New Delhi: The story goes, when actress Sharmila Tagore walked into photographer Dheeraj Chawda's studio one day in the early 1960s for a photo shoot for a magazine cover, all she carried was a small purse and a pair of oversized glares fashionable at that time.
"Where is your change of clothes?" asked the baffled photographer noticing the absence of bags of clothing or make-up. Tagore dug into her purse and fished out a two piece swim suit and languorously posed on a chaise. Overnight, a star was born.
Overturning years of solid cinematic tradition that established modesty and virtuousness as the barometer of the female identity, Tagore's swim wear act started a mini-revolution in the Indian film industry. Her perceived boldness was even taken up for discussion during the Parliament's question hour.
The Indian heroine
The Indian heroine has always led with her chin, taking up the tennis racquet or the plough while romancing a largely middle-class audience that sought an interim escape from reality in the dark bowels of a cinema theatre. But the sexual identity of the female lead was largely repressed to suit the sensibilities of an audience that also identified its own sacrifices, romances and discontent with characters on screen.
When American cinema first christened mainstream actresses Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot 'sex symbols' in the 50s, their Indian counterparts were content to fit into the comforting stereotypes of ideal companions, sisters, wives and mothers.
The role of the steamy seductress was reserved for the moles of the ante-heroes - femme fatales made famous by Helen, Nadira, Aruna Irani and Shashikala who unashamedly made passes at heroes, showed skin or danced to ‘Mehbooba o Mehbooba'. Lalita Pawar, one of Bollywood's earliest ‘vamps', was left partially paralyzed in the face during a scene that required her to be slapped.
The buxom temptresses were meant to bring out, almost comically, the contrast between them and the nurturing mother earth.
Actresses such as Sadhana and Nanda, while supremely popular, were never considered stars with sex appeal. Hema Malini's doe eyes and heavy accent made her a darling of the masses but did not bring out the raw sensuality that would turn a guy's head.
The siren of the 70s
One actress clad in a sarong and emerging out of the ocean, water droplets dripping from her hair, changed all that was good and virtuous in Hindi cinema in the 70s, an era often recreated in spoof flashbacks. Zeenat's raw sexual appeal and seemingly endless legs made her an overnight pin-up girl.
The angular face, high cheekbones and hourglass body, once considered features unsuited for the Indian female, suddenly brought her in league of actresses such as Susan Sarandon debuting in bi-lingual Canadian films in the 70s.
The entire 60s and 70s generation paid their allegiance to Sharmila Tagore's hourglass figure, back-knotted blouse, elaborate pouf and kohl-lined eyes, copied by a nation of frenzied women fans.
The only other actress who truly vaulted to sexual stardom in the 80s was Sridevi with her big eyes, unruly mane of hair and full lips. Sridevi owned the wet sari and her alluring dance with her invisible lover in ‘Mr India' branded her sex appeal into the Indian memory. Still, idolizing the female sex was a concept the Indian filmmaker did not fully grasp in the 80s and their part portrayal of actresses on screen remained an experiment in balancing innocence with bursts of the wicked.
Madhuri Dixit, who dominated the 90s with her buxom ‘choli ke peeche kya hai' act, brought in a breath of fresh air as the actress gyrated to rural music with provocative lyrics - clad in a sequined blouse with an expanse of midriff showing.
Sexy girl next door
But it was only in the next 10 years that filmmakers changed the definition of the sex symbol. Urmila Matondkar danced perched on a rock to ‘hai rama ye kya hua' and became a sensation among teenage cinema going crowd for ushering in the sexy girl-next-door genre.
Bipasha Basu did even better. She made the supercop a dream in latex and handcuffs. Kareena Kapoor with her high cheekbone and size zero figure, one of Bollywood's first to embrace the imported trend, came to epitomize the glamorous Indian lifestyle and inspired a nationwide craze for starry tantrums and micro waist size.
Emblematic of women in the 21st century, actresses such as Nandita Das, Kalki Koechlin, Sonam Kapoor and Kangana Ranaut have turned around the thinking man's sex symbol. Where transgressions are blurred and the act of sex is violent self expression, the sex symbols today have mutated into many headed entities.