That was 1988. The year Madhuri Dixit swayed her way into the hearts of millions of movie fans across India. Nine years on, Mumbai's mulgis of the soil are on an unprecedented roll. Three of the top five female stars—the phenomenally gifted Dixit, the va-va-voom girl Mamta Kulkarni and the bewitching child-woman Urmila Matondkar—are aamchi Mumbai products, while one, the elegantly hyper-charged Kajol, Tanuja's daughter, is half-Mahara-shtrian. And while svelte stunner Sonali Bendre awaits her tryst with mega-stardom, Ashwini Bhave, Shilpa Shirodkar and Varsha Usgaonkar are no spent forces.
It's a whole new tinsel town pirouette. Sensuous, utterly uninhibited and nimble-toed, the Ghatan glam girls have left the rest in the field far behind. Nothing, afterall, succeeds like sexcess in the land of repressed male libidos. "Exuding oomph helps," confesses Mamta Kulkarni, the ultimate pin-up girl of the naughty '90s, wild yet vulnerable, plebeian yet powerful.
But does their box-office power stem solely from the high-octane sex kitten act that has become their on-screen trademark? And does their straight-laced middle-class upbringing, which helps mass identifica-tion, add to the allure? "Maharashtrian women have always been exceptionally bold," Mamta asserts. In the early '40s, she points out, Shilpa Shirodkar's grandmother, Meenakshi Shirodkar, wore a swimsuit in her very first Marathi film. "Since then, from Nutan to Smita Patil, they've all done daring things on the big screen."
So, film historian Bunny Reuben is not surprised by the sudden proliferation of Ghatan sex symbols: "There has been one or the other Maharashtrian actress dominating the industry down the decades—Nutan, Tanuja, Nanda, Jayshree Gadkar...they were all ahead of their times." Quite true. But never before has this essentially conservative western Indian commu-nity carpet-bombed showbiz with as large a number of oomph girls as it is doing today.
The rise of these enchantresses has coincided with the inexplicable eclipse of the girls down south. With the likes of Khush-boo and Naghma, neither of whom is south Indian, ruling the roost in Mollywood today, there is a dearth of 'authentic' south Indian actresses who can revive the Hema Malini magic in Bombay. At about the same time, the Marathi film industry has gone into sharp decline. The gorgeous Ghatans, with few Marathi films to bank on, have deftly stepped into the breach left by the southern belles. "We have universal faces—faces not typical of any particular part of India," says Mamta. And they can speak Hindi without an accent. So here they are—right at the top of the starry heap.
The new Bollywood queen bees, aided by big-time models like Madhu Sapre and Namrata Shirodkar (who, too, are poised to enter filmdom), have pushed overt sexuality to hitherto unheard-of limits. As Shilpa Shirodkar, whose Sanam Bewafa was last year's surprise hit, avers: "Between Madhuri, Madhu and Namrata, they have changed the community's attitudes."
"I think it is the marketplace and the kind of money that is available today that hasthrown up these sex symbols," says Reuben. "Either you have sex appeal or you don't, and these women have it and have flaunted it."
"But being a sex symbol helps only to a point," feels producer Pranlal Mehta. "Talent is important. Madhuri is living proof of that."
"The Maharashtrian community is characteristically Brahminical," says social scientist Ashis Nandy. "But historically, Maharashtra was not part of Brahminical India. It was essentially tribal. Therefore, the sub-stratum conceals a sense of freedom and liberation which the Brahminical lid often hides. Though the current trend is not specifically Maharashtrian, it would probably account for why it has started emerging in the community."
But the art of titillation is not the sole stock-in-trade of this new breed of Maha-rashtrian actresses. Says Urmila Mat-ondkar, whose father and grandfather have both been Marathi stage actors: "I do like being sensuous but that's just one part of an actress's personality. And people have seen more than sex appeal—I have been given credit for my performance and dance numbers in Rangeela ."
According to Varsha Usgaonkar, who sent the drooling classes into paroxyms of ecstasy with a choli dance in Khalnayika three years ago, it's their natural histrionic range that sets these actresses apart. "We can play the sexy siren and the lily-white ingenue with equal ease," she says.
Industry analysts attribute the success of these actresses to their professionalism, a trait that springs from their middle-class moorings. "Coupled with this," says filmmaker Mukul S. Anand, "are a strong spirit of aggression and the benefits of education."
Madhuri went to the Divine Child High School in Bombay's middle-class suburb of Andheri East before she was spotted by Rajshri. Mamta, an ex-student of St Joseph's Convent, Vile Parle, dropped out of junior college when she was 15 to pursue a movie career. Sonali did her schooling from Kendriya Vidyalaya, Bangalore and Bombay and graduated with Economics as her major from Ruia College, Matunga, Bombay. Shilpa, whose father is a freelance tourism consultant and a former Ranji Trophy cricketer, went to the Avabai Petit High School, Pali Hill, before the acting bug bit her at age13. They have all come a long way since.
Their professional resilience has never been in doubt. From the mesmeric Madhuri to the statuesque Sonali, they've all had false starts to their film careers only to bounce back. Madhuri Dixit began with a nondescript Rajshri entry, Abodh , a film nobody remembers today. It was followed by Hifazat and Uttar Dakshin , which sank without a trace. Then came the string of mega-hits that turned her into a one-woman industry. Now, every release of hers—lined up are Pankaj Parashar's Raajkumar and Rajiv Kapoor's Prem Granth —is a major event.
Urmila, the nation's favourite water babe today, also faced rough weather in the ini-tial stages of her career. If she laboured on, it was primarily because of what she calls her academic orientation. "It was the discipline that it instilled in me that got carried into my work," Urmila feels.
Mamta has little in common with the rest of the brigade. The daughter of a senior functionary of the Regional Transport Office in Bombay, she has created her own exclusive image: that of a classic Bollywood bimbette. Owing to her exploits on screen and off it, the tag has stuck. But she, too, is obviously proud of her identity. "We Maharashtrians," says Mamta, "have seen life very closely and have been able to portray human experiences very well. Therefore, the masses identify with us."
"Most of these girls come from a stage background and, therefore, acting comes naturally to them," says Mukul Anand. "The long tradition of theatre in the state has influenced these actresses in a major way."
No wonder, despite the commercial failure of Sonali Bendre's new film, English Babu Desi Mem , the lissome and leggy model-turned-actress' career is far from over. Producers are still more than willing to gamble on her. Says Pravin Nischol, director of English Babu : "During the shoot, Sonali improved as an actress with each day of work. Rest assured, she has a very bright future."
Doubtless, the charge of the Ghatan brigade is for real. And it has plenty of steam left.