Nadira’s Maya to Huma Qureshi’s Mohsina: The Evolution of the Bollywood Vamp

From blink-and-miss appearances to nuanced characters who play key roles, the bad girls of Bollywood have come a long way
Nadira’s Maya to Huma Qureshi’s Mohsina: The Evolution of the Bollywood Vamp

Rarely does a chargesheet filed by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) sound like it could be from a Bollywood film, but some of the details in the supplementary chargesheet filed in the case against conman Sukesh Chandrashekhar are begging to be turned into a crime thriller. Not only was Chandrashekhar allegedly running a cheating and extortion racket from inside Rohini jail — we really hope Bollywood screenwriters are making notes — he also posed as a government official to make contact with actor Jaqueline Fernandez. The chargesheet also lists the expensive gifts Chandrashekhar gave to Fernandez, including three Persian cats (price: Rs 9 lakh each), a horse (price: Rs 52 lakh) and "expensive crockery". Fernandez's lawyer has said the actor is "a victim of a larger conspiracy".

Looking at the ED chargesheet reminded us of some fictional ladies who added glamour to the criminal world and often upstaged the chief villain. Often stereotyped as the gangster's moll, these women were usually femme fatales with modern 'vices' – skimpy clothes, dark lipstick, a Western name and a love of dancing, for instance. Take, for example, the famous Mona Darling from Zanjeer (1973). Her primary function is to distract the honourable cop (played by Amitabh Bachchan) away from her criminal boyfriend, Teja. Mona Darling turned out to be as memorable as Bachchan's Vijay and Ajit's Teja. 

Over time, the gangster's lover has evolved to be written with more nuance. Here's a look at some memorable vamps and molls who have graced the silver screen.  

Nadira in Shree 420 (1955)

In a role that catapulted her as a vamp – and became an albatross around her neck – Nadira plays Maya (subtle), the associate of an unscrupulous businessman. Maya, in her stunning black gowns, puffing away from dainty cigarette holders is a direct comparison to Vyjayanthimala's saree-clad Vidya as they both vie for leading man Raj's (Raj Kapoor) attention. Seeing a naive and talented Raj, Maya decides to seduce him with the glamour and excess of criminal life, using his capabilities to cheat people out of money. Nadira's villainous performance in the film, along with her dance number "Mud Mud Ke Na Dekh" cemented her as a temptress and she went on to play similar roles in later films, such as a cabaret dancer in Pocketmaar (1956).

Zeenat Aman in The Great Gambler (1979) 

In this 1979 sleeper hit, Zeenat Aman plays the role of Shabnam, a seductress put in place to waylay Amitabh Bachchan's character. The film shows a marked difference from the way conniving women were portrayed in the Fifties and Sixties. Shabnam, though initially used as a tool by her criminal boyfriend, proves to be a key part of the plot when she decides to join forces with the "good side", helping them in bringing down the criminal syndicate. It quickly becomes clear that most of the men around her have only seen her as a sexy object who is to be used as and when they please. They don't see Shabnam as a person who can think for herself and that ends up being their downfall. Big mistake.  

Tabu in Chandni Bar (2001) 

The turn of the century brought more nuanced depictions of the gangster's moll. In Chandni Bar, Tabu plays Mumtaz, a woman who is emotionally manipulated by her uncle to become a bar dancer. The film takes a much-required humane look at the women who work in spaces that cater to the male gaze. Here, the gangster (played by Atul Kulkarni) helps unshackle her from the world of night bars, instead of binding her to it. However, his continued presence in the world of crime leaves Mumtaz widowed and their children, orphaned. Her journey as a single mother is poignant – she is forced to rejoin Chandni Bar as a dancer, while carrying the shame and suspicion that came with her late husband's felonious career. Mumtaz's character brings to the fore the troubled childhood, pain and toxicity that leads these women to live such lives. 

Tabu in Maqbool (2004) 

Tabu's Nimmi in Vishal Bhardwaj's adaptation of Macbeth by William Shakespeare marks an essential milestone in the evolution of the gangster's moll. Not only is Nimmi a grey, multifaceted character, she is also the catalyst for upending the film's universe. She is the sole, seductive thorn in the almost-sacred relationship between crime lord Abbaji (played by Pankaj Kapoor) and his right-hand man Maqbool (Irrfan Khan). Maqbool, though devoted to his boss, is also in love with his young mistress. Nimmi sees in Maqbool a way out of her cage. She teases, taunts and cajoles Maqbool to take over – both her and the criminal business – until he is willing to slay the man he revers.  

Huma Qureshi in Gangs of Wasseypur 2 (2012) 

Huma Qureshi plays the bold and feisty Mohsina, crime lord Faizal Khan's (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) lover and wife. We see their romance bloom as Faizal evolves from an aloof, good-for-nothing druggie to a certified mafia don. And yet, not once do we feel that Mohsina is lesser than Faizal – their romance rooted in her acceptance of the man she is with and his admiration for the woman she is. Mohsina is shown to tease the mighty Faizal long after anybody dared to make a joke at his expense. She remains one of the most memorable characters in the film and turns a role that could have been a trope into a credible, relatable character. 

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