20 Years, 20 Female Characters From Hindi Cinema We Love

A list of our favorite female characters this Women's Day– over the last 20 years – who have amazed and enthralled us with their distinct, raw appeal
20 Years, 20 Female Characters From Hindi Cinema We Love

Portrayal of women in Hindi cinema, and cinema in general, has been a point of debate and discussion among film enthusiasts around the world. From being treated as props or 'objects' of desire to being reduced to lesser fleshed-out roles as compared to their male counterparts, characterizations of women in the movies have often left a hole, unable to make them meet their actual potential. However, time and again, there have been portrayals that have stood out – gracefully tapping into the joys, sorrows, challenges and complexities of women.

Keeping that in mind, in a purely non-exhaustive list, FC staff members pick some of their favorite female characters – over the last 20 years – who have amazed and enthralled them with their distinct, raw and honest appeal.

Shashi Godbole (English Vinglish, 2012)

Played by: Sridevi

Apart from spotlighting the most potent comeback in modern Hindi cinema, Gauri Shinde's heartwarming debut really gets the little patriarchal complicities coursing through the veins of Indian families. As did the late Sridevi, who played housewife Shashi Godbole with such incredible dignity that her performance allowed the film to indict the family members without fully villainizing them. The way she walks, talks, hesitates and reacts varies from space to space. As a result, it never feels like she's making a statement for the sake of a film; her reckoning is undramatic, polite and necessary. Even while she's learning to speak a new language, she is essentially finding a new medium for her own. I especially enjoyed her portions with her English classmates – like a slow blossoming of a wilted flower – perhaps because I see (or strive to see) so much of my own mother in Shashi.  – Rahul Desai

Zubeida (Zubeidaa, 2001)

Played by: Karisma Kapoor

Zubeidaa is a deeply affecting tale of a spirited woman who died too young in a tragic accident. She was stubborn, rebellious, impulsive and all heart – qualities that made her endearing and also invited trouble. Her orthodox father, who owned a film studio, forbade her from pursuing her passion for dance but she went ahead and shot a movie anyway, which never released. After a disastrous first marriage, she found love again in a charming prince but her fairytale romance ended when she  couldn't adjust to the royal life. Zubeidaa was failed by the men and to some extent the women around her too. There's pure honesty in Karisma Kapoor's performance and empathy in Khalid Mohammed's writing, who based the character on his mother, Zubeida Begum.  – Mohini Chaudhuri

Piku (Piku, 2015)

Played by: Deepika Padukone

There's something about the sensitivity and humanness that Juhi Chaturvedi depicts in her writing of Piku. Be it in her confusion, torn between emotions and practicality over selling her ancestral house or her silent scrutiny as she struggles to balance her life as a single, successful woman with her life as a full-time daughter for her ageing, and often clingy, parent – there's so much to Piku that's said, and yet, left unsaid. Her dynamic with her father is more like a mother and son, rather than a father and daughter – as Rana (Irrfan) too, notices. It's a layered relationship – they have their moments of tenderness, their affection and concern clearly showing for each other. However, Piku also evidently struggles with her boundaries with him, in what is a refreshingly realistic portrayal of a relationship otherwise either glorified or villainized.  – Debdatta Sengupta

Diana (Ek Thi Daayan, 2013)

Played by: Konkona Sen Sharma

We don't know what's more wicked: Konkona playing a witch called Diana (Daayan-a, really) – or the way she plays it, with a sweetness that's unsettling. She's a governess who seduces her way into the life of a widower and his two kids, and the first thing she tells the adorable Misha is that she "could just eat her up." Besides the remarkable performance that makes it all look convincing, it's refreshing that Diana is no ghost with a sob story. This witch is unapologetically, deliriously fun – pure evil that creeps the hell out.  – Sankhayan Ghosh

Neena Walia (Luck By Chance, 2009)

