Without a doubt our Indian Film industry, be it Bollywood or the regional ‘Mollywood’ (short for Malayalam film industry), is a male-dominated sphere.
The alpha males dominate the box office, dictate terms and basically rule the roost, while their female counterparts are usually left to glamorise proceedings in the background. Or at most, play the role of a pretty prop to the heroes of cinema. Despite that in this glitzy patriarchal realm, there have been quite a few femme fatales through the eras who have by the sheer mettle of their blazing talent, shone through and are still going strong.
Let’s shine a light at some of these endearing and enduring reigning queens of M-town in no particular order!
Rima Kallingal: After making an impactful debut in 2009 with ‘Ritu’, in which she played a leading character with grey shades, Rima has continued to take on diverse and challenging roles with ‘Neelathamara’, ‘City of God’, ‘Indian Rupee’, ‘Nidra’, ‘Rani Padmini’ etc. Prior to acting, she was a successful model and a talented dancer who got noticed after winning the runner-up title in ‘Miss Kerala 2008’ contest. She won rave critical reviews as well as a huge commercial success, for her bold portrayal of Tessa- a nursing student, who is all set to move to Canada to further her nursing career, but is brutally sexually assaulted by a man in connivance with her lover and who then sets out to avenge her torment in an equally ruthless, calculating manner in the dark thriller ’22 Female Kottayam’. In her short spanned Film career so far, she has won prestigious State & Filmfare awards and is considered one of the few Malayalam actors today, who can effortlessly excel in both light-hearted glam roles, equally balancing intense realistic characters. Alongside, she has also followed her passion for dancing and even went on to set up ‘Mamangam- The School of Dance’, in Kochi in 2014.
Mamta Mohandas: In addition to being an accomplished actress, Mamta Mohandas is an acclaimed playback singer down south, having lent her vocals to many Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam films, in which she has acted or even otherwise. She made her debut in 2005 with the Malayalam film ‘Mayookham’, in which her work was appreciated despite the film not doing so well. However, it was not until 2009 that she saw commercial success with the political thriller ‘Passenger’ in which she played the role of a fierce T.V reporter. This was a turning point in her career and she then went on to star in many more memorable hits like ‘Kadha Thudarunnu’ (English: The story goes on) which is the heartening tale of the travails of a single mom after the untimely death of her husband and how she overcomes her difficult circumstances, with the encouraging support of strangers. The film was a super-hit & also won her many prestigious awards. She went on to star in many successful films like ‘Celluloid’, ‘Arike’, ‘My Boss’, ‘Two Countries’ etc in varied roles showcasing her diverse acting abilities. She is an inspiration in her personal life too, having successfully conquered the trauma of Cancer and its debilitating treatment, along with coming to terms with a failed marriage, and still managing to rise up like a phoenix from all the distress shining with positivity and determination.
Aparna Gopinathan: Aparna Gopinathan broke the mould of stereotypical heroines with her debut movie ‘ABCD’ (American-Born Confused Desi) in 2013, in which she played a tomboyish, socially concerned student. She has held her own grounds in an industry notorious for conventional looks of a heroine, with her boyish haircut, bespectacled look and unconventional dressing sense. Coming from a theatre background, she has not shied away from playing any character, even if meant going completely non-glam & no make-up. Case in point is her intense role in ‘Charlie’, where she plays a Doctor who comes under severe duress when, due to her medical negligence a patient loses his life- and she gets depressed to the point of becoming suicidal. She also received rave critical reviews for her performance as a journalist in the 2014 release ‘Munnarippu’ (Warning), who sets out to write a jailed murder convict’s biography. The movie went on to win over the box-office, as well as, critics.
