Women of wealth: 5 rebel women whose strength of character is inspiring

·10-min read
On Women’s Day, here’s revisiting 5 rebel female protagonists, whose ‘wealth’ lay in their ability to take on misogyny and double standards

These are ordinary women, who encountered extraordinary experiences. Flawed, frail, fallible… yet feisty. Those who gave up disguised bondage to bond with themselves. Those who gave up falsehood to unfold their own myth. Those who heeded to the woman in them – even if the indemnities were hefty.

Unapologetic about their sexuality, unapologetic about their individuality… Evolving painfully from self-doubt to self-respect, their wealth lies in their authenticity. 

Revisiting the fiery protagonists of Arth, Parama, Aakhir Kyon?, Kaash and Astitva… who when life threw a curveball, hit it out of the park!

ARTH (1982)

Director: Mahesh Bhatt

Handpicking moments from the backyard of his life, director Mahesh Bhatt reportedly based Arth on his extramarital relationship with the late Parveen Babi and the anguish it brought to his first wife Kiran (Lorraine Bright). Delineating the trauma of such a detour, he made the ‘woman’ the hero.

Pooja (Shabana Azmi), deeply in love with filmmaker husband Inder Malhotra (Kulbhushan Malhotra) dreams of possessing a home. Being an orphan, owning a house is an emotional quest. A house she does acquire but at the price of her home. Inder is having an affair with superstar Kavita Sanyal (Smita Patil), who urges him to leave Pooja.

Devastated, Pooja tries all ways of wooing back her wayward husband including begging him to do a rethink and pleading with the ‘other woman’ as well. Unheeded, she’s left abandoned on the streets of life. Singer Raj (Raj Kiran) becomes a friend in her journey of survival.

Several dramatic scenes underline the curve of Pooja’s character. The party where a drunk Pooja confronts her husband and his starry mistress is a tinderbox of emotions ranging from rage, humiliation and dishonour!

“Pooja lets go of all sense of decorum and abuses Kavita… All her claims of being different from the Bai (Rohini Hattangady as the maid), who fought with her husband, were brought to naught. When push comes to shove, no doubt how evolved you think you are, you’re like anyone else. Shabana’s pallu dropped accidentally while shooting. I retained it because it appeared raw,” Mahesh Bhatt said in an interview to Filmfare.

Eventually, the mentally ill Kavita, earns her moment of redemption when she shows Inder the door saying, “Joh shaadi saat saal mein use (Pooja) security nahin de saki who mujhe kya degi!” When a turned down Inder comes to Pooja in hope of a reconciliation, she asks him if he’d have accepted an errant wife. “No!” he replies exposing his hypocrisy and losing Pooja forever.

Pooja, bereft of all attachments, takes on the responsibility of nurturing her maid’s daughter after she’s jailed for killing her abusive husband.

Pooja appreciates Raj for all he’s been to her but desists from getting into a relationship with him. She fears his support will weaken her once again. “Jo sahas tum mein jaaga hai wohi jeevan ka sahi arth hai,” Raj tells Pooja appreciating her self-reliance. Pooja rejoices in her new identity… free from the affixes of Malhotra or Raj.

PARAMA (1985 Hindi/Bengali)

Director: Aparna Sen


Traditional white Bengali saree with vermillion pallu over her head, flaming sindoor, shanka bangles circling her ivory wrists, wine-eyes limpid with untold dreams… 40-year-old Parama (Raakhee) shot against the idol of the Goddess cut an ethereal picture.

She’s no goddess though. Just a woman draped in yards of convention, living life through the roles she plays – a devoted wife, mother, daughter-in-law… Like her teen daughter once mocks her diffidence, “Second hand zindagi jeeti rehna… through Baba!”

Parama’s classic beauty catches the eye of Rahul (Mukul Sharma), a photo-journalist working for a hi-profile international publication. He chooses her as a subject for his photo essay - An Indian Housewife!

His photo session in her home begins with the question. “What do you think, Parama?” according her the dignity of possessing a mind. His camera gazes voyeuristically at her elusive sensuality. Her interaction with Rahul brings alive the woman in Parama, lying unheard, uncherished, unsung…

Raakhee in Parama
Raakhee in Parama

He encourages her to play the sitar again, it being an allegory of both the emotional and the sexual symphony he awakens in her. He urges her to step out of her doll-house and embrace life. “Saje saaye flat mein gudiya ki tarah baithi rahi!” he says. “Khatra mol kar jeena seekhiye!” he chides her. After a whirlwind intimacy, the nomad of a photographer, leaves one day…


The ‘Summer of ‘42’ comes with a price for Parama. When her semi-nude photograph, among others, is published in a journal (perhaps Rahul let her down by having them published without her consent), it unfurls havoc at home.

The humiliation she faces at the hands of her husband (Dipankar De as Subhash Chowdhury), children and extended family… makes her attempt suicide. A consequent head injury necessitates a surgery and the shedding of her lustrous tresses.

This complete annihilation – of her beauty, her personality and her relationships – metaphorically marks Parama’s resurrection. She’s no longer guilty about her ‘transgression’ (denies undergoing psychotherapy) rather views it as freeing her from years of custody. The ultimate liberation is that she moves beyond Rahul. She’s just appreciative that he was the inadvertent alchemist in her life.

Again, as an allegory, she finally recalls the name of the leaves, the memory of which had haunted her since childhood. The ‘nazuk patte, patle magar baarish mein beparvah’ is both a symbol of herself – fragile yet fierce in the face of onslaught.

Her recollection of the plant’s name – Krishna Pallavi – is her reclaiming her lost self and validating the meaning of her name Paroma – the ultimate woman!