Played by: Dimple Kapadia

Actresses and their pushy moms have always been used to for laughs in movies. Remember Shammi in Rangeela or Bindu in Om Shanti Om? But Neena Walia of Luck By Chance is no caricature, thanks to the fantastic writing by Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti, and Dimple Kapadia's performance. Neena is a successful yesteryear actress whose full-time job is to micro-manage her daughter Niki's career, right down to the bags under her eyes. She's also a seasoned hustler who knows how to get things done in the industry. Neena turns on the charm when she wants her rich friend to bankroll her daughter's debut movie, and effortlessly switches to manipulative momager when she needs the producer to spend more on designer clothes. She's aptly described as a 'crocodile in a chiffon sari'.   – Mohini Chaudhuri

Vidya Bagchi (Kahaani, 2012)

Played by: Vidya Balan

Who is Vidya Bagchi? When she arrives in Kolkata, a pregnant woman looking for her missing husband. By the end of the film, an enigma. Indian storytelling tradition has a special place for the mythical hero, and in Kahaani, we get the mythical heroine, likened to Durga. She is a lone woman navigating a world full of all kinds of men – nice, rough, psychopathic. Balan kicks ass without so much as killing a fly, mixing braininess with compassion, as she takes us for a ride. The tagline says it: Mother of a story.   – Sankhayan Ghosh

Miloni (Photograph, 2019)

Played by: Sanya Malhotra

Light years away from the loud Gujarati caricatures we see in Hindi cinema, Sanya Malhotra's Miloni is one of the most truthful portrayals of a Shah (or Patel) on screen. It's not about the accent or intonations, it's more about the bashful body language of a sheltered middle-class girl designing her own adventure. Malhotra's career-best turn is rich in nuance – the way she looks at someone but also looks away, the way she asks curious questions, the way she expresses her low-key excitement at the prospect of "faking" a relationship, the way her eyes sparkle while replenishing her childhood ambitions of acting. All through, one gets a sense of a rose learning how to blush in a city not known for its greenery. I've known people like Miloni, who subserviently exist with a borrowed identity of foreign degrees and arranged marriages. If only they were fortunate enough to get their photograph taken at the Gateway of India.  – Rahul Desai

Durga Devi Kaushik (Badhaai Ho, 2018)

Played by: Surekha Sikri

In a role almost tailor-made for the blazing talent of Surekha Sikri, Durga Devi was a delightful mix of humour, sarcasm, warmth and brashness, all unapologetically packed together. She was snarky when she needed to be, and empathetic when she chose to be. In a chaotic but fun film with some brilliant performances, it was her who brought that extra sense of chutzpah and chuckle that left the viewers in splits. Sikri added an effortless charm in her character that made Durga Devi's turnaround from the mocking, savage woman to an empathetic, understanding mother-in-law who's genuinely grateful for her daughter-in-law look like a believable, hidden layer. Also, that scene where she talks about 'sexy'… well, that's one for the books.  – Debdatta Sengupta

Rinku (The Threshold, 2015)

Played by: Neena Gupta

By now it's evident that I've a soft spot for on-screen homemakers. Neena Gupta's second innings in acting is one of the best things to happen to Hindi cinema – she's the new mother for all seasons – but the origins of her homecoming lie in a little-known Hindi indie from 2015. In Pushan Kripalani's The Threshold, Gupta plays a long-married Delhi housewife who decides to leave her husband during a weekend in the hills. The film is a series of escalating conversations between the two – the five stages of break-up grief – as the reality of her resolve dawns upon the entitled man. Gupta's performance is beautifully calibrated; her hesitance acquires a grammar of its own. Her character Rinku is presumably inspired by the movies, yet she has a tough time following her mind instead of succumbing to her heart. I still tear up while thinking of the couple. There are no winners, no statements of feminism or independence – just a disillusioned partner wanting to reclaim her own identity after decades of second-hand living.  – Rahul Desai

Usha (Lipstick Under My Burkha, 2016)

