During the opening credits of Bejoy Nambiar’s Shaitan (2011), when he’s introducing his five primary characters, we see the camera turn from under a sink to train its gaze on Tanya, played by Kirti Kulhari. She’s standing in front of a bathroom mirror and forcing herself to puke. Then she stares coldly at her midriff. Years worth of exploitation and toxicity are condensed into less than a minute. Kulhari was one of the most known faces in the ad world when she took the role in Nambiar’s film, where, incidentally, she was also playing a well-known model fro advertisements. Long before Twitter discourse could laud it for its ‘metaness’, Kulhari had used the way audiences see her in real life to lend unexpected pathos to her on-screen character.
Female actors in the mainstream Hindi film industry, where the mould for a ‘heroine’ is rigid and obstinately defined, have rarely gotten a say about how they should be depicted. Yet over the past decade, a rank of female actors have defied the norms and carved niches for themselves with characters that go beyond the narrow definitions laid out by commercial cinema. Actors like Sobhita Dhulipala, Kulhari and others radiate beauty, but have deliberately steered away from playing roles that are simply about their looks. The women they portray are always more complicated than they seem. For instance, after her stand-out performance in , Dhulipala was most recently seen playing Kaveri in The Night Manager. Although she’s had little to do in the first season, even in that brief appearance Dhulipala makes clear that Kaveri is more than the archetypal gangster’s moll. Kubbra Sait did something similar in Sacred Games. At first, she seems to be playing Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui)’s arm candy, only for the role to go in a different direction.
Even though most of these actors entered the industry with dreams of becoming the quintessential ‘heroine’, they haven’t allowed themselves to be reduced to forgettable roles. Their choices have worked towards bringing to life characters that complicate traditional ideals of femininity. Following in the footsteps of actors Vidya Balans and Konkona Sen Sharmas, who refused to take on frivolous roles, combined with the OTT revolution that made space for more nuanced depictions of women, a new rank of female actors are changing the way the industry looks at women.
Sait was 27 when she came to Mumbai, an age that made her old enough to be cast as the hero’s grandmother, she says only half-jokingly. “If I couldn’t be the heroine, I could be hero ki behen, hero ki best friend, that’s all there was,” she said. Which is when she took up her first acting assignment to play a maid: “I didn’t have any qualms doing the role – because aur koi aake nahi khilaane wala hai yaar (No one else is going to come and feed you!). Koi aur nahi sikhaane wala hai yahaan ke raaste (No one’s going to teach you the ways).”
Kulhari nailed her first ad audition within 10 days of setting foot in Mumbai in the late 2000s. She became the face of Nivea and was working with the best brands. It was great money, but Kulhari had her eyes set on a different prize. “It was very promising, but it’s also misleading because it can convince a part of yourself that you’ve arrived,” said Kulhari, ”I had to remind myself that my goal was to act in films.” Someone who had grown up hearing that she was pretty, Kulhari’s perception changed once she entered the grind of Hindi cinema – where nearly everyone looked just as pretty as her. “You’re suddenly sucked into a world of competition, comparison. You’re constantly grappling with feeling inferior and superior. Combine this with the skin-deep definition of ‘beauty’ in our society, where we’re constantly talking about our skin-tone, or the body-type. It’s all very superficial.”
For Sayani Gupta, who came to Mumbai after studying at the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) — among her batchmates is Farzi’s — body image was not an issue. “This confidence to hold my own was inculcated into me at an early age. It was always about how many books you’d devoured, your dance or music, or your temperament,” she said. Growing up in a Bengali family, where both her parents have always been “well put-together”, Gupta said she’s never let her affinity for fashion or willingness to dress up become an obstacle for her roles. “You should strive to be truthful to the moment. It’s not about looking good,” she said, “it’s about looking right.”
