BY Ayesha Babar

We hear a lot about how Bollywood is a place where nepotism thrives and star kids are launched with much fanfare while ordinary hopefuls, regardless of talent, wait for years and sometimes decades to be noticed. In the cut-throat world of Indian cinema, there are few examples of actors who have been complete outsiders and yet have managed to make a mark. Out of these, even fewer have been women. These rare women have impressed us with their talent, tenacity and hard work – Individuals belonging to families that have little to do with the business of Bollywood. The last decade, particularly since 2012, has been a special time for such women.

2014 was an interesting year, where suddenly the one film that everyone was talking about and rooting for was not a Salman Khan blockbuster – it was ‘Queen’, a relatively small film with a big heart. Its leading lady Kangana Ranaut finally got the credit and acclaim that she was due.

Kangaga Ramaut as Rani Mehra in 'Queen'
Kangaga Ramaut as Rani Mehra in ‘Queen’

Much like her character in the film, Kangana had had to leave home and discover herself at a very young age.  At 16, Kangana decided to leave her hometown, a small city in Himanchal Pradesh, and moved to Delhi to find out her true calling. Soon she got involved with a theatre group known as Asmita, learning the ropes of the craft from Arvind Gaur. After months of doing small roles, Kangana was encouraged to go to Mumbai and try her luck in the Indian Film Industry. Once in Mumbai, it was through sheer hard work and back-to-back auditions that she finally landed her first role in ‘Gangster’ in 2006. She was still only 18 at that time!

Over the next few years of being typecast as a neurotic character who was struggling with drugs and depression, Kangana kept persevering to land a role that allowed her to showcase her full talent. With her curly hair and accented hindi, she was not looked upon as typical heroine material. That is when ‘Fashion’ appeared. The role brought her talent to the forefront, winning her a National Award in the process. Since then she has proven herself time and time again, with mainstream success and acceptance finally coming her way with ‘Tanu weds Manu’ and ‘Queen’. These hits have allowed her opportunities like ‘Tanu weds Manu Returns’ and more, showing that the faith reposed in her is well-placed!

Kangana is part of the brigade of young women who have made a name for themselves not just for playing arm candy to a superstar male actor, but also for what they bring to the characters that they play. Deepika Padukone, who has been winning over audiences and critics alike in the last few years, has been mastering her craft. When she first appeared on the big screen, in a dream debut opposite Shah Rukh Khan in ‘Om Shanti Om’ in 2007, much was written about how luck was on Deepika’s side. What many people didn’t realise at that time was that ‘Om Shanti Om’ was not just the film gods smiling at Deepika, but the result of many years of struggle.

Deepika Padukone as Meera Sahni in 'Cocktail'
Deepika Padukone as Meera Sahni in ‘Cocktail’

Much like Kangana, Deepika too, left her family home in Bangalore to pursue her acting aspirations. She had to make do with modelling for a few years before she was noticed and cast in her first film. With the success of Om Shanti Om, expectations grew. The next couple of years were a mixed bag. Directors like Imtiaz Ali put their trust in Deepika with ‘Love Aaj Kal’ but commercial success eluded her. Films like ‘Break ke Baad’ and ‘Chandni Chowk to China’ tanked at the box office and Deepika was close to being written off. 2012 brought her ‘Cocktail’, the film which finally made people sit up and take notice, and since then there has been no looking back. In the following years, she has taken up challenging roles such as Mastani in ‘Bajirao Mastani’ and delivered knockout performances. Icons like Amitabh Bachchan, who Padukone worked with in ‘Piku’, have celebrated her talent and said that she is one of the finest

Deepika Padukone in 'Piku'
Deepika Padukone in ‘Piku’

acting talents to have emerged in recent years.

Along with all this, Deepika has also been one of the few stars to openly talk about highly taboo topics like depression. Her foundation, Live Love Laugh, which was launched last year is devoted to discussing depression and spreading awareness of the condition. She has broken the conventional Hindi film heroine mould and openly spoken about her own struggles in coping with depression. She has also starred in a pro-choice video produced by Vogue India, which encourages women to be independent and confident of what they want from themselves and those around them. 

In the same league of current actresses that have earned their success without a proverbial godfather in the industry, and have kept bringing something fresh to the table is Priyanka Chopra.

Chopra hails from an Army medical background, one that required her to move from city to city, with her family. It was when she moved to the US to live with her aunt that she discovered her love for acting and theatre. Those years in the US exposed her to a whole new world but also made Priyanka extremely self-critical. In one of her interviews Priyanka described them as a tough phase:

‘I was a gawky kid, had low self-esteem, came from a modest middle-class background, had white marks on my legs… But I was damn hard working. Today, my legs sell 12 brands.’

Priyanka Chopra as Meghna Mathur in 'Fashion'
Priyanka Chopra as Meghna Mathur in ‘Fashion’

Upon returning to India, at her mother’s insistence she decided to try out for Miss India. Not only did she win the title, she went on to be crowned Miss World for the year 2000. Bollywood came calling soon afterwards and she played a stream of glamorous roles that had her playing not much more than a glamorous second fiddle to the hero. It was her hard work that kept her going in these years of struggle until she landed the role of Meghna Mathur in ‘Fashion’ in 2008. Critics were forced to acknowledge her breakthrough performance. Priyanka now had the privilege of choosing roles that allowed her to explore different facets of her acting. From Kaminey to Barfi, she has delivered some outstanding performances. Barring a few rough patches, Priyanka has really risen to become one of India’s best known and most beloved stars.

From launching her singing career and churning out some hit numbers, to playing the lead role in the US TV series Quantico, Priyanka is officially going places. And now it has been officially announced that Priyanka will be playing a villainous role in the new Baywatch movie reboot opposite Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Zac Efron. Priyanka will also presenting at the Oscars, this year as India’s sole representative there.

Kangana, Deepika and Priyanka are proof that talent and hard work always pays off eventually. They now serve as key inspiration not just to aspiring female actors, but also to men who wish to enter the film industry but do not have a godfather or insider to rely on!