Those were the times. When the heroine had a name that lent itself to the title of the film she was starring in. When the marquee literally gave her a double bill, her own name and of her character blazing bold above the cinema hall’s entrance. Name any actress of that era, and they’d have films that put them in the forefront. Nargis had Sharada (1957) and Mother India (1957), Bina Rai had Anarkali (1953), Nutan had Sujata (1959) and Bandini (1963), Vyjanthimala had Sadhna (1958) and Madhumati (1958), Meena Kumari had Pakeeza. And we’re not even talking of Fearless Nadia in Hunterwali (1935) or Devika Rani’s spirited performance as and in Acchut Kanya, which take the flashback deeper into cinematic history.
Even in films where the title was not celebrating the heroine, there were strong roles for the heroines that let them shine on in the collective memory of the audience, like Meena Kumari’s Choti Bahu and Madhubala’s Anarkali. Women playing vamps too had their day. Geeta Bali in Navketan films like Baazi, and even a yet-to-flower Waheeda found herself the focus in Guru Dutt’s CID as the role written for her ensured she effortlessly stole the scene from the heroine, Shakila.