Happy International Women’s Day! Here are some International Women!

(This is a reposted and Updated post from last year)

There are so many many many options for a Women’s Day post, that it kind of blew my mind and I couldn’t decide!  Most empowering films for women?  Most feminist songs?  My favorite female characters?

Anyway, I decided to switch focus to the “International” part of it, and look at the most International women in Indian film!

First, last, always and forever: Helen!!!  There are many versions of her life story, but according to this super fun book that I encourage you all to buy if you can track down a copy, Helen was born to a Spanish father and a Burmese mother.  After her father died, her mother remarried a French army officer.  During WWII, her stepfather was killed, and she and her mother became refugees who walked from Burma to India.  Landing in India, they lived in the Bombay slums where they got to know “Cuckoo”, the current biggest Item Dancer in the film industry.  Cuckoo mentored Helen, who started dancing in the chorus at 12 in order to support her family.  And then, of course, Helen became “HELEN!”, beloved icon of Indian film, despite being un-Indian by both birth and early upbringing.  Decades later, she married Salim Khan, adding an additional layer of connection to her relationship with India, and adopted a daughter, Arpita Khan.  So in one woman, we have Spain, Burma/Myanmar, France, and India.  That’s kind of amazing!

(Here’s Helen and Cuckoo dancing together)

Of course, international connections in the women of the Indian film industry go all the way back to the earliest days.  One of my favorite early actresses, Fearless Nadia, was the child of a Greek mother and an Australian father (as I just discussed in a post recently).  Nadia was born in Perth (thus the film showing in Australia a few years back), but raised in India.  And, eventually, became the wife of Homi Wadia, an Indian Parsi.  Making her name “Nadia Wadia”, which is just about the best name ever!  So in this one woman, we have Australia by birth, Pakistan by childhood, Greece through her mother, India and Persia (many many generations back) through her husband.

(Here’s Fearless Nadia, being Fearless)

And the international connections continue today!  I am sure we all know about Katrina Kaif’s British background.  And Priety Zinta married a man from Los Angeles.  But did you know that Deepika was born in Copenhagen in Denmark?  Her father, a badminton champion, was at an international training camp there at the time of her birth.  And that Alia Bhatt is an eighth German?  Her mother’s grandfather was a dissident in Germany during the time of the Nazis and ended up fleeing to England.  Where his daughter married a Kashmiri refugee, and their daughter is Alia’s mother.  Everyone knows about Shashi Kapoor being married to Jennifer Kendal.  But did you know that Kareena and Karisma’s mother Babita is also partially British?  Her mother was a British Christian, which is why her daughters are so faithful about attending Christmas mass.

Why is this?  Why are so many actresses through out the history of Indian film connected to places outside of India?  Early on, it was because well-brought up Indian girls wouldn’t be allowed in films.  But it’s not just that, because actresses from India, from Merle Oberon to Priyanka, have had an easier time crossing borders the other way as well.  And actresses from outside India like Katrina Kaif have had an easier time being accepted in the Indian industry than men raised overseas.  Even someone like Tom Alter, who was Indian born and raised, but didn’t look it, had a hard time getting roles.

Merle Oberon-publicity.JPG

(Merle Oberon, born in Bombay, worked in Hollywood)

(Tom Alter, born in Mussoorie, inspired by Rajesh Khanna, never able to play anything more than the token white guy)


I think it is more about women being able to break down boundaries in ways that men just can’t.  It’s a special female talent, being able to be different without being threatening.



PS: And from my rejected ideas for posts, here my most empowering female songs with some of my favorite actresses in some of the most feminist films:

(Lajja is a very depressing but ultimately inspirational, and super feminist, movie.  And I love Madhuri and Manisha in general, and particularly in this song where they are dancing just for each other, not for any man to watch)

(And it’s the same thing in Queen!  Two women discovering themselves and dancing for and with each other)

(I love Sridevi.  And also English/Vinglish)

2016 was a great year for strong women, starting with Neerja:




And then continuing with Pink:


Even Akira (which I liked, if no one else did):


And ending the year with Dangal:



And a song that isn’t really feminist at all, but it sure is International!



