Iconic female characters in Bollywood films

International Women’s Day special celebrating great girl power in Hindi cinema

Mary Kom


THERE will be another global celebration of girl power on International Women’s Day.

The annual day on March 8, aiming to empower women and girls will once again highlight everything from important social causes to human rights, equality and celebrating female heroes.

Eastern Eye decided to mark the occasion by selecting 21 impactful, inspiring and powerful female characters from Bollywood films across the decades, listed in chronological order.

Princess Madhuri in Hunterwali (1935):

Australian actress Mary Ann Evans took on the stage name of Fearless Nadia and introduced great girl power to Indian cinema with a series of stunt-based action movies. It all started with Princess Madhuri and her masked vigilante alter ego, Hunterwali. She broke the shackles of female characters with eye-catching stunts, fight sequences and figure-hugging outfits. The actress followed it up with similar movies that could all be on this list.

Radha in Mother India (1957):

Mother India

Nargis rounded off a successful career with her portrayal of the courageous Radha. The legendary actress took on the role of a woman who faces every possible challenge imaginable, from becoming a single mother to battling the elements and then making the ultimate sacrifice. The greatest female character in Bollywood history exuded pure power and helped turn the film into India’s first Oscar-nominated movie.

Anarkali in Mughal-e-Azam (1960):


The sparkling jewel in the crown of Bollywood’s greatest movie is the courageous courtesan, willing to sacrifice her life for the man she loves. Madhubala delivered a career-defining performance as an iconic beauty who bravely defies a fearsome emperor. She then agrees to make the ultimate sacrifice in the story of star-crossed lovers, which makes everyone believe in the power of being fearless in love.

Rosie in Guide (1965):  


Made nearly 60 years ago, this film was way ahead of its time and that included the progressive role portrayed by Waheeda Rehman. In a period when Indian women didn’t have much recourse to leave unhappy marriages or relationships, Rosie comes back from the brink and does exactly that to pursue her passion. When the second man in her life also turns out to be a disappointment, she powers on and proves that a woman doesn’t need a man to find fulfilment.

Geeta in Seeta Aur Geeta (1972):

The female answer to the 1967 blockbuster, Ram Aur Shyam, saw Hema Malini play separated identical twins with contrasting personalities. While Seeta is weak, the feisty Geeta is much stronger and won’t take nonsense from anyone. When they accidentally swap places, Geeta sets out to right some wrongs. An honourable mention also goes to a similar double role played by Sridevi in ChaalBaaz (1989), which included the gutsy Manju.

Manju Dayal in Khubsoorat (1981):

The character played by Rekha made such a big impact in the award-winning comedy-drama that it was remade multiple times. The warm-hearted young woman, who melts a cold, uptight family and has a positive effect on them, would go on to inspire many female characters in subsequent decades. The spirited character showed the immense power of positivity and made many want to be like her.

Aarti Saxena in Khoon Bhari Maang (1988):


The Indian adaptation of the Australian mini-series, Return To Eden, saw Rekha play a wealthy widow who remarries and is almost killed by her villainous second husband. She battles back from disfigurement to go through a physical and emotional transformation, before setting off on an audacious revenge mission. She was very much the hero of the hit film, about a woman taking justice into her own hands.

Namrata Singh in Phool Bane Angaray (1991):

PhoolBane Angaray

There have been some great female police officers in Bollywood, and this was a memorable one. One of Rekha’s last great roles as a leading lady saw her play a courageous woman who joins the police force to avenge her crusading cop husband’s death. Namrata is the hero of this action-drama and goes on a transformative journey, brimming with potency.

Saraswati in Beta (1992):

Madhuri Dixit never shying away from playing brave characters meant she was perfect for this role of a no-nonsense woman, who is much smarter than her uneducated husband. Instead of being the usual subservient daughter-in-law shown in Hindi cinema, Saraswati directly takes on the evil stepmother and does all she can to protect her husband. The smash hit remake of the 1987 Tamil film, Enga Chinna Rasa, delivered the character of a tough housewife, not willing to accept any nonsense.

Michelle McNally in Black (2005):


One of the greatest performances in Hindi cinema history saw Rani Mukerji breathe life into a deaf and blind character who doesn’t let limitations in life stop her. While the character made people appreciate what they have, it was also empowering on multiple levels and demonstrated that there is always hope even in the darkest of times.