After breaking out with Shaitan (2011), Kulhari had nearly five years in Bollywood wilderness. “I had almost naively assumed that my work would speak for itself,” said Kulhari. Unfortunately the fate of a film overpowers any singular element, including an actor’s performance. Her next film worth noting would be Pink (2016). Yet what seemed like a gargantuan success left Kulhari with a bitter taste. “When I first heard Pink, it was the story of three girls, and I thought my character was as significant in the film as Taapsee’s, and that’s how the film treated us as well.” It’s only when the trailer of the film came out, and the marketing team went on an overdrive, did Pink become Taapsee’s film. “She is known as the ‘Pink girl’ more than I am,” said Kulhari. “Frankly, it was a bummer.” The experience taught Kulhari the importance of PR and perception, something she says remains a weakness in her arsenal. Annoyed by the tag of “supporting actor”, she chose not to go to the award functions where she was nominated for her performance in Pink. “When you look towards the West, it’s a big deal to be nominated as a “supporting actor”. But in our industry – where things are anyway rigged – I can’t accept being slotted like this. It’s like supporting actors are unimportant. It comes from a place of hierarchy,” said Kulhari.
Gupta started with bit roles in massive productions like Fan (2016) and Baar Baar Dekho (2016), and small-but-effective parts in indie productions like Margarita With A Straw (2015) and Parched (2015). Her first chunky role was in the Prime Video series, Inside Edge (2017). “When I first came to Mumbai, I was told my features were ‘unique’ and that I might not land the part of a heroine.” Gupta never took it seriously and was choosy about films even when she didn’t have too much work. For instance, she initially wasn’t keen on doing Baar Baar Dekho. “I went and spoke to Nitya (Mehra, director), and told her I wouldn’t want to do the film. Nitya told me how she had spent nearly eight months looking for someone with unconventional looks like me – I remember I had short hair, with a fringe.” Gupta remains thankful for having worked on the film despite its reception because Baar Baar Dekho turned out to be one of the most fun sets on which she’s been. “Some of my closest industry friends are from that film set,” said Gupta.
Sait’s breakout role as Kukoo meant she was only offered roles of trans characters afterwards. Alankrita Srivastava approached her with Shazia, a firecracker of a part in Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitaare (2019). Sait would have to make do with small parts for three more years in films like Jawaani Jaaneman (2020) and a string of forgettable web shows, before hitting the motherlode with Apple TV+’s Foundation (2021). Playing the role of Phara, who Sait says has become a queer icon in America, the perseverance seems to have finally paid off. “I guess it teaches you to value your dreams a little more. It was insane that someone in Limerick (Ireland) was interested in what was going down in Lokhandwala. That’s when I remember feeling I have to pull up my socks and stop feeling like I’m not good enough. The least I can do is show up,” said Sait. “Half my journey has been about showing up.”
The idea of what it takes to be a heroine has steadily expanded in recent years to include characters who flout convention and feel more rooted in the aspirations and realities of middle class India. Arguably, the more interesting roles for women actors today is in OTT series and mainstream cinema has responded to this trend by writing more dynamic roles for women — for instance, Deepika Padukone’s Pakistani spy is not just eye candy in (2023).
Gupta says she isn’t under any kind of galat fehmi (misconception) that she’d be offered roles like those offered to stars like Padukone or Samantha Prabhu, but she still hasn’t closed the door on that possibility. “I want to do the ‘heroine’ parts. What I won’t do is something politically problematic, unnecessarily sleazy or just plain crass. I’m not opposed to doing anything [in good taste]. However, there’s very little that I end up liking,” she said.
Sait says she wants to do a dance film. “If Ayushmann (Khurrana) can do (2022), then why can’t I do a dance film?” Having transitioned from a much-in-demand compére to a globetrotting actor, Sait said, “I found my own crevices through the darkness, and found my own light. I know people will argue ‘No, but I am passionate!’ – but bro, you brought pots and pans to a frickin’ grenade war! Why don’t you sit in your bunker and build something that will give you a fighting chance? There’s no hurry! Take your time.” As her most recent performance in Farzi might suggest, Sait has become that rare androgynous figure in popular Hindi cinema. She steals every scene she’s in with Kay Kay Menon, one of the most widely respected actors in the country.
Kulhari, who is making her debut as a producer with the feature film Nayeka this year, says she possesses the necessary wisdom to tackle the part of a mainstream heroine. “Now, I can play it with a certain maturity and detachment that I couldn’t do before. There are some things I just can’t do – some things that I’ve risen above. My life doesn’t depend on it like it once did,” said Kulhari, “I can go in without any desperation.”