(By the way, speaking of women and women’s issues, go to this page to learn how you can help Planned Parenthood stay funded and providing low cost vital health services to millions of women)


19 thoughts on “Happy International Women’s Day! Here are some International Women!

  1. 1. I love Helen! Esp even in her latter years where she was roped in to play the spirited outgoing older woman (HDDCS, Mohabbatein, and my favourite – Khamoshi: The Musical!) There’s so much energy and joie de vivre even now.

    2. It was so difficult in the early, silent era film days to get a lot of Indian women to go into acting, so yeah, a few white and Anglo Indian women were roped in (I remember the first was called Sits Devi? I think) It was a similar story for the v first Malayalam movie “Vigathakumaran”. The director had a very hard time getting a heroine: the upper caste women would never be allowed, the Anglo-Indian heroine they called in from Bombay was creating trouble on the sets, and eventually they zeroed in on a young woman named P K Rosy. The upper caste audience ran riot when they saw the movie because they considered having a Dalit woman play a Nair an insult, destroying the theatre and literally chasing the poor actress out. And because of this disaster, it took decades and decades for it to be recognized as the first Malayali film. (You’ll see this depicted v poignantly in the biopic on the director J. C. Daniel, titled Celluloid)

    3. Deepika Padukone was my classmate for a semester in college xD She was a fairly nice girl, a backbencher and missed a lot of classes on account of modelling assignments. She later left college and did her studies through correspondence I think.

    4. I think Tom Alter managed to get roles that looked a little more Indian as he grew older. Like he played the Pakistani doctor in Veer Zaara, and much earlier he played the heroine Ganga’s brother in Ram Teri Ganga Maili. It’s a pleasure to watch him speak Urdu xD

    5. I love Lajja but I’m a scaredy cat so I can never quite watch the ending of Janki’s and Ram Dulari’s sections. My favourite parts were the Sita speech Janki gives and the speech Vaidehi delivers in the end.

    Loved this post!


    • Helen was so amazing in Khamoshi! I loved her in that! Actually, I like that whole movie. It is the only SLB film I can stomach. It’s just sweeter than the others, you know?

      Do you know the story about the first Indian film heroine actually being a man? Phalke was desperate for someone to play the heroine in Raja Harishchandra and even prostitutes weren’t willing to do it. And then, supposedly, he was buying lunch at a roadside dhaba and he noticed that the fry cook was surprisingly graceful. So the male and female roles in Raja Harishchandra are played by the same person. And after that, yeah, there were all sorts of Anglo-Indian and various other not-quite-Indian women. But of them all, I like Nadia the best!

      Nice to hear that Deepika was nice! She always comes off as nice in interviews. Just sort of kind thoughts for everybody (except for that one time on Koffee with Karan, but that was mostly Sonam).

      I first saw Tom Alter in Asambhav (which is terrible, don’t watch it!), and his character is supposed to be this older white guy who is Naseeruddin Shah’s lifelong friend and they hang out and speak Hindi to each other. And I thought “how unrealistic! That a white guy would speak such fluent Hindi and have a decades long friendship with Naseeruddin Shah!” And then I looked him up, and turns out he actually is a white guy who speaks fluent Hindi and has a decades long friendship with Naseeruddin Shah!

      Oh man, the Sita speech in Lajja is amazing! I love that part! And her faithless boyfriend/Ram is the same actor who plays the terrible oldest son in Baghban. So every time I see him onscreen, I immediately don’t trust him and just wait for him to betray those he loves. I hope you just fast-forward the really dark bits and then watch the last five minutes? Because the actually ending is just ridiculously happy and you shouldn’t miss it! (well, except for poor Rekha)


  2. Khamoshi, I think, was the only Bhansali film that hit the sweet spot between emotion and melodrama, and HDDCS (which I loved because I’ve had a soft spot for Aishwarya since I was 12) and it had some amazing acting. I liked even Salman (teehee, I’m normally not a huge fan of his acting, but in the early days he was very very charming and Khamoshi was one of those films that seemed to exploit that charm well). That scene where Annie signs frantically to her Dad after he throws her out! And how he echoes her sentiments at her son’s christening! Sigh. I loved that Mariamma’s character was both amazing and terribly flawed in that the one statement she let’s slip regarding her son’s disability is what creates the central conflict in the movie. And that doesn’t make her anything else other than human.