Geet Kaur Dhillon in Jab We Met (2007):

Jab We Met

There is a reason why many leading ladies cite Geet as a dream role. Kareena Kapoor Khan delivered a career-defining character with a perfect portrayal of a freespirited woman who tries to live life on her own terms. During her journey, she also inspires a deeply depressed man she encounters to love his life again. When things don’t go as planned, that inner spark still burns brightly inside her.

Meera Gaity in No One Killed Jessica (2011):

No One Killed Jessica

Although Vidya Balan plays the woman trying to seek justice for her murdered sister admirably, it was Rani Mukerji who added a spark with her portrayal of a no-nonsense reporter, Meera Gaity. The film, based on a real life murder case, saw the actress deliver the dynamic role of a journalist who will do whatever it takes to uncover the truth.

Vidya in Kahaani (2012):


On the surface, Vidya is a seemingly helpless and heavily pregnant woman trying to track down her missing husband. In reality, she is a brave, tough, driven and deadly woman playing a much bigger game to take revenge. Vidya Balan delivered one of the best performances of her career as the unpredictable character, who has an unbreakable spirit and the intelligence to take on a deadly male adversary.

Zoya in Ek Tha Tiger (2012):

One of the deadliest female characters in Bollywood history saw Katrina Kaif play a Pakistani secret agent, who teams up with an equally dangerous Indian spy. The two lead characters proved to be so popular that it resulted in two sequels. All the films saw Zoya at her lethal best against formidable foes. She remains a tough character in a spy universe that has spawned a series of spin-off films.

Shashi Godbole in English Vinglish (2012):

English Vinglish

The beautifully crafted character played by the late actress, Sridevi, showed that female empowerment can come from the simplest of actions. She portrayed an Indian housewife who is mocked by her family for not being able to speak English and decides to do something about it on a trip to New York by enrolling in a course. The heartwarming film showed an inspiring journey that made a strong connection with audiences.

 Rani Mehra in Queen (2013):


The story of a mild mannered woman, dumped days before her wedding and going on a pre-booked European honeymoon, was ultimately about an empowering journey. Kangana Ranaut portrayed the woman, who, during the solo trip, realises she is a lot stronger than everyone, including her, thinks. By finding inner strength, Rani shows that she is indeed a queen and inspired female audiences of all ages.

Shivani Shivaji Roy in Mardaani (2014):


The fearless police inspector portrayed brilliantly by Rani Mukerji was pure toughness. The actress sets the screen on fire in the role of a cop trying to catch a villain who is trafficking young girls. She exudes power with her performance, which includes a memorable hand-to-hand combat scene with the male villain. Shivani returned for a 2019 sequel and a third instalment could be on the way.

 Mary Kom (2014), title role:

The boxing drama based on real-life events saw Priyanka Chopra play Indian boxer, Mary Kom. The knockout performance saw her brilliantly portray a woman rising from humble beginnings and realising an impossible sporting dream. She balances family with training and fighting for victory. The motivational masterpiece showed what is possible with hard work and a never-say-die attitude.

 Meera in NH10 (2015):


The hard-hitting actiondrama perhaps didn’t get the credit or the audience it deserved. At the centre of the action was a traumatised woman, who finds herself terrorised by a vicious gang while travelling and being forced to fight back after a series of heinous incidents. Anushka Sharma breathed fire into the role of a woman in a deadly situation who overcomes unsurmountable odds with fierce intensity.

 Sehmat Syed in Raazi (2018):


The spy thriller set prior to the India-Pakistan war of 1971 centres on a secret agent, played by Alia Bhatt. The undercover operative marries into a family of military officers in Pakistan and secretly relays information back to India ahead of the war. The brave young woman in deadly surroundings helps her country during an important moment in history in the espionage drama.

 Amrita Sabharwal in Thappad (2020):


Whether it was a secret agent in Naam Shabana, sportswomen in Saand Ki Aankh, Rashmi Rocket and Shabaash Mithu, or a scientist in Mission Mangal, Taapsee Pannu has defined her career with powerful female characters. The one that makes it onto the list is that of a housewife, who decides to leave her husband after he slaps her. The simple, message-driven story presented a strong character, representative of so many women, unwilling to take any kind of domestic abuse.