Conniving, Cruel and Crafty: Our Favourite Female Villains

Hindi cinema’s line of female antagonists might not be long but it’s definitely charming
Conniving, Cruel and Crafty: Our Favourite Female Villains
Conniving, Cruel and Crafty: Our Favourite Female Villains

Everyone knows villainy can be fun. A character who is unbound by the restraints of good behaviour is not just entertaining to watch, but also a delightful challenge for actors. Most recently, Everything Everywhere All At Once’s Jobu Topaki proved once again that women can rock that irreverent, casually-deranged vibe just as well as your favourite male villain. However, few women actors are given the chance to play a role in which being the baddie doesn’t feel reductive. In the past, we’ve seen phenomenal performers get stuck in roles of vamps, sidekicks, pawns or even witches — negative characters that are limited by sexism and feel reductive. A good villain isn’t held back by their evil. Instead, they feel expansive because of how despicable they are. While Bollywood’s woman-shaped problem has limited the scope of female villainy, there are a handful of demented ladies whom we have loved to hate over the years. 

1. Tabu in Andhadhun (2018, Netflix)

Simi Sinha was made for Tabu – quite literally. Director Sriram Raghavan wrote the character with Tabu in mind and it works wonders. As Simi, Tabu manages a stunning balancing act between acting like a functioning adult in society and being a cold-hearted murderer. Much of Andhadhun’s fun is born out of the cat-and-mouse chase between Simi and Akash (Ayushmann Khurrana), the fake-blind musician who has seen her husband’s dead body and can tie her to the crime scene. Although Simi’s antics are played for dark humour (she once dons a ghost mask to get a reaction out of Akash), we’re never allowed to forget that she is willing to ruin and take lives to save her own skin. From pouring poison into Akash’s coffee (right in front of him) to blinding him for real, Simi emerges as one of the best villains Hindi cinema has seen in recent times. 

2.  Simi Garewal in Karz (1980, Zee5) 

Simi Garewal looks like one of the many ultra-feminine heroines of the Eighties when she is first introduced as Kamini: Neat long-haired plaits, pink lipstick and a thin voice. But the cigarette in her hand and her practised English diction are signs of something far more sinister — a woman tainted with sinful modernity. Kamini is given a comically impossible task at the beginning of Karz: She must marry the wealthy heir who is in love with her, kill him and take over his property, all in one week. (And you thought your boss gave you unrealistic deadlines.) Undaunted by the enormity of the task, Kamini’s eyes gleam at the money offered in exchange for the kill and in the next scene, she is decked up as the blushing bride of the wealthy Ravi Verma. How’s that for meeting targets? 

The newly-wed couple makes their way down to Coonoor in their jeep.  Kamini drives as Ravi cheerily hums along to “Ek Hasina Thi”, clearly basking in domestic bliss. Knowing what’s coming doesn’t take away from how bone-chillingly scary Garewal is in her leather gloves and kohl-eyed determination. At the perfect moment, Kamini runs the car over her husband again and again, turning the blood-red heart-shaped “Just Married” sign on their jeep a terrible omen of brutality. Garewal won a Filmfare award for her performance in the film. 

Supriya Pathak as Dhankor
Supriya Pathak as Dhankor

3. Supriya Pathak in Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (2013, Voot)

Powerful matriarchs have long dotted the landscape of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s filmography. But there’s something distinctive about Dhankor, the hardened ruler of the Saneda tribe and the key villain in Leela (Deepika Padukone) and Ram’s (Ranveer Singh) love story. Supriya Pathak plays Dhankor with perfectly calibrated intensity, always brimming with the extremity of both fierce love and cruel anger. This is not a woman you anger and gods help anyone who dares defy her.  Take the famous scene where she unflinchingly chops off her beloved Leela’s ring finger. The scene comes soon after the death of her oldest son, murdered at the hands of the enemy. So when Leela refuses to take off the ring Ram has given her, Pathak makes sure she punctuates her motherly rage with grief. Dhankor reminds her daughter that she could remove a chewed morsel from a tiger’s mouth – a ring is of no consequence but also that Leela is her pride – before mutilating her. 

