With International Women’s Day crawling closer, it’s high time that light is thrown upon some key figures that have doubtlessly contributed to the making of the Indian cinema. The unremembered, unacknowledged female leads of Bollywood: the women who entered an industry already swamped with male dominance to represent the females’ right to have a spot in the film industry, leading to the golden era of Bollywood. When male artists such as Prithviraj Kapoor, Dharmendra, and Amitabh Bachchan receive immense recognition and fan-popularity, but their female counterparts do not, this raises an alarming suggestion that as viewers – or even as a community – we have not overcome the attitudes towards male vs. female artists that Bollywood implicitly or explicitly indoctrinated. Through this article, I wish to honour the legacy that these forgotten actresses left behind for Bollywood to dwell over.
Ruby Myers (1907-83): The first artist to pay tribute to is Ruby Myers (also known by her stage name, Sulochana). She was a silent film actress, appearing in films between 1925 (when she made her debut in the film Veer Bala) and 1978. What is astounding about Myers is that before entering the film industry, she was a telephone operator. Despite having no prior knowledge of acting and entering a male-dominated environment, she went on to become one of the highest-paid artists of her time. Moreover, she had originally rejected the offer to appear in films proposed by Mohan Bhavnani of Kohinoor Film Company. Her initial rejection was influenced by the fact that the industry had patriarchal constraints that deemed women incapable and unsuited to work in such an industry. Regardless, not only did she gain a fortune, but after many years in Indian cinema she was awarded the Dada Saheb Phalke Award in 1973. Another noteworthy thing is that she came from the Baghdadi-Jewish community in India, meaning she was representing a minority group and bringing diversity to the film industry
Khursheed Bano (1914-2001): Khursheed, the actress and singer, was considered a pioneer in Bollywood, and was active in the industry through the 1930s and 40s before migrating to Pakistan. One of her notable works was Tansen (1943), in which she plays a leading role. Furthermore, the songs sung by Bano that feature in this film made the film even more memorable for its viewers. If you have been fortunate enough to watch this film, you may remember her songs such as ‘Ghata Ghana Ghor Ghor’ and ‘Aao Gori, Aao Shyama’.
Suraiya (1929-2004): Suraiya was not only an actress, but also a playback singer for Hindi-language films. She was active in Indian cinema from 1936 until 1963, contributing to it both through her fine acting skills and through her angelic singing voice. Suraiya appeared in her debut film Madam Fashion (1936) when she was around 7. At 12, her first song ‘Boot karun main polish babu’ was featured in Nai Duniya (1942). Setting her career off from day one, Suraiya came to be known as one of the most prominent actresses of Hindi cinema and was a leading actress in Hindi films in the 40s and 50s. During her film career, she appeared in 67 films and sang 338 songs, meaning that she was a veteran in her own right. Her potential as a play-back singer became evident when The Hindu wrote that she was “feared by Lata Mangeshkar” who is herself a pioneering figure in Indian cinema, yet she was sadly overshadowed by Mangeshkar and her sisters. Now, was that fate or dirty politics – who knows?
Nawab Bano (1933-2020): The fourth icon to put a spotlight on is Nawab Bano, or Nimmi (her stage name). She was a star of Hindi cinema during the 50s and 60s and ended up becoming one of the leading actresses during the golden era. If you are interested in seeing her in action, might I suggest Sazaa (1951), in which she plays a maidservant named Asha. What struck viewers about her performances was that she was always fierce and expressive, which ultimately led to a huge fan base. What makes this artist especially relevant to us today is her relatively recent demise on 25th March, 2020. This makes us, as viewers, not so distant from the world to which she belonged. Taking this into account, we must pay our respects for our late Nimmi, for one day we shall be wishing for the same.
Shyama (1935-2017): Shyama was active between the 1940s and 1980s. Something exceptional about her talent was that with any role she encountered, she was found to be the most receptive to the lyrics and rhythm of the poets and music directors. This implies that she was a truly versatile artist. A notable role of hers is the role of Nikki in Aar Pyaar (1954). If you wish to watch her striking performance, this is my recommendation.