Parvathy Menon: A Final year Eng. Lit. student from Trivandrum, Kerala- she is one more bespectacled beauty with unconventional looks in Mollywood who has blown all off with her expansive talent. She can effortlessly morph from an urban, westernised independent girl living life on her own terms in “Charlie” to a classic, traditional village belle with exacting body language & nuances of diction in the real-to-reel life love story ‘Ennu Ninte Moideen’ (English: Only Yours, Moideen) when required, without one getting the slightest feeling that she’s enacting! She has proven her talent is beyond the barriers of language, excelling not only in Malayalam but across Tamil and Kannada cinema as well. She is always seen taking great efforts to choose each role which gives her scope to perform and do something different from before, researching the minute details that go into it. Thus in ‘Bangalore Days’ we see her as a paraplegic but bubbly RJ, paralysed waist-down & bound to the wheelchair but not short on life or positive spirits. Some of her other notable films in Malayalam are ‘Notebook’ and ‘City of God’. Her dedication is evident in her body of work, having won “Best Actress” awards in both Tamil and Malayalam. In her own words, she enjoys ”challenging herself psychologically” and living and experiencing other lives through her roles.
Manju Warrier: She was all sweet 16 when she made her acting debut in 1995, but in a span of just 3 years (from 1996 to 1999) she acted in about 20 odd films, winning Malayalam viewers’ hearts all over with her stellar performances and sometimes stealing the thunder from even established heroes in Mollywood! She won lots of admiration for dynamic performance in ‘Aaraam Thamburan’ (English: The 6th Emperor) against the towering presence of Mohanlal, with some of her die-hard fans going so far as to call her the ‘Mohanlal’ amongst actresses! Her performance in the movie ‘Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu’ even won her the National Film Awards (special jury) in 1999. Thereafter, to the dismay of her fans all over, she quit filmdom to get married to her co-star of many movies, Dileep. But now after their break-up and a career break of almost 15 years, she is back with a bang to doing what she loves most- movies! Having won a Filmfare award for ‘Best Actress’ in every consecutive year since 1996 until 1999, she won it again for her comeback film, ‘How old are you’ in 2014, where she plays a protagonist seemingly mirroring her then real-life dilemma of a married woman on the threshold of stepping out of her comfort zone, battling her self-doubts and dilemmas of middle-age. The movie was a huge success, winning her many accolades and firmly re-establishing her as one of the best talents we have in Mollywood today. Her second innings in this industry has been heartily welcomed by all her fans and she now holds the record of maximum Filmfare Awards and continues to give badass performances with substantial roles in her latest releases like ‘Ennum Eppozhum’, Rani Padmini and ‘Vettah‘.
Nazriya Nazim: After being introduced as a child artiste in 2006 in ‘Palunku’ (as Mammootty’s daughter), she was launched as a female lead in 2013 with ‘Maad Dad’ when she was barely 19. But it was her next film, ‘Neram’, a rom-com thriller made simultaneously in both Malayalam and Tamil, which became a huge success appreciated by critics & audiences alike, that made her an overnight star. She has lighted up the big screen with her ebullient presence for all of 2 years now, but that hasn’t stopped her from becoming the darling of Mollywood, with a clutch of delightful performances in movies like ‘OmShanti Oshana’- a film she carried entirely on her dainty shoulders, ‘Salalah mobiles’ and ‘Samsaaram Aarogyathinu Haanikaram’ (English: Talking is injurious to health), her latest release being the multi-starrer blockbuster ‘Bangalore Days’, where she admirably held her screen space. She has been equally successful in making a name for herself in Kollywood. And all this in a span of under 2 years! She took a break post that to get married to co-actor Faahad Fazil, but has all her fans eagerly awaiting her next release! A noted scribe once aptly described her as a talent “with a face that is so expressive that she does not even need to speak”.
There are, of course, many more notable ones- some in the past and some in the now, who have given us some unforgettable performances like Meera Jasmine, Shobana, Kavya Madhavan, Urvashi and many many more to be named here. But as someone once observed, “I rarely meet men in real life as extraordinary as ones on film, and rarely see women on film as extraordinary as ones I know in real life”. ‘Cos the sad truth is there rarely are movies made about the amazing women that exist. They are usually reduced to a glamorised uni-dimensional caricature of imagination. But not to despair though, for times are changing for sure and these remarkable actors and the movies that they have worked in are ample evidence to it. So that’s something to cheer about in the coming years!