on to become a cult film.

From that point on, actresses were almost as important as actors. The introduction of music in the 1940s created new opportunities for female singers. And as music became an integral part of Indian films, singers became actresses and contributed to Bollywood's glamor.

Stong but powerless

The1950s and 1960s are known as the "golden age" of Indian cinema. Actresses such as Madhu Bala, Meena Kumari and Nargis, were given stronger roles then. "Mother India," released in 1957, was the first Indian film to be nominated for an Oscar, with only two other films achieving such recognition since. The film focuses on a strong mother who battles Indian society and does everything for her family.

MOTHER INDIA Date: 1957 (Mary Evans Picture Library)

'Mother India,' the story of a strong woman, was the first Indian film to be nominated for an Oscar

Although many believe the film shows the strength of an Indian woman to the entire world, some film critics beg to differ. For instance, Ranjini Mazumdar, who teaches media and film studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and has studied the development of women in Indian films. "Our idea of a film dealing with women's issues is problematic in and of itself," she says.

Joshi agrees: "Whenever a woman was the main focus, it was always a story about their misery," she says. "These films only showed how women suffered and sacrificed everything for their families and society. For Indian society, it was easy to accept these figures that way."

Different image

However, it became a bit boring in the long run. Perhaps that's why the 1970s were a disappointment for Indian actresses. Many of them found themselves suddenly in supporting roles. Actors like Amitabh Bachchan became popular as films focused increasingly on "heroes." Actresses played minor roles in which they danced a bit, looked pretty and wore the latest fashion. This trend continued until the end of the 1990s.

Indian Bollywood actress Vidya Balan gestures as she addresses a promotional press conference for her forthcoming Hindi movie 'Dirty Picture' in Bangalore on November 25, 2011. (Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images)

With films like 'The Dirty Picture,' Actress Vidya Balan tries to create a new image for women

Only in recent years has a new trend that is more favorable to women emerged. Actresses like Vidya Balan and Kareena Kapoor are trying to present a different image of women than the one most Indians are familiar with. Films such as "Jab We Met" and "The Dirty Picture" are examples of this new trend.

The new films are widely recognized and they are boosting the status of actresses in Bollywood. The world famous Indian actor Shah Rukh Khan recently announced that in the opening credits of his next film, the name of the actress would appear before his. That is unique in Bollywood, where until recently only male heroes counted and this is also why the best actor is always announced at the end of every awards ceremony. That should change, too.

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