“Out of all my films Parama is the most feminist… Parama has to convey a feeling of… strength without being in the least bit aggressive. Raakhee was able to bring that to the fore,” said director/writer Aparna Sen to TOI summing up her rebel protagonist.


Director: J.Om. Prakash

This was Smita Patil’s meaningful outing in mainstream cinema, elevated with her brand of gravitas. Nisha (Smita Patil), who’s grown up as an orphan, pours all her love on husband, Kabir Suri (Rakesh Roshan). But for the habitual philanderer, she’s just ‘an educated cook’, a ‘caretaker’ of his mansion and a ‘showpiece’ for the world.

Reality breaks Nisha’s illusions when he starts having an affair with her cousin Indu (Tina Munim) right under her nose, even as she’s dealing with a difficult pregnancy. He audaciously believes the helpless Nisha will ‘adjust’ to this trespass. Unable to take the humiliation, a distraught Nisha walks out of her own home, leaving behind her only treasure – her month-old-baby.

Through time, she etches her identity as an acclaimed authoress, pouring her pain in ink. In this voyage of self-actualisation, Alok (Rajesh Khanna), a media professional, has her back. Karma catches up with Kabir leaving him debt-ridden and Indu, indisposed.

Life eventually comes full circle, when Nisha rescues Kabir by selling him the publishing rights of her autobiography Parikrama (Circumambulation) and forwarding the royalties for the marriage of her daughter. Alok now urges her to welcome the ‘spring’ in her life. Seeing Nisha hesitant, her grey strands, a reminder of time gone past, he asks her, “Aakhir Kyon?” Why does she have to care about society that never cared for her?

Achala Nagar’s story underlines two life-changing episodes. The humiliation that can drive a woman to leave her child. And the ability to revel in an identity independent of a man.

KAASH (1987)

Director: Mahesh Bhatt

Jackie Shroff, Master Markand and Dimple Kapadia in Kaash
Jackie Shroff, Master Markand and Dimple Kapadia in Kaash

Kaash was the catalyst that propelled Dimple Kapadia’s journey forward as an actor. A catharsis, where she seemingly relived and relieved herself of the tumult of an unpleasant marriage with once-superstar husband Rajesh Khanna.

Drawing from the deep wells of a ravaged heart, as Pooja, she emptied all her pain in her performance of a battered wife of a fading superstar Ritesh (Jackie Shroff).

Unable to come to terms with his fading glory, Ritesh turns alcoholic and abusive. Pooja take up jobs to keep the fires burning. Romi (Master Makrand), their child, whom they both love immensely, is a silent spectator to their toxic relationship.

Pooja begins working for Alok (Anupam Kher). Their friendship unnerves an already insecure Ritesh, who issues an ultimatum – either Pooja gives up the job or him. She chooses the latter saying, “Rishton ki bheed mein… main apni pehchaan bhul gayee thi!”

The turnaround comes when Romi is diagnosed with brain cancer. To fulfil his wish, the devastated Ritesh and Pooja, agree to spend time together and celebrate their child. In his death, Romi breathes life into their dying relationship.

Pooja’s strength comes from the fact that she follows her heart at every crossroad irrespective of the consequences… Like when she chooses to endure a compulsive Ritesh having once known his love. Like when she refuses to surrender her identity even at the cost of leaving her child. Like she forsakes the rich Alok for his insensitivity towards her grief. Like she pleads Ritesh to give her another Romi…

“Dimple was determined to carve out a place for herself. Kaash was uncomfortably close to her life—it revisited the traumas of the broken home of a has-been superstar… A woman like Dimple, who’s emotionally reckless, who lets it all out into her performance, it wasn’t difficult to draw her out,” said Mahesh Bhatt to Man’s World about his hell-bent protagonist in Kaash.

ASTITVA (2000 Hindi/Marathi)

Director: Mahesh Manjrekar

Written by Mahesh Manjrekar and Imtiyaz Hussain, the National Award-winning film was apparently inspired by Guy de Maupassant’s novel Pierre And Jean.

Aditi Pandit (Tabu) is a devoted wife and homemaker. Her husband Srikant (Sachin Khedekar) becomes suspicious when she unexpectedly receives a fortune willed to her by her former music teacher, Malhar Kamat (Mohnish Bahl). Srikant eventually figures out the reason behind the illogical benevolence.

That Aditi had a brief affair with Malhar when he was away and that his ‘son’ (Sunil Barve) is actually the product of that dalliance.

A series of flashbacks, reveal that Aditi has been just a prop in Srikant’s scheme of things, a literal ‘sleeping partner’. And that it’s his disregard of his wife’s needs, both emotional and physical, which leads Aditi towards losing her restraint.

A woman conventional to the core, in dress and demeanour, allows passion to take over. For a change it’s the female gaze that’s at display in the song Chal chal mere sang sang with Malhar!

His ego bruised, Srikant humiliates Aditi amidst family and friends and demands a divorce. Aditi yields to his claim and walks away but not before revealing a few home-truths.

Aditi asks her husband why her physical desire should be considered different from his. “Tan mein pyaas jage toh main kay karoon? Jholi phaila kar tum se bheek maangoon? Ya intezar karoon ke tum kab mujh par meherbaan hoge!” says Aditi ripping off the veil over sexual duplicity.

Highlighting the need for mutual consent, she also accuses him of ‘raping’ her the times she surrendered to his sense of entitlement. Aditi, leaves everything behind when she walks out of her 25-year-old marriage, armed only with asititva – self-identity.

Decades later, the bespectacled Aditi, with oil-plaited hair, handwoven saree indifferently hanging on her slender frame… remains a tall figure. Her salvo against misogyny remains a reverberating indictment. No wonder it won Tabu the Filmfare Critics’ Award.

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