Where have all Bollywood’s bad girls gone?

They were right there... drinking, dancing, scheming, and always coming to a tragic end. Amid a societal and economic upheaval, the vamp gave way to the villainess, as A-list stars of the ’90s played killers and stalkers. Today’s lead doesn’t have to pick between good, bad or evil. She can just be, well, a woman.
Anti-heroines in mainstream Hindi cinema through the decades: The Bollywood bad girl is still on your screens. But now she’s often the lead. And she’s not all bad or all good; she’s sometimes scheming, sometimes struggling or revelling in her misdeeds, often just muddling through, wondering how she got to where she is. PREMIUM
Anti-heroines in mainstream Hindi cinema through the decades: The Bollywood bad girl is still on your screens. But now she’s often the lead. And she’s not all bad or all good; she’s sometimes scheming, sometimes struggling or revelling in her misdeeds, often just muddling through, wondering how she got to where she is.
Updated on Oct 02, 2021 04:20 PM IST
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The Bollywood bad girl is still on your screens. If you don’t recognise her, it’s because of how much she’s changed.

She used to be a side character; she’s now often centre stage. She used to be bad and sad; now she’s often just being herself, sometimes scheming, sometimes struggling or revelling in her misdeeds, often just muddling through, wondering how she got to where she is.

She may be the protagonist, as in the recent streaming shows Bombay Begums (2021) and Aarya (2020), about ambitious women taking on Mumbai’s corporate world and underworld respectively.

There isn’t always a foil. Some stories centre entirely on two or more women struggling to define who they are, what they want, or doing what needs to be done, as in the films Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare (2019), Andhadhun (2018) and Manmarziyaan (2018).

It’s a change that’s been decades in the making, kicked into high gear by societal flux that goes back decades too.

Vamps were vamps because of Indian society and how it perceived women’s roles in it, says Meenakshi Shedde, film curator and South Asia delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival. In the long decades that stretched from the earliest Hindi talkies of the 1930s all the way to the turn of the century, most mainstream heroines were devoid of agency. The vamps had agency but were expected to pay a heavy price for it. They were the gangsters’ molls, the single women in disparaged careers (cabaret singer, bar dancer), invariably dead, alone or in despair by the time the end credits rolled.

“Women weren’t shown as villains in the way men were,” says film critic and writer Anupama Chopra. Where a man could be complex, conflicted and redeemed (usually by the love of one or more good women, typically, fiancée and maa), women in key roles were either beautiful and virginal or sexual and lost beyond redemption.

“It was the same as recently as 25 years ago. Why do you think Simran in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge didn’t sleep with Raj even though they were alone, in a hotel room, in a different country and very much attracted to each other?” says Chopra.

Things began to change in the feel-good romcom years of the late 1980s and 1990s, when the bad girl went from vampish outsider to forgivable but flawed stepmother, aunt or college mate in love with the same man. Here, redemption came via failure. Plots and schemes collapsed as they were designed to, the hero chose the heroine, and the aunt, stepmother or jilted woman made her peace with their happy ending. The centre was still holding.

By the late 1990s, in an increasingly wealthy, ambitious and aspirational India, a new generation of storytellers teamed up with a set of A-list actresses looking for more to do than smile and dance. The likes of Kajol and Urmila Matondkar began playing serial killers and psychopaths, with barely a shrug in the direction of the cute-girl images they’d had before. When these early experiments were hits, it opened the floodgates, and suddenly the bad girl wasn’t a side figure. She was taking up the whole screen.

Fast-forward to the new millennium. A young India in the midst of a societal, sexual and economic revolution was now looking for their stories to be told. This was a generation marrying later than ever, living alone or with friends and partners, earning more and spending more. Mainstream tales began to incorporate their new reality, in all its shades.

Kalki Koechlin played a schoolgirl whose boyfriend leaked an MMS sex clip of her, in Anurag Kashyap’s 2009 adaptation of Devdas, Dev.D. Vidya Balan turned up in Ishqiya (2010), playing a gangster’s wife out for revenge, in cheap synthetic saris and an oily plait. Taapsee Pannu reclaimed explicit language and spoke of sex and consent in Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink (2016).

By the time the streaming platforms Netflix and Amazon Prime arrived in 2016, the markets were ready. Ambitious and talented women had taken on roles behind the camera too, in the director’s chairs, production studios and writers’ rooms. A race began to see who could find the freshest and most relevant stories, and tell them most differently.

While it’s hard to say how much of the freshness will give way to sameness of a different kind, the subscription-based revenue model means that storytellers can focus on a very specific demographic for each kind of project, for the first time.

And so today’s mainstream tales are less predictable. The heroines more temperamental. The heroes less dashing but far more interesting. And the villains and villainesses, well, they’re still there. But now they’re just people, such as you too may know, or meet, or be.

The early years: Saasu-maas and home-wreckers

You’d have to be of a certain vintage to remember Kuldip Kaur. She loomed over audiences from the late 1940s to the late ’50s, and is considered Hindi cinema’s first vamp. Against the pure, virginal heroines of that era, Kaur played the dreaded “other woman”. She was beautiful, sophisticated, lustful, and seemed to live to ensnare the innocent and unsuspecting hero. She was sometimes an evil socialite and seductress, sometimes an adulterous wife.

That rather sassy song, Gore Gore O Banke Chore (O, fair fair young boys) was her, in Samadhi (1950), where she played both a seductress and a spy for the British!

In most of Kaur’s roles, her character’s posture spoke of pride, her costumes of vanity, her eyes of desire. She was a warning to men and women alike: this is what danger looks like, and only bad things can happen if you go down this road. The men she led astray invariably awoke to the error of their ways and returned to heroines played by the likes of Meena Kumari. Kaur usually ended the films dead; in the case of Samadhi, denounced by her one-time paramour and executed for treason.

A string of stylish home-wreckers (remember Nadira and Manorama?) would follow in Kaur’s wake.

Nadira (above) and others like Lalita Pawar and Shashikala played stylish homewreckers and cruel in-laws in the 1940s and ’50s.
Nadira (above) and others like Lalita Pawar and Shashikala played stylish homewreckers and cruel in-laws in the 1940s and ’50s.

These same decades also saw the frequent appearance of the kitchen bad girls, led by the unparalleled Shashikala and Lalita Pawar. They were the villainesses of the less glamorous, less urban films, typically cruel and wicked mothers-in-law to the heroine. Off-screen, this was a time when women had little agency. Most did not work outside the home, and had little financial independence or decision-making power. The mother-in-law-daughter-in-law discord was part of a very real struggle for relevance and belonging.

Shashikala and Pawar reflected this reality, often highly exaggerated for melodramatic effect. They plotted, poisoned, schemed against and gravely injured the bahus in their homes. The women viewers (and the long-suffering men) could relate to some of the discord, enjoy the drama, and perhaps even go away feeling they didn’t have it so bad.

Deadly and doomed: Disco lights, cabarets, arm candy

By the 1960s, audiences came to the theatre expecting fantasy, even titillation. Enter the cabaret vamp. These were typically lost women who danced and sang for a living, often in clubs. They glittered with sensuality but were invariably lonely and miserable and often ended the film lonelier, more miserable, or dead.

Think Helen, in her glittery outfits that concealed far less than anyone else’s costumes; often covered in sequins, topped with feathers.

These characters became necessary because the heroines were allowed to do so little. Think of Asha Parekh or Nanda, standing virginally by in demure saris as plots unfolded around them. Visibly uncomfortable with any displays of affection; designed largely to be objects of ardent love rather than participants in desire. Something had to make the screen come alive, and it couldn’t be them.

By the ’60s, the audience was expecting fantasy and titillation. In came the sexy but doomed characters played by the likes of Helen. These were single, independent women who drank, smoked, wore western clothes, and invariably died at the end.
By the ’60s, the audience was expecting fantasy and titillation. In came the sexy but doomed characters played by the likes of Helen. These were single, independent women who drank, smoked, wore western clothes, and invariably died at the end.

It was the cabaret vamp, who looked like a million bucks, that kept the male viewers coming. What this did was mark the start of the vamp as a star. Helen, Bindu, Aruna Irani drank, smoked and wore glamorous, westernised clothes on screen. Their characters were smart, conniving, involved in plot twists.

In a strange turn of events, mainstream Hindi cinema made room for three very unusual heroines at this time: Zeenat Aman, Rekha and Parveen Babi. All three oozed sensuality, weren’t afraid to dress like the vamps did, and drew such massive audiences that the screens and stories made room for them. They played street-smart, outspoken women, sometimes thieves, prostitutes (Babi in Shaan and Deewar) or in the case of Aman’s most iconic role, the drug-addicted hippie Janice in the 1971 hit Haré Rama Haré Krishna (of the still-iconic song, Dum Maro Dum). They weren’t good girls, but they were female leads.

Still, they did not end the films happy. Janice, for instance, dies by suicide, unable to bear the fact that her parents and brother saw her drug-addled and consorting with hippies. After all, even fans didn’t want their worldview disturbed. And it wouldn’t do to let women think they could dance, sing, smoke, and live to tell their tales.

Destined for defeat: Funny, nasty, rich

The 1980s and ’90s saw a wave of feel-good romcoms that corresponded with the good-news years for India. The food scarcities and foreign aid of previous decades had given way to a growing economy. The mainstream hero didn’t have to be wretchedly poor any more. He could now be middle-class. And the heroines were often in college, planning careers.

The bad girl of these films wasn’t frightening or evil. Instead, she often had a good reason for her misdeeds: she wanted her daughter to marry the good guy; she wanted her son to marry well. Sometimes, she was a rich girl who had fallen in love with the hero.

Rohini Hattangadi and Sridevi in ChaalBaaz (1989). These bad girls were stepmothers, aunts, part of the family and essential to the plot, not just pasted in. But even so, they were comical and destined to fail.
Rohini Hattangadi and Sridevi in ChaalBaaz (1989). These bad girls were stepmothers, aunts, part of the family and essential to the plot, not just pasted in. But even so, they were comical and destined to fail.

A popular trope of this time was the evil stepmother who saw the error of her ways. Think Rohini Hattangadi as Sridevi’s wicked aunt in ChaalBaaz (1989); scheming but funny, trying to embarrass and constantly being foiled by the naughty Sridevi. These villainesses were clearly destined to fail at their machinations, and were good for a few laughs as they stumbled along.

As for the rich girls, they always lost and ended up with literal or metaphorical egg on their faces. And so, in Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke (1993), Aamir Khan snubs the rich man’s daughter Navneet Nishan and walks away with Juhi Chawla. In Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989), Pervin Dastur loses Salman Khan to Bhagyashree.

You couldn’t fault the spurned women, because they acted out of love. You could pity them, though, because although they had so much (and so much more than the average person in the audience), they eventually walked away with nothing to show for their efforts. Money could buy you a car or a bungalow; it could not buy you love.

Changing the game: The ticking time-bomb

By the late ’90s, the game had changed considerably. In a booming economy where ambition and aspiration had become veritable life skills, A-list heroines were looking for roles that would allow them to showcase talent (hard to do if all you’re doing is dancing and smiling).

Women like Priyanka Chopra, Urmila Matondkar and Sonali Bendre were seeking ways to stand out, within a film and alongside the filmography of their peers.

Mainstream writers and filmmakers began to experiment with new kinds of stories. Kajol took the plunge with Gupt (1997), where she played a serial killer. The film was a hit, and when that worked, for a woman who still had the candyfloss blockbuster of her career, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), running in theatres; a movie in which she had so little agency that her father had to tell her to go after the man she loved as his train left the station for good; it opened the floodgates.

By the late ’90s, A-listers like Urmila Matondkar and others wanted more to do than smile and dance. They ditched their cute-girl image to play killers and stalkers in lead roles. The bad girl was now taking up the whole screen.
By the late ’90s, A-listers like Urmila Matondkar and others wanted more to do than smile and dance. They ditched their cute-girl image to play killers and stalkers in lead roles. The bad girl was now taking up the whole screen.

Stars were lining up to take risks. And audiences were queuing up to see what these beloved actresses would get up to next.

Directors like Ram Gopal Varma and Raj Kumar Santoshi led the charge. Chopra saw her star rise with Aitraaz (2004; directed by Abbas-Mustan), where she played a money-hungry, manipulative corporate boss. Madhuri Dixit played a jilted and unhinged lover bent on revenge in Pukar (2000; Raj Kumar Santoshi). Bendre played a killer in Duplicate (1998; Mahesh Bhatt). Four years after her blockbuster Rangeela, Matondkar played a psychotic killer in Kaun? (1999; Ram Gopal Varma), leaving her “cute girl” image behind with a casual shrug.

The list kept growing. Bipasha Basu played a greedy seductress in Jism (2003). Aishwarya Rai Bachchan was the accomplice of a rogue cop in Khakee (2004). Kareena Kapoor Khan played a con woman and killer in Fida (2004). Some of these were hits, some flops, but together they gave the mainstream a whole new layer: women who owned their villainy and took up all the space on the screen.

Here and now: Women of today

In 2009, Kalki Koechlin played a schoolgirl whose boyfriend leaked an MMS sex clip of her, in Anurag Kashyap’s Dev.D. It was a retelling of the classic tragic love story Devdas, but her subplot was based also on news reports of a similar incident in a Delhi school. Her character would eventually become Chanda, the prostitute.

Plots and storytelling methods were changing. A new generation of storytellers was accommodating more of the real in the mainstream.

By 2010, things had changed enough for Gulzar to write Ishqiya, and for Vidya Balan to star in it. Balan had so far played the pretty female lead in mainstream hits such as Parineeta, Lage Raho Munna Bhai and Paa. Now, she played a lonely gangster’s wife who seduces two petty criminals because she wants them to find her husband, who has faked his own death and tried to kill her. It wasn’t just the story that looked different; she did too. She was dressed in cheap synthetic saris, her hair in an oily plait.

By 2010, a new breed of storytellers was bringing more of the real into the mainstream. Characters like Tabu’s in Andhadhun (2018) are leads, layered, and life-like.
By 2010, a new breed of storytellers was bringing more of the real into the mainstream. Characters like Tabu’s in Andhadhun (2018) are leads, layered, and life-like.

The film was an unexpected hit.

As these films fared well, space opened up for a new generation of writers, filmmakers and actors, male and female, to take the stage, tell new stories, and tell them differently. These included Kiran Rao, Konkona Sen Sharma, Zoya Akhtar, Meghna Gulzar, Reema Kagti.

In 2016, Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink, starring Taapsee Pannu, raised questions of consent, used explicit language and scenes of sexual violence not for titillation but in anger, and as part of a demand for justice. The independent single women in the film were speaking for the millions of young, independent singles now living in India’s cities.

By the time Netflix arrived in India in 2016, the market was ready. India already had its own streaming platforms. Amazon Prime entered the market later the same year too. And the race was on for who could tell stories that were relevant and fresh, and do it differently.

It’s anyone’s bet how much of the freshness will give way to sameness of a different kind, but the subscription-based revenue model also means that storytellers can focus on a very specific demographic for each kind of project, for the first time.

And so, today’s actors don’t all look like they’ve stepped off magazine covers. Shweta Tripathi, Rasika Dugal, Pratik Gandhi, Jaideep Ahlawat, and Radhika Apte have become household names. Streaming platforms are changing our notions of what constitutes a star, as film critic Anupama Chopra put it in a recent column.

And the women in the lead roles have gone from good or bad, good or lost, good or evil to inhabiting the entire spectrum of the human experience. Struggling, winning, grieving, losing hopelessly, celebrating, loving, looking in the mirror and not recognising what they see.

They’re not heroines. They’re not vamps. They’re not bad girls. They’re just, well, women.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Madhusree is a feature writer who loves Kolkata, is learning to love Mumbai. She loves to travel, write and bake

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Sunday, December 05, 2021