They’ve proved their mettle and have the box office pull. Trade circles refer to them as ‘women superstars’. Maybe it’s befitting to just call them ‘superstars’
The trailer of Bhaagamathie was a give away. If you’ve been tracking mainstream Telugu cinema, the minute you spotted Anushka saying the lines that end with ‘...Bhaagamathie adda!’ in a larger-than-life manner, you would have guessed that this scene will play out as the pre-interval segment. A large reason why that film worked, despite its heavy hangover of the Malayalam film Manichitrathazhu (Chandramukhi in Tamil and Telugu) and Arundhati among other films before the conceit and double cross that happens towards the end, is because of Anushka Shetty’s presence. Her regal demeanour keeps us from getting restless as we wait for the narrative to move away from the oft-repeated tropes of a horror film. In a lighter vein, Rana Daggubati once commented that he and Anushka had become the go-to actors for any period/war film.
Think of her, and the roles that are of immediate recall would be Devasena in Baahubali, her titular roles in Rudhramadevi, Arundhati, and now Bhaagamathie. She created a stir as the svelte diva in Billa, but there were several other films where she looked ill at ease trying to be the quintessential heroine. Away from the period/war/horror settings, there’s a lot more that she is capable of. It would be interesting if writer-directors in Telugu cinema came up with scripts for her, like the way the Tamil industry does for her contemporary, Nayanthara.
‘Mein kar sakti hai’ repeats an extremely eager, though nervous, Sulu who wants to break free of the routine brought in by domesticity and, maybe like her air hostess neighbours, take a bag and walk the walk that means ‘I am going to office’. Always talked down to by her more accomplished sisters, but adoringly cared for by her husband, Sulu breaks free in a way conventional housewives wouldn’t dare to — anchoring a late night radio show. Ad guy turned feature filmmaker Suresh Triveni’s Tumhari Sulu brims over with warmth helped hugely by the endearing presence of Vidya Balan. She becomes the naive Sulu that you root for. The rise of Sulu is marked by Vidya doffing her hat to the only female superstar who conquered every language she’d acted in — Sridevi. The ‘hawa hawai’ redux and the way Vidya says ‘Balma’ was an ode to Sridevi.
Vidya herself is a force to reckon with. After several false starts she made an impression with Parineeta (2005) and her rise happened through Paa, Ishqiya, No One Killed Jessica, The Dirty Picture and Kahaani. Much has been said and written about her uninhibited act to flaunt her not-so-flattering curves in The Dirty Picture as the story fashioned like a biopic traced the ups and downs of a tinseltown seductress. If Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani turned out to be a clever conceit despite the narrative giving us several clues along the way, during the first viewing most of us looked past the clues (and connected them later while walking away from the hall) because we gave in to the engaging storytelling and the leading lady. It’s a treat to watch her on screen and one hopes there will be many more defining movies in her oeuvre.
The Tamil film industry and media refer to Nayanthara as ‘lady superstar’ and in some cases, ‘thailavi’. When you think that ‘thalaiva’ stands for Rajinikanth, you know what a long way Nayanthara has come since the days of Chandramukhi and Ghazini where she wasn’t the centre of attraction. Straddling Malayalam, Telugu and Tamil industries, she now commands an undeniable superstar status in Tamil. For an up and coming filmmaker brimming with non-mainstream ideas and wanting to explore a slightly new format, it’s a big deal if this ‘thailavi’ likes the story and gives a go ahead. She stars in those big-budget hero-centric films like Thani Oruvan (remade as Dhruva in Telugu) and Irumugan (dubbed as Inkokkadu in Telugu) but she also headlines films like Maya and Aramm. Her journey has had its ups and downs, intense scrutiny of personal relationships after which she steered clear of media interaction, only to rise higher and dictate her terms. For instance, it’s known in the industry that she will not be part of promotional campaigns. And, the well established male actors, directors and producers are okay with it. Her presence itself is an added value to their project.
Her legions of admirers will watch her in extravagant mainstream vehicles as well as films like Aramm, where, interestingly, the area of work of her character is is in focus. She plays a district collector and as she struggles with rescue operations to get a little girl out of a narrow well, the narrative doesn’t deviate to show her personal life. The film doesn’t put her on a pedestal too. She’s at the receiving end as the villagers oscillate between hope and dread during the mission.
Nayanthara’s forthcoming line-up is equally interesting. In Ajay Gnanamuthu’s Tamil film Imaikka Nodigal she stars alongside Atharva, Rashi Khanna and Anurag Kashyap (antagonist); she’s a part of the historical Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy starring Chiranjeevi and directed by Surender Reddy; she’s a part of Ajith-starrer Visvasam and there’s another Tamil action thriller titled CoCo (Kolamavu Kokila).
She was the child-like, bubbly young heroine bursting into the spotlight at the turn of the century. When she got noticed in Doli Saja ke Rakhna (1998), she was Nagma’s little sister. But that changed in the next two to three years as she made her way into Tamil cinema through Vaali, Poovellam Kettuppar and Mugavaree and landed the big blockbuster with Kushi (Tamil).
Jyothika got to explore something new when she pursued Suriya with a heady mix of straightforwardness and maturity in Gautham Menon’s Kaakha Kaakha (remade as Gharshana in Telugu). Just like Khushboo and Simran before her, Jyothika was swiftly accepted into Tamil cinema (she also starred in a few Telugu films) and stopped being considered an outsider.
When she chose to return with 36 Vayadhinile after a sabbatical, she was unquestioningly accepted. This was a grown-up Jyothika in a film that felt like a television soap in some portions, but she made it seem better than it actually was. The film was a roaring hit, drawing women in droves, and she took her time to carefully follow that up with Magalir Mattum (which also starred Bhanupriya and a terrific Urvashi) and director Bala’s Naachiyaar.
Next, she will be seen in Mani Ratnam’s Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (to be called Nawab in Telugu) and the Tamil remake of Tumhari Sulu. More power to her!
There was a time when female actors were advised to choose roles are morally upright, if they wanted to stay on in public memory. Tabu defied that and so did several others. Kangana Ranaut’s career, in this context, is an interesting case. Her earlier films such as Gangster, Woh Lamhe and Fashion didn’t have her doing the quintessentially right thing. She kept us hooked with an arresting persona but there was also the danger of being slotted into similar roles. A decade and more later, she headlines the historical drama Manikarnika, being helmed by director Krish, in which she plays the queen of Jhansi. She walked away with the applause for Tanu Weds Manu, Queen and then again in Tanu Weds Manu Returns. Her male co-stars in these films were good, but we’d remember her more. During the making of Queen, director Vikas Bahl let her improvise her lines and she was credited as additional dialogue writer. This writing credits issue would snowball later into a bone of contention during the making and release of director Hansal Mehta’s Simran, when she was in a bitter battle with writer Apoorva Asrani. It’s impossible not to talk about Kangana without referring to the many off-screen tiffs — with Hrithik Roshan, Karan Johar,.... But let’s move away and wait for Manikarnika.