Oh Womaniya: From Salma Sultan to Rakhi Sawant

07 Mar,2014


By Shailesh Kapoor


It’s Women’s Day this Saturday. The importance of women characters on Indian television is well understood, especially over the last two decades. Last month, I wrote about our daily soaps being unfairly branded as “regressive” (Read here), especially because the lead women characters in these serials are, in fact, strong and progressive.


But there’s a world of Indian television beyond the daily soaps and their characters. Here’s my list of five women who created a strong impact on Indian television. The list, presented in chronological order, does not include women whose impact largely came via specific characters they played. Also, it does not include women behind the scenes, which is perhaps a much easier list to generate, and a longer one too, albeit with Ekta Kapoor firmly on top.


Salma Sultan: If you are old enough to have watched Indian television in the pre-satellite era, the image of Salma Sultan reading news on Doordarshan is likely to be still fresh in your mind. Doordarshan had many newsreaders, but Salma Sultan brought with her a combination of grace and glamour like no other. Her sense of style, marked by the rose and the saree drape, inspired fashion choices till at least the mid 90s. More importantly, she encouraged several young women to take up newsroom jobs in a conservative Indian back in the 80s.


Neena Gupta: All other female actors, ranging from Smriti Irani to Sakshi Tanwar, are known for only one or two iconic characters. Neena Gupta, the only soap star in this list, broke that ceiling. Her identity today goes beyond any one or two serials she acted in. Ketaki in Khandaan or Priya in Saans or the reluctant host of Kamzor Kadi Kaun may eventually be forgotten, but the stamp of Neena Gupta on Indian television is indelible.


Simi Garewal: The ‘Lady In White’ hosted a show that was loved and hated in equal measure. Celebrities sharing their deepest secrets and crying on Rendezvous With Simi Garewal was not an uncommon occurrence. Speak, so I can see your soul, the show’s theme song aptly said. With time, Garewal lost relevance, with the new generation audience looking for more spice than aspiration in celeb chats (a la Koffee With Karan). But till about a decade ago, her stature and her success were unmistakable, as apparent in the exclusive party she threw to celebrate 100 episodes of her show back in 2004 (Watch here).


Rakhi Sawant: If there were a ranking on ‘class’, Simi Garewal and Rakhi Sