The sudden demise of the renowned actor Sridevi has led the media to officially anoint her as the first female super star of Indian cinema. While this is not objected as part of a courtesy towards the deceased and the bereaved, one must know that, before Sridevi, there were a few women who had travelled the road of stardom when it was not so easy.
It was only since the1930s the word ‘star’ in Indian cinema acquired the meaning it has today. Before, a star was anybody who had been hired by a film studio to perform for them. For example, a 1927 article of Times of India read like this – “Most of the studios maintained a permanent staff of technicians and stars...”. The word ‘star’ was used as a product attraction by Madan in Calcutta to give a foreign flavour to his films. Describing the Indian women actors as the exotic beauties in his films was one of the many publicity methods of Madan.
In the pre-modern era of Indian cinema acting or any kind of public performance was seemed as an inferior career choice. That is why we have some ‘nameless’ first generation female actors who were found from dancers, prostitutes and women from families that hit the rock bottom of reputation in society. Then came the Anglo Indian and Jewish actors who already had the ‘dissociated’ image from the Indian society. They were not looked down upon or loathed as they were ‘technically’ not of Indian origin. Sulochana aka Ruby Myers was one of the earliest stars (in today’s meaning) of the 1920s from Jewish background. She was the highest paid female actor during her time in Kohinoor Film Co and later she survived the sudden leap of talkies by learning Hindustani. She was a phenomenal presence in films like Cinema Queen (1926), Amarun Hidustan (1930) and other super hits of the 1920s and the 30s.
Sulochana aka Ruby Myers
Along with acting the romantic involvement with the male co stars was also very common. But unlike today, these personal narratives of Indian film actors were skilfully protected by the film journalists and other studio writers. This was mainly because ‘stardom’ in India was seen with a negative pretext as the American model of stardom in the 20s projected the love life and licentious lives of actors. In India, stardom was something different. With the growth of nationalism movement and freedom discourse, the post 1930s demanded a different star image for Indian women actors.
Film companies competed with each other to improve the image of their female stars by projecting their educational background and by even adding their degrees along with their names in the posters. Devika Rani and Durga Khote belonged to this era. Devika Rani was the grand niece of Rabindranath Tagore and the family’s reputation was unquestionable. She was British educated and well versed in multiple languages. Her Achhut Kanya (1936) was a significant film which also has a history of her elopement with her co star and she was later talked into leaving him and joining her husband in the making of the film with another co star. But the elopement and the details of her loose morals were known to public only after a decade- another example for successful covering ups by film journalists. However Devika Rani was considered as the finest Indian woman who symbolically stood for the ‘new modern Indian woman’ the nationalists held up to rub in the face of the colonialists.
Durga Khote was the action heroine of the early talkies. She had a reputation in her films for being outspoken, angry and hateful towards men. Her films like Maya Macchindra (1932) and Amar Jyoti (1936) showed fearsome women protagonists who are armed and dressed for free physical movement. The introductions of Durga Khote in such films were often with a low angle camera, indicating the power of the character over men and all other characters in the film. This ‘angry young woman’ persona was suitable for the nationalists because it metaphorically stood for India which was once feminine to have been colonised and now with the nationalists ‘she’ has an enhanced power with which she can over throw the imperial powers.
Next in the list is the exquisite Madhubala. If Devika Rani impressed the British, Madhubala made her fame known even in Hollywood. She was the most sought after female actor from the late 40s to 50s. Actors like Ashok Kumar, Raj Kumar and Sunil Dutt were her co stars. Mughal e Azam (1960) was her most notable work. The controversies around her personal life were no lesser than of any female stars. The curse of the ‘loose moral’ character attributed to the female actors in those days happened to Madhubala’s image as well.
The 1960s and 70s were owned by Vyjayanathimala, Hema Malini and Rekha who were the south Indian monopoly in Bollywood. The films and the consequent love affairs never stopped. The star image was, by then, based on the popularity of such stories in the glossy magazines as well. Nargis was reserved for her sophisticated acting skills while Rekha and Hema Malini were the ‘sweet hearts’ of the crowd. If anyone deserves the description as the first female super star of Indian cinema, that is Vyjayanthimala. Her Devdas (1955) was a major breakthrough in her career and her Naya Daur (1957) was second only to Mother India as the highest grossing film of the year.
The 1980s was Sridevi’s era. She was known to be adaptable in roles without asking ‘hundreds of questions’ to the director, according to some directors who worked with her. It took her a few years to be taken seriously by the Bollywood and her following success in films ensured the bankability of the star. The controversies followed Sridevi until her long break from the industry after her marriage with Bony Kapoor.
The 1990s saw a Maharashtrian beauty with her iconic smile- Madhuri Dixit. Known as the arch rival of Sridevi in Bollywood, Dixit made a number of hits like Dil (1990), Saajan (1991), Koyla (1997) and Devdas (2002).
The following decade saw the emergence of the pageant winner Aiswarya Rai- first branded as an ill starred heroine and then owned blockbusters. Kareena Kapoor’s and Katrina Kaif’s post millennial decades witnessed ‘item songs’ being established as chartbusters. These song scenes were exclusively reserved for the ‘hottest star’ and they were seminal in deciding one’s relevance in the industry as the star. Kapoor, once about to be doomed as an unlucky star, turned the tables with her Chameli (2004).
Today stardom is also about a strategic plotting of controversies and the consequent media coverage that includes, needless to say, social media. With Padmavat (2018) Deepika Padukone has become the talk of the town for some time. It is only a matter of time before she is toppled by another with the same formula.
- Hindi Action Cinema: Industries, Narratives, Bodies by Valentina Vitali.
- Wanted Cultural Ladies Only: Female Stardom and Cinema in India 1930s-1950s by Neepa Majumdar.
- Light of Asia: Indian Silent Cinema 1912-1934 by Suresh Chabria