One actress known for taking on roles with a difference is Tabu. Perhaps her most significant role till date has been in Astitva. She plays a woman whose life is defined by her unabashedly self-centred, male chauvinist husband. A look into her past becomes the means for her to assert herself to him, and look for an identity that is completely her own.
One of the most overplayed characters in Bollywood is Paro - the love of Devdas' life. Anurag Kashyap gave us a Paro with a twist earlier this year. Played by Mahie, this new Paro knows how to look out for herself and make the best of life after being humiliated and shunned by her lover.
Aishwarya Rai got the opportunity to play one of the earliest independent women seen in literature - Elizabeth Bennet (Lalita) in Gurinder Chadda's Bride and Prejudice. She can stand up for herself and defy even the haughtiest man from England!
Tabu's role in Cheeni Kum was way lighter than her role in Astitva, but it was refreshing nevertheless. Her portrayal of a single, confident woman in her thirties who has the courage to fight her father's displeasure of her unique choice of life partners can be counted among the landmark portrayals of women in Bollywood.
One of India's most controversial films, Fire was arguably our first brush with lesbians on screen. Two women (Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi) find love and companionship in each other in the wake of neglectful husbands. While right wing groups have been up in arms against this and most other Deepa Mehta films, this was a significant moment in Bollywood, as it marked the acknowledgment of homosexuality among women in India.
There is no other actress who has played more women-centric roles than Shabana Azmi. While putting down all such portrayals by her would entail a long list, we do feel it necessary to mention Godmother, where she played a forbidding female leader. There have been few films in Bollywood ready to portray such women even now.
Following close on the footsteps on Shabana Azmi is Konkona Sen Sharma, who has made it a point to look at the women she portrays with a younger, more positive eye. In Page 3, she played a young reporter who lives alone, is comfortable and modern in her relationships and is willing to push boundaries with respect to her career.
While conservatives would like to brand most forward looking women as those with loose morals, Rani Mukherjee and Konkona Sen Sharma in Laaga Chunari Mein Daag presented an interesting combination. One, a woman who is pushed to prostitution in pursuit of a career, and her sister, a girl who is more successful, career-wise and provides a less judgmental opinion of her sister's fate than most of society.
Mother India is yet another iconic woman in Bollywood, though not without some concerns about her representation. All problems aside, she is among the first few popular representations of a single mother.
While Paheli came under fire for presenting an exotic picture of India to the west, the point we missed was the central woman character is presented. The character played by Rani Mukherjee was a landmark one as she acknowledges her sexual desires without being branded a woman of questionable morals.
Recently, Bollywood saw a film that pushed quite a few of its existing boundaries, especially with reference to sexuality. This was Dostana. The character played by Priyanka Chopra was far more interesting than the two central men put together. She is attractive, ambitious, hard working and yet in touch with her personal desires.
While it bombed at the Box Office, Zindaggi Rocks, starring Sushmita Sen is another film that portrays an out-of-the-box female character. Once again a single mother, juggling a career in the music industry, her son and her romantic relationships.