4. Shabana Azmi in Makdee (2002, YouTube)

There doesn’t exist a single Nineties child who wasn’t scarred by Shabana Azmi’s role in Makdee. The film designs the Makdee with an almost clinical hand, devoid of violence or obvious torture – the terror lies in the unknown. It’s why Makdee doesn’t eat the humans who wanted into her haveli but turns them into animals, behind a velvet curtain. Instead of killing off Chunni (Shweta Basu Prasad) when she comes begging for her sister’s life, Makdee enters into a longer, more devious contract of receiving a hundred hens before returning Munni (also Prasad) to her original form. Objectively – and with the CGI advancement of today’s age – Makdee can seem like an exaggerated version of a mean old lady – scary only because of her unpredictability. But Amzi pours venom into her sweet words, laughing so joyously that it turns scarier than the theatrical laughter of Raavan. 

5. Konkona Sensharma in Ek Thi Daayan (2013, Amazon Prime Video)

Ek Thi Daayan blends the evil figure of a stepmother with the paranormal trope of witches of hell, giving birth to Konkona Sensharma’s Diane (wink, wink). For most of the film, we see Diane through the terrified eyes of a child, Bobo (Vissesh Tiwari). The boy is proud of himself for getting his building’s lift to go beyond the ground floor and into Hell, but realises too late that he might have invited some of the paranormal creatures upstairs. Diane appears in Bobo’s life as suddenly as an apparition and quickly makes her way into his single father’s heart and bedroom. Sensharma plays the vamp-cum-stepmother-cum-witch role with aplomb, adding a sheen of eeriness to her usually-sweet, plump-lipped smile. Both she and the film capitalise on the idea of a child being an unreliable narrator, adding a layer of trepidation to the horrors unfolding on screen. Even though her role remains restricted to the first half of the film, Sensharma remains memorable for the lasting impact she leaves on the narrative that follows.

Konkona Sensharma as Diane
Konkona Sensharma as Diane

6. Urmila Matondkar in Pyaar Tune Kya Kiya (2001, Disney+Hotstar) 

If there’s one actor who can channel pure unhinged energy through her characters, it’s Urmila Matondkar. Matondkar plays Ria in Pyaar Tune Kya Kiya and in Ria’s defence, her life seems to be completely fine until Jai (Fardeen Khan), an alarmingly entitled photographer, enters the scene. Despite her refusal, Jai clicks Ria’s pictures and sends them to his agency, which then prints her face on the cover – without her consent. When Ria confronts him, Jai somehow manages to insult and gaslight her. But all of this proves to be unbelievably charming for Ria, who falls head over heels in love with him. That’s when you know something is terribly wrong with this woman. When she gets to know that Jai is happily married, she spirals into a storm of obsession and rage, ultimately resorting to violence. Matondkar is superb as the deranged woman, punctuating her madness with glimpses of child-like innocence. 

7. Lalita Pawar in Sau Din Saas Ke (1980, YouTube)

How could a list of female villains in Hindi cinema ever be complete without Lalita Pawar? Pawar played the wicked saas so often in Hindi films that she’s now known as the mother of all mothers-in-law. Her squint eye – which she got during an unfortunate accident while shooting – gives her the characteristic of a classic villain. In Sau Din Saas Ke, Pawar is seen putting her daughter-in-law through much anguish, subjecting her to everything from verbal abuse to burning her foot with a piece of burning wood. Although the chief villain in Sau Din Saas Ke is revealed to be a man poisoning Maaji’s (Pawar) mind, Pawar delivers a towering performance as the dreaded monster-in-law. 

The mother of all mothers-in-law, Lalita Pawar
The mother of all mothers-in-law, Lalita Pawar

8. Juhi Chawla in Gulaab Gang (2014, YouTube)

Gulaab Gang, despite its stumbling narrative, casts some of the country’s greatest actors in moulds that are usually reserved for the most macho of men. Madhuri Dixit as Rajjo and Juhi Chawla as Sumitra Devi lock horns for political gains and while this veiled battle isn’t as interesting as the physical action sequences in the film, it still shines a light on their acting chops. Chawla is a delight in her turn as a saccharine-sweet and ruthless politician, willing to go to any lengths to secure her seat – even if it means killing Rajjo’s people. The actor’s usually sweet on-screen persona allows for an inspiring contrast, making Sumitra Devi’s villainy even more engaging. 

Special mentions: Kajol in Gupt, Aishwarya Rai in Khakhee, Kareena Kapoor in Fida, Mahie Gill Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster, Priyanka Chopra in Aitraaz.

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