Whenever there’s a new Bollywood release these days, we quickly train our lenses on the women characters to judge if they meet our newly acquired feminist standards. These concerns, however, barely existed in the 1990s. Back then, we judged films by their star cast and entertainment quotient rather than the values and viewpoints they reflected. Looking back, though, we often cringe at the wishy-washy wallflower roles that were granted to actresses at the time.
Fortunately, not all women characters of that period disappoint. Amid all the two-dimensional love interests and damsels in distress there were also strong, individualistic characters and others who, at the very least, stood out because they did more than just preen prettily in front of the camera. We spoke to a bunch of Bollywood aficionados to put together a list of memorable women characters from 90s cinema that could win our approval even today.
1. Anu in Aashiqui (1990)
This movie is a classic for several good reasons. The first is its music that has stood the test of time. But more importantly, in an era where being ‘fair and lovely’ were requisites for leading ladies, Aashiqui launched the tall, strapping, and chocolate-skinned Anu Aggarwal. The role broke convention in other ways too. Melissa Fernandes, a 32-year-old kindergarten teacher, loved Anu (the character had the same name as the actress playing her) in the film.
“Anu’s streak of rebellion and individuality shows throughout the film. An orphan with limited means, she runs away from her girls’ hostel because of the strict warden. Later, she elopes, becomes a model, decides to go to Paris, and even stands up to her boyfriend who doesn’t want her to show skin. Not many women characters back then had a mind of their own,” Fernandes said, adding that she discovered the film when she was 15, several years after its release. “I was surprised at how modern the film seemed. I only wish that Anu hadn’t lost her spunk at the end, giving up her career for a guy who misunderstood her and felt insecure about her success.”
2. Pooja in Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin (1991)
When she first watched the film, Neha K was 12 years old. But she vividly remembers loving Pooja Bhatt (whose character is also called Pooja) in the film. “She seemed very real, and her rebellion against her father was so relatable,” Neha said. The French teacher and mother of two teenage daughters also appreciated the character’s arc, which had Pooja evolving as she gained experience the world.
“Pooja isn’t a wallflower. She starts out spunky and childish but grows into a woman with dignity and self-respect, one who is able to assess and gauge men. She also puts aside her ego to understand her father’s intentions when he discouraged her from marrying her boyfriend,” added Neha. She is regretful that Bollywood made very few interesting, complex, and realistic characters when she was growing up. “It was only after the debate around Raanjhanaa (2013) that I realised how films back in our days glorified stalking. We follow what we see in pop culture. If the movies had more inspiring characters, I may not have had to struggle to undo my conditioning today,” Neha said.
3. Damini in Damini (1993)
One of the most memorable films of the decade, Damini highlighted the issue of sexual violence perpetrated by the more powerful on those who are in the margins of society. What makes Meenakshi Seshadri’s titular character most admirable is her ability to stand up to the powers that be and fight injustice.
The subject, of course, is still relevant given India’s continuing issue of sexual violence, especially against the oppressed. According to Anju Narang, a Gurgaon-based accounting professional, the film deserves a revisit.
“Damini exposes the hypocrisy that festers within our society. When she realises that her brother-in-law and his friends have raped their domestic help and injured her badly, she speaks up and decides to testify against them. She calls out her husband when he asks her to let the matter go. She fights against a corrupt justice system. She is the kind of woman we need today – someone who stands by her sisters and demands justice. Today, when we are protesting against the Hathras rape and still pushing the #MeToo campaign, Damini’s character is as contemporary as it was back in the 1990s,” Anju said.
4. Pooja in Lamhe (1993)
A sensitive portrayal of a love story between an older man and a younger woman, Lamhe was among the last more serious films by Yash Raj Films before it turned its focus on capers in foreign locales. The very handsome Anil Kapoor was paired opposite Sridevi who featured in a double role, first as his love interest and later as his ward who falls for him. The film has aged well in its depiction of consent, and also in the sexual agency displayed by Sridevi’s younger character Pooja.
According to Mumbai-based film professional Surabhi Sharma, Pooja’s character is “progressive”, even though her behaviour is at times immature. “She never once doubts her love for the much older Kunwarji (Kapoor) and nor does she explain it to people. As a young woman, she isn’t afraid to make the moves. She tries to spend time to get him to know her,” the 40-year-old said. “Even towards the end, she tells her Daaija (Waheeda Rahman) that she would rather remain single (than not be with Kunwarji), which was a pretty cool and independent thing for the 90s.”
5. Mili in Rangeela (1995)
“It’s the story of a woman too busy following her dreams to notice all the men falling in love with her.” This, in a nutshell, is how Delhi-based Akanksha Gupta sees Urmila Matondkar’s character in Rangeela. Even before she watched the film, the 32-year-old enjoyed Mili’s attitude in songs. “Rangeela had been around for some years and I would watch the songs as they played on cable television. I loved the oomph she exuded, which was such a departure from all the other holier-than-thou women leads in films of that time,” Gupta said. “I was in my teens and I wanted to be like her – a little bindass and very hot.”
When she did finally watch Rangeela, the publicity professional found Mili to be “cool, spunky, and at great ease with her body”. She also appreciated the character for how well-rounded she is. “In most movies and shows even to this day, women do not seem to have a life or purpose other than being in love. Mili, on the contrary, loves the movies, having fun, and dancing. And she enjoys her work so much that she does not make a big fuss about being in love; it is sort of by-the-way for her. It is pretty cool that way.”
6. Annie in Khamoshi (1996)
Pooja Das was 16 when Khamoshi released. A Salman Khan fan at the time, she felt that the film didn’t have enough of her favourite star. “But everything about the film was so beautiful that it had me wiping my tears throughout,” recounted Das, laughing. In the 24 years since, the Mumbai-based media professional has revisited the film at least a dozen times and it isn’t Khan but Manisha Koirala’s Annie Braganza that has had her going back.
“I love the fact that a talented Annie, tired of being the voice to her mute parents, spells it out to them that she has her own dreams too. We all can relate to the complexity she is faced with — the responsibility she feels towards her parents and the desire to follow her own path. But most of us will never be able to tell our parents for fear of being misunderstood,” Das said. She also pointed out that Annie’s character isn’t apologetic about getting pregnant before marriage and doesn’t doubt her lover’s intentions either. “Not once does she feel regret, yet Annie is not portrayed as any less virtuous than other lead characters of that time.”