Played by: Ratna Pathak Shah

Buaji from Lipstick Under My Burkha is a woman we almost never see in films. She's a 55-year-old widow in Bhopal, the revered matriarch of her mohalla. But here's where it gets interesting. Buaji is nursing a secret crush on her young, muscular swimming teacher. That a woman of Buaji's age can have sexual fantasies is bizarre and even shameful, so she begins to lead a parallel life in which she reads erotic novels and has steamy phone conversations with her teacher. Ratna Pathak Shah makes you root for Buaji, you want her be free and have some fun. Watch her in that scene where she's asked her name, and she takes a while to say Usha, as if she's forgotten her identity. In another, she checks herself out in the mirror wearing a swimming costume like it's been years since she looked at herself so closely.  – Mohini Chaudhuri

Rani (Queen, 2013)

Played by: Kangana Ranaut

The thing that strikes you about Rani is her vulnerability, and her will to not only face it, but own it. She's lived a sheltered life all along, fiercely protected by her family, and now, as she faces the kind of heartbreak that she'd never seen coming, she finds herself on her own – wanting to face no one other than herself. This pushes her to break through and travel solo, not only out of station but out of the continent at large. In her coming-of-age journey, she has experiences and friendships of a lifetime, becoming the woman who finally finds her light away from the shadows of those who, somewhere, limited her flight. Kangana Ranaut, in an author-backed role, brings in a sense of innocence and relatability to Rani that feels tangible – so much so that you can practically see and feel her, as she slowly comes into her own.  – Debdatta Sengupta

Safeena (Gully Boy, 2019)

Played by: Alia Bhatt

Anti-feminism apologists will tell you that if Kabir Singh is problematic, why not Safeena? She has temper issues. She beats up another girl who is hitting on her boyfriend. The fact that Safeena could have characteristics expected of a male hero, that too, a Muslim woman character in a Hindi mainstream film with big stars is a statement, and kind of the point of it. If Kabir Singh is propagating stereotypes, Safeena is smashing them. And Alia Bhatt is fire.  – Sankhayan Ghosh

Neelam Mehra (Dil Dhadakne Do, 2015)

Played by: Shefali Shah

I've repeatedly written this, but there is no better "face actor" in Hindi cinema today. Shefali Shah's face is a cinema of emotions as Neelam Mehra, a wealthy middle-aged housewife (or mansion-wife) defined by a toxic marriage. Her eyes convey so much hurt, humiliation and self-loathing that her caustic reactions to her unfaithful husband – and mollycoddled son – seem like the most natural coping mechanism. To play a character who doesn't believe a word coming out of her own mouth is a challenge. But the veteran actress does such a fine job of revealing the wife's performative fatigue that she almost single-handedly rescues the film from handing her a sense of redemption. I'm not saying women like Neelam deserve a heroic exit arc, but framing their fate as anything but a happy-sad tragedy can appear disingenuous to the artist in charge.  – Rahul Desai

Poo (Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, 2001)

Played by: Kareena Kapoor

Exactly 20 years ago when Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham released, I thought Poo and Kareena Kapoor's portrayal of her was the worst thing about the movie (except that pink 'Bole Chudiyan' lehenga). She was annoying and ditzy, and not in an endearing Elle Woods of Legally Blonde kind of way. Either I was too quick to judge her or Poo was just ahead of her time because now I find that not a week goes by without me saying, 'Tell me how it was' in a sing-song manner or unapologetically admitting that I watched a terrible TV show only for the actor's 'good looks, good looks, and good looks'. For this, and more, Poo has rightfully earned her place in pop culture history.   – Mohini Chaudhuri

Elizabeth (Lagaan, 2001)

Played by: Rachel Shelley

For all the things that have been written about Lagaan, little has been said about the character of Elizabeth, played by Rachel Shelley. There's the breaking the shackles of patriarchal authority in her defiance of her brother, Captain Russel – she's someone who's probably grown up in a stuffy Victorian family – and there's the romantic melancholy of her unrequited love for Bhuvan, a 'native'. Elizabeth's story plays out like an untold account of an Ivory Merchant heroine who came to India on a summer sojourn in 1893 that changed her life forever. There's a scene where she tells her feelings to Bhuvan – but in English. It's beautiful, and a little heartbreaking. – Sankhayan Ghosh

