I seem to be in the mood for filmi lists these days, so here comes another one, that of my favorite "heroine" roles in Hindi films (only caveat: the list is limited to squarely "commercial" movies). So without further ado:
Awaara (1951): Spoilt rich girl? Sure, but also spunky, vivacious, and displaying the sort of easygoing intelligence and timing that perhaps only Nargis could manage. Throw in what was probably Hindi cinema's first swimsuit on a heroine, and it's clear that repartee wasn't the only thing Nargis could carry effortlessly -- for me, still the most carelessly sexual Hindi film heroine.
Mother India (1957): Nothing sexual about Nargis' role here, the sort of role that puts the "drama" in "melodrama": Husband's arms amputated? Check. Missing husband? Check. Rapacious moneylender? Check. Ne'er-do-well son? Check. Let's face it, Radha's life is such a walking disaster zone, one could hardly be blamed for rolling one's eyes or just laughing at loud. That we don't dream of doing so is testimony to the grace and power Nargis infused into this performance -- if Awaara is a tangy souffle, Mother India is carved granite. Perhaps a stretch to speak of this role as a "favorite" (one feels presumptuous speaking of "affection" for this performance), but it is the sort of monument that bears inclusion in every list.
Piya ka Ghar (1972): Probably my favorite shamelessly sentimental film ever, and certainly my favorite Jaya Bhaduri performance. Bhaduri plays a young woman from a landed rural family who marries into a middle-class Bombay setting, where an apartment must be shared with endless relatives, indeed where nothing seems truly one's own, if by "own" one means to the exclusion of everybody else. Bhaduri essays the role of Malti to perfection, capturing her journey from wide-eyed innocence to a kind of bittersweet wisdom in a nuanced and accessible performance that is simply irresistible. Basu Chatterjee's is a modest film, and Bhaduri seems to have been well aware of that: she does not reach for too much, with the result that the audience gets it all.
Mausam (1975): OK so I lied, this isn't really a purely "commercial" film -- so shoot me, but I want to re-visit this film one more time before you do that, so memorable is Sharmila Tagore's double role as the Kajli Sanjeev Kumar romances and then leaves behind, as well as her daughter, the prostitute Chanda he chances upon years later. Kajli's is a fairly stereotypical Hindi film role, that of the innocent village belle; Chanda is the foul mouthed prostitute who wields profanity like body armor -- together they are testimony to Tagore's quiet grace and undeniable talent. Director Gulzar won't win too many points for his gender politics, which remain of the rather banal variety, but then that isn't the point of this film that dwells upon memory, loss, and the irreparable passage of time. That passage, as well as the trace it leaves behind, is captured in the person of Tagore, who plays both the lost love and its (sordid) trace in the here and now.
Shakti (1982): Smita Patil's Roma is the only adult in this overwrought film about two overgrown boys, DCP Ashwin Kumar (Dilip Kumar) and his son Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan). Patil's restrained-yet-smoldering dialog delivery, her cool bemusement -- almost bordering on the maternal -- at Vijay, means that the endless debates on who was better in this film, Dilip or Amitabh, are simply wrongheaded: Patil's brief role is more than a match for everyone else here, and remains my biggest reason for repeat viewings of this film.
Ghulami (1985): Smita Patil shines in yet another testosterone-driven film, this time an epic set against the backdrop of emerging peasant resistance to a feudal order in Rajasthan. Partil plays Sumitra, the thakur's daughter with an affinity for the sense of justice of rebellious peasant Ranjit Singh (Dharmendra), even after she is married to the Rajput SP Sultan Singh (Naseeruddin Shah). The dialogs crackle with power and grandeur in this film, none more so than when Patil unleashes epic irony in the face of her husband's suspicions: "overacting" was not in Patil's dictionary, not even in the face of the sorts of tempations Ghulami offered, with the result that every other cast member comes off the poorer. Koi shak?