    Alter does a lot of theatre now I think. I met him once, he came to a poetry gig in Bandra and we were all peeing in our pants in delight xD He was such an absolute sweetheart, commenting on the English and Urdu poems he liked.

    I dunno, I was kinda okay with Deepika and Sonam in that episode. IIRC, it was shortly after an episode featuring Rishi and Ranbir where they were boasting about his sexual prowess or something? Since he did cheat on her and it was still early days, I think that episode was just Deepika still reeling from that breakup plus she was in the presence of Sonam, who didn’t like him much either. I think the way she acted was normal given the circumstances.

    I always had a theory about why each woman was named that particular aspect of Sita in Lajja. I think they exemplify Sita’s tragedy in different stages of her life:

    1. Maithili (Mahima) is Sita’s name that means “she who belongs to the city of Mithila”. It’s fitting considering that the entire action takes place in her father’s home, when she hasn’t started belonging to anyone yet.

    Janki: Named so because she was King Janak’s daughter. Like Maithili, she isn’t attached to a man to the point where she will be forced to have only his approval on what she does. She is independent and doesn’t need his say-so.

    Ramdulari: I think this was a tragic, heartbreaking spin on Sita’s kidnapping. That kidnap was a gross violation of consent, and Ramdulari’s rape I feel is viewed as even more tragic when viewed that it was an act of love from her son that they use as an excuse to violate her. Just as how Sita was defined by her marital relationships when she married Ram, so also is Ramdulari seen as the person who should be punished for what the village elders thought were her child’s misdeeds.

    Vaidehi: This is the only name of Sita’s that stems from her exile. Vaidehi herself is in exile and has let go of a bad relationship, even if the film makes her return to it in the end.

    Vaidehi: Sita’s name


    • I think having total control and unlimited resources has actually made Bhansali a worse director. Khamoshi was so sweet and nice, and just sort of clever. He couldn’t substitute spectacle for substance like he did later. Although I also have a soft spot for HDDC, not because of Aish (She really rubs me the wrong way, although she’s not bad in HDDC), but because of Ajay, who’s just amazing in it. Oh, and my sister did a study abroad in Budapest, where they shot all the “Italy” scenes, so that just makes it more fun.

      Oh, and I am totally fine with that KWK episode too! I love it, actually. Ranbir should be called out more for all the stuff he does. But it definitely felt like Dips was being way harsher than she usually is in her interviews. And clearly she’s found a way to forgive him since then, probably because she is a nicer person than I am. Or else because Ranveer is such an awesome boyfriend that she doesn’t even care any more.

      That Lajja analysis is fascinating! Thank you! And with the Ramdulari-Sita kidnap parallel, I really liked that the one woman who was kidnapped and raped out of all of them was the oldest one, the one who was not presented as a sexual or attractive at all. It removed any sort of romance or titillation from it (the way Indian, and American, films sometimes like to portray sexual assault), and made it just an obvious abuse of power.


  3. Helen and Nadia’s stories are amazing.I feel that Khamoshi is SLB’s best work till date.He was slammed pretty badly by his peers and the media after the Saawariya debacle(best remembered for Ranveer in a towel and the blue lighting) I remember SRK and Saif calling him Sanjay ‘Neela’ Bhansali during a skit in Filmfare. The music in his movies became boring after he parted ways with Ismail Durbar after Devdas.

