The Thalas and the Princes who rule the South Indian film industry have massive fan followings and are powerful, saleable stars whose films enjoy big openings across the South. When their names appear on the screen, the crowds erupt in fervour. But what about the names that appear second in the credits? The heroines? They have their own fans, too, but they simply aren’t in the same league as their male co-stars. There is no such thing as a Samantha film while there most certainly is such a thing as a Vijay film.
In these male-dominant industries, scripts with substantial female roles are few and far between. Most heroines are reduced to playing the role of a satellite to the heroes. But there are a handful of female actors who hold their own despite the odds stacked against them.
Take Anushka Shetty, who at the age of 34, ought to be in a glass case inside a museum if one were to go by common industry logic. Instead, she continues to be a much sought-after heroine in Tamil and Telugu, often carrying entire films on her capable shoulders. The ease with which she swings from playing glamorous roles to virtuous, even pious ones, reminds me of her senior, Ramya Krishnan, who was equally good at performing ‘item’ numbers and Mariamma dances.
Anushka Shetty in 'Rudramadevi'
Anushka has performed a range of roles, defying stereotypes and taking risks that other heroines might hesitate to take. For her film “Size Zero”, which was on the exploitative obesity industry, she put on a whopping 20 kilos! Male stars like Aamir Khan, Kamal Haasan, and Vikram among others have frequently changed their body to suit a role but heroines have rarely gone down that path. And if at all they have, it has only been to lose more inches. Whether she’s playing an avenging angel in “Arundhati”, a sex worker in “Vaanam” or a cross-dressing, sword-wielding queen in “Rudramadevi”, Anuskha’s screen presence is undeniable. I didn’t care much for the spectacle that was “Baahubali” – but I’m looking forward to seeing Anushka killing it in Part 2. Here’s hoping she doesn’t turn into a tame Tamanna after a song and a dance.
Who next? Nayanthara. Touted to be the highest paid female actor in South India, Nayanthara is a superstar in her own right. When I watched “Thani Oruvan” in the theatre, nobody clapped or whooped when Jeyam Ravi, the hero of the film, came on screen but there was spontaneous cheering when Nayanthara appeared. And no, she wasn’t in a bikini. Very few heroines get that sort of reception from the audience, whether it’s Bollywood or the South.
Nayanthara and Silambarasan in "Idhu Namma Aalu"
Nayanthara has done films in Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu and has only grown better with the years. She has evolved from being an awkward debutante to a confident star who is comfortable playing all kinds of characters. In “Raja Rani”, a film about a couple who are bogged down by their past loves, she exhibited her ability to emote and revealed an impeccable comic timing too. She was also sportive enough to appear with her ex-boyfriend Silambarasan in “Idhu Namma Aalu” after their much publicized break-up. The film had many inside jokes about each other’s relationship woes in real life - a refreshing departure from the average heroine who never wants to discuss her love life in public.
I never liked Trisha much till I watched “Abhiyum Naanum”. Perhaps because I watched it with my overly emotional and hugely protective father, I loved the film and everyone in it. Then I went back to her earlier films and discovered that the real reason I didn’t enjoy them was because I didn’t like the alpha male, navel-pinching heroes. She herself was just fine. More than fine.
Trisha in "Yennai Arindhaal"
Trisha made her debut in 1999. That’s seventeen long years in an industry where the average heroine has a shorter shelf life than a ripe banana. She has acted in several movies in Tamil and Telugu and sure, most of these were template films where she had nothing much to do other than look pretty but you can look pretty in a vapid, absent way or you can look pretty with a presence even if your director doesn’t care either way. Trisha was in the second category. Whenever she’s had a chance to display her acting abilities, she has come through – whether it is in “Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya”, “Manmadhan Ambu”, “Yennai Arindhaal” or my favourite, “Abhiyum Naanum”. The rest of the time, I’m happy to tap my toes to an “Appudi podu podu” and wait.
Divya Spandana, also known as Ramya, was often called the Sandalwood Queen, so popular was she in the Kannada film industry. Raised by a single mother, Ramya has not had an easy life. Her foray into films was accidental and though she knew nobody in the industry, it didn’t take her long to make her presence felt. There are very few female actors who speak up when they are asked to do objectionable scenes, very few who can stand up to the inherent misogyny in the industry – Ramya is one of them.
Ramya interacting with a woman at Pandavapur
I confess, I don’t watch too many Kannada films and I’ve only ever watched Ramya in the Tamil films that she’s done. My favourite of the lot is her character in “Vaaranam Aaiyiram” where she plays a quiet, understated woman who is very much in love. And lust. It’s a difficult role to pull off, given that female desire is hardly ever represented on screen but Ramya did just that and with a lot of dignity to boot. Ramya is making a come-back to films this year after a hiatus when she got busy with her political career. That’s good news for folks like me who like heroines with a mind and a tongue.
Manju Warrier is still giving the younger heroines a run for their money, though she has had a fifteen year gap in her CV. And no, she isn’t only playing the kind mummy roles that a heroine is given once she steps into her late thirties. The Malayalam industry is somewhat better off when it comes to female actors as the scripts, in general, have fleshed out characters and there’s more meat to their roles. Manju has always excelled in every film she’s acted – whether it’s the fiery “Ee Puzhayum Kadannu”, the rebellious Mridula in “Kaliveedu”, the dour-faced Banumathi in “Kanmadham” or more recently, the innocently intrepid Padmini in “Rani Padmini”
Manju in "Rani Padmini"
Manju’s return to cinema hasn’t been easy. Her traumatic and much publicized divorce and custody battles could have broken a lesser woman but Manju is made of sterner stuff. There were people who actively inserted obstacles in her way but she has swept past them in style. As a fan, I’m only too happy that she’s still on the hunt and shows no signs of giving it up any time soon.
These are exciting times to follow the career graphs of female stars. More of them are speaking up, more of them are breaking the glass ceiling. I know and the whole world knows that there is only one Superstar but maybe, just maybe, there will one day be a female Superstar. Don’t say boo…look, America has just got its first female Presidential candidate!