Simi (Andhadhun, 2018)

Played by: Tabu

My theory is that if Radhika Apte's character from Badlapur had lived through Varun Dhawan's rampage, she would have evolved into a middle-aged Simi in Andhadhun – a scheming and frighteningly soulless wife in upscale Pune. Tabu plays Simi (or Simi, Tabu) in a way that even the film is unsure of what she's thinking. The writing trusts the actor to do magical things with it. She's wicked in an unassuming manner, but what's really unsettling is that Simi goes about her deceptions with the rhythm of someone shopping for clothes or doing everyday chores. That Tabu manages to depict Simi as a woman who is somewhat unnerved by her own coldness is a testament to her talent – which has accumulated over decades of sustained risk-taking. The result: Simi is the most fascinating Hindi movie antagonist in a decade that has seen the demise of conventional villains.  – Rahul Desai

Paro (Dev.D, 2009)

Played by: Mahie Gill

If Anurag Kashyap's take on Devdas was a middle finger to the conservative values of old Bollywood, then Paro is the key to it. For starters, she is as sexually hungry as Dev – sending him nudes on her phone when he is in London, sneaking make-out sessions during a family function, or taking a mattress to the fields. She's also a person of stronger character than Dev's pathetic weakling. In a telling scene when she confronts him, he thinks he is rejecting her, but it's really her who has already rejected him. Mahie Gill plays Paro with hurt and vulnerability, while also exuding feminine power. – Sankhayan Ghosh

Kaira (Dear Zindagi, 2016)

Played by: Alia Bhatt

Therapy may not be as fancy as it was in Dear Zindagi, nor is it so easy to find a therapist who suits you so well in the first attempt. But loopholes aside, Kaira's depiction of a young adult facing mental health problems is as close to home as it gets. She has, all her life, bottled down her emotions, too afraid initially to confront anyone. Now, she thinks of confrontation as too much of an inconvenience, too much of a task. You can't foresee what your past trauma can do to you in your present life, but what you can do is seek help. And Kaira does that. She acknowledges her issues and reaches out to a therapist. She trusts him, and works on taking the time out to start the process of learning, unlearning, and most importantly, healing. And isn't that so important, especially in mainstream cinema?  – Debdatta Sengupta

Meeta (Hasee Toh Phasee, 2014)

Played by: Parineeti Chopra

Parineeti Chopra's Meeta from Hasee Toh Phasee is an exceptionally bright chemical engineer born into a Gujarati joint family that runs a sari shop. Obviously, they can't figure her out. One of them describes her as 'khatarnaak experimental'. To be fair to them, Meeta is quite a mystery. She's socially awkward, has secret phone calls in Mandarin and has no qualms in hacking into her father's bank account when she runs out of money. She's also silently coping with some sort of anxiety and is addicted to prescription pills. Meeta is the twist in this otherwise formulaic romantic comedy and Parineeti really makes you care for her.  – Mohini Chaudhuri

Amrita (Thappad, 2020)

Played by: Taapsee Pannu

Amrita aka Amu is perhaps one of the most important depictions of womanhood in recent times. One fateful incident has the capability of changing lives forever, and Amu knows that the second her husband – the man she loved and sacrificed her own career for – hit her. This was the anti-thesis of Kabir Singh, where 'why he hit her' superseded 'he hit her.' For Amu, the why's and how's didn't matter, even when almost everyone – right from her mother-in-law to her lawyer – tried normalizing and rationalizing it. For her, the incident shook her to an extent that she could finally, clearly see all she had to give up and compromise in the name of becoming someone's wife. That someone, who felt entitled enough to not only hit her but justify it too, without feeling an iota of remorse or regret. The fact that she took a stand for herself, deciding to not stay in a forced marriage with a man she can't respect any longer, felt like the big screens finally acknowledging the deep-seated trauma of domestic, physical and emotional abuse, even if it looked like 'just a slap' to the outside world.  – Debdatta Sengupta

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