    Suzanne Bernert a German actress deserves some mention though she’s more famous in soaps. Currently she’s playing Queen Mother Helena in Chakravartin Ashok Samrat (Emperor Ashok) in Colors.She’s Seleucus Nicator’s daughter and married Chandragupta Maurya.She’s a cool,classy and sophisticated villain who is willing to go to any extreme to put her son Justin on the throne.Never mind what her son wants.


    • I actually watched Saawariya. From a library DVD, so at least I didn’t pay anything for it. But I still resent him for taking 2 and a half hours from my life!

      I just googled Suzanne Bernert, she was in Shahrukh Bole Khoobsurat Hai Tu! Which I will someday track down and buy and then I will finally own every single Shahrukh movie on DVD!

      I also forgot to mention Lauren Gottlieb. She was in the ABCD movies and various other things. She started on an American dance contest show, and had a little bit of an acting/performing career in America. But after getting cast in ABCD, she moved to India 100%, worked on her Hindi, has been in a few other movies, and been a regular on a couple of dance TV shows in India. I find her interesting, because it seems like, she made a practical career decision to switch from the American to the Indian industries, since India offered more opportunities for a skilled dancer.


        • I know one person who actually liked it. So it is possible to like it. I just don’t see how!

          Also, the songs are really pretty, so if you can’t take it any more after ten minutes, just give up and watch the songs and then mail the DVD back.


          • So I just finished it, and here my thoughts in a nutshell. Visually and musically, absolutely stunning, like grand opera. Loved everyone in it except Ranbir, who has expressive eyes and is otherwise eh, for my taste. Salman is so sexy in this! And he doesn’t need a stupid towel scene to be hot. But the plot is too simple to stand up to the sets and the music. In the “making of the music” extra on the DVD, Bansali says Ranbir is “the greatest actor he’s ever worked with”. Oh, really?


          • It’s supposed to be based on a Tolstoy short story, which never really made sense to me, because a short story isn’t enough for a whole movie.

            It wasn’t the greatest movie, but it had an even worse release than it would have otherwise, because it came out opposite Om Shanti Om.


          • Indeed! Let’s see, what else to say? Obviously, it was the launch of Sonam and Ranbir. There was a lot of buzz about them at the time, especially Ranbir. And then this came out and just sort of made a sad little dying whimper and went away. There was also a lot of excitement about another Bhansali film, his last (Black) was his most critically acclaimed film so far. Which is funny, because you don’t see it referenced nearly as much now as you do Hum Dil and Devdas. Saawariya was so bad that it kind of derailed Bhansali’s career and he had to struggle to get Guzaarish made. And than that was also terrible and unpopular. And then Ram-Leela redeemed him again.

            It was a Diwale release, and the next year on Diwale Jaan-E-Mann and Don came out opposite each other, and again Shahrukh totally dominated the box office. It was around that time that the Khan’s started unofficially/officially splitting the calendar. Now, no more conflicts! Salman takes Eid, Shahrukh takes Diwale and Aamir takes Christmas.

            On Sat, Mar 11, 2017 at 8:39 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



          • I know it’s weird of me, but I actually liked Guzaarish. Bhansali’s visuals really appeal to me, and there’s a dreamlike, surreal quality in many of his films that I like. But the storyline in this was just too simple to support the production. And Ranbir — just nope. The towel scene was laughably awful.


  4. Lauren’s one of my favourite SYTYCD all-stars ❤ Prior to getting into Bollywood I remember she danced as an all star on the Kambakht Ishq title song. She was became famous for participating in a dance competition called Jhalak Dikhla Jaa on Colours TV (similar to Dancing with the Stars), where she went all the way to the finals, only to be beating by an actress who was in one of the channel's soaps. The actress won. Not many people were very happy about that. But anyway. It was an absolute pleasure to watch her dance!


    • I first saw her in ABCD, and I loved that they didn’t bother giving her a big backstory or anything to explain her race. She was just a really good dancer who spoke Hindi and lived in India and was part of an Indian dance troupe. Also, she just did a random cameo in “6 Pack Abs”, my new favorite song.


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