So often in Bollywood comedy films, the laughs are mined from the female protagonist being duped in some manner. The hero is lying to her, either to impress her or to prevent her from leaving. And that too, for the majority of the runtime. Cases in point, Padosan, Do Aur Do Paanch, Yes Boss, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Vicky Donor, and many more.
Memorably, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, a genius of simple humour, was one of the few directors and storytellers who gave women the chance to play comic roles. His inherently decent comedies of the 70s and 80s were special because lead heroines were involved in the charade. Think about Sharmila Tagore in Chupke Chupke, Deepti Naval in Kisi Se Na Kehna, or Parveen Babi in Rang Birangi. They did not just entertain the audience with their reactions. They took charge and moved the narrative forward. Even in his films that began with a prominent female character unaware (the subject of dramatic irony), when the truth was revealed, she would join the fun. Take a look at Bindiya Goswami in Golmaal or Jaya Bachchan in Chupke Chupke. These women were not prickly, dramatic people who left the enjoyment to the men. They played a part in the pranks.
One of these women is Manju Dayal from the 1980 film Khubsoorat. The movie is basically about how Manju visits her recently married sister and challenges the authoritarian way in which the mother-in-law runs the household. Rekha plays Manju with real vulnerability, switching between comedy and drama effortlessly. Manju has all the characteristics of a mainstream heroine. She is beautiful, loveable, naive, and she can sing and dance exceptionally.
But she is so much more than that. Manju has defining strengths that are striking for that time. She is progressive in her beliefs and demeanour. When her sister prepares for people to come and see her for marriage, Manju responds with dialogues like "Reet, my foot. Arre didi, tu kya teen soro wali ladki hai ya maut ki kooi mein chalne wali motorcycle ke tujhe dekhne aayenge." She addresses her future father-in-law as "boyfriend." All in all, Manju is quite liberal and opinionated. In fact, she is also intelligent and teams up with the youngest man in the family, Jagan Gupta (played by Ranjit Chowdhry), to learn everyone's secrets and hobbies to win them over.
On the other hand, while Manju is fun-loving and caring, and she breaks the repressed family free from the rules of the matriarch (Dina Pathak as Nirmala Gupta), she realises in the end that she may have crossed a line. Her actions have consequences, namely, the father-in-law (Ashok Kumar as Dwarka Prasad Gupta) gets a terrible heart attack, and the relationship between Nirmala and her children are ruined. However, Manju earns her forgiveness from Nirmala by taking care of the bed-ridden Dwarka during this trying time. She demonstrates that her personality does not only lead to irresponsibility and childishness. Her outspoken nature helps Dwarka when she yells at the heart specialist for his dismissiveness: "Appointments can wait but death will not."
In a way, Manju is the female version of Hrishikesh Mukherjee's archetype of the lively, loving person who brings happiness and freedom into a home or person's life, similar to Rajesh Khanna in Bawarchi and Anand. Another instance is Jaya Bachchan's character in the romantic-drama film Mili, but in Mili, the focus is her changing Shekhar's (Amitabh Bachchan) life since he falls in love with her. Also, the movie is mainly about the life-threatening illness that Mili has. Khubsoorat is much more of a comedy, not a tragedy. What sets Khubsoorat apart is the way romance is not the main plot. Manju is not defined by her love for Inder (Rakesh Roshan). The effect she has on everyone in the household along with her flawed nature characterises her. Rekha infuses her with rich relatability, and her comic timing is amazing. Manju is real, funny, and complex, which is rare in female characters of Bollywood comedies, and that is why she is my favorite female protagonist in a film.