Vimi (1943-1977): Vimi appeared in Indian cinema from 1967 until 1981 (her final film was released four years after her death), after making her debut in Hamraaz (1967) – which made her a notable figure in the industry. However, she was not only an actress, but also a fashion icon of her time. She did many photoshoots for film magazines such as Filmfare, in 1968. Apart from this success, what was exceptionally charming about her personality was that she made it explicit that money was not the end goal for her. Nonetheless, her decision to appear in films was not without its constraints because after starting, her parents and in-laws deserted Vimi and her husband. So, if there is one lesson we can take from Vimi, it is that we should always fight for our passions.
Kumkum (1934-2020): Kumkum was active between 1954 and 1973 and is best known for her supporting role in Mother India (1957) (among many other films she was renowned for). Over her career, she appeared in roughly 150 films. What added to Kumkum’s distinctiveness was her dancing talent, which is how she contributed further to the industry. Most notably, the film Kohinoor (1960) features her acting and dancing talents, and is a must-see for fans of Kumkum. Kumkum is another artist who passed away only recently, on 28th July 2020, once again reminding us of the golden era’s ‘closeness’.
Meena Shorey (1926-89): Shorey appeared in Indian cinema between 1941-58, before going on to pursue the Pakistani film industry. A well-known film of hers is Ek Thi Larki(1949) and the foot-tapping music featured in this film made Meena an icon for women entering an era of liberation. She would later go on to be known as a ‘comedienne of calibre’ and was one of the first of her kind. Without characters as inspirational as Shorey gracing the industry, a rise of more liberated women may have fallen short.
Bindu (b. 1951): Bindu has been labelled a graceful actress who was present in films from 1959 until 2008, with her popularity peaking in the 70s; meaning her stardom started in her youth.Bindu’s acting career spans almost 50 years, and she has acted in over 160 films. This makes her a master of the craft. She is most known for her role in Kati Patang (1970), and her cabaret dance in ‘Mera Naam Hai Shabnam’.
Unsurprisingly, Bindu received multiple nominations for the ‘Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress’ between 1969- 1976.
Parveen Babi (1949?-2005): Babi’s career spanned from the 70s until the early 90s, from her debut in Charitra(1973), to her last film Iraada (1991). Babi consistently featured in hit films – for example, Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) which is a recommendation. Western viewers specifically may be able to relate to her, as she appears in Western roles. This is because producers of Bollywood struggled to give her typical ‘bharatiya nari’or ‘gaon ki gori’ roles due to her personality representing Western values. Babi succeeded in her acting career, but she did not stop there. She became a renowned fashion icon, featured on the cover of notable film magazines such as Filmfare, The Stardust, and Bombay Dyeing. Moreover, her career hit a new level when she was the first Indian to appear on the front cover of Time in 1976. All in all, this would suggest she was not just a national, but also an international idol representing India (or what Hindi speakers know as ‘Bharat’). However, her career took a turn in the 90s after she made some controversial remarks about Amitabh Bachchan, began dating a film-director and was, subsequently, branded as schizophrenic before her untimely death in 2005.
Now, having reflected over a few lost female legends of Bollywood, you might have started to ponder about Indian cinema. There may be doubts as to whether Bollywood as an industry has come far enough to say it enables women to feel empowered. Other concerns may be whether women receive equal treatment during discourse with their producers, co-actors, and film crew relative to how their male counterparts are treated. Finally, another worry may be that female artists will not be remembered long enough for ongoing generations to even be able to utter their names – unlike male stars of the same generation. If you struggled, then you are just like me. Take Ruby Myers as an example. If Myers had not accepted the offer to enter the film industry – and succumbed to patriarchal constraints – she would never have realised what she could do. This is a reminder to all women, in any corner of the world, if you see an opportunity, take it.
Happy International Women’s Day
Rebecca Geddes is an English Language BA student and an EFL teacher who takes an interest in social, feminist and cultural matters in the UK and India. Having taught English abroad, her love for her mother-tongue has soared. She wishes to research the impact English has had on the world, as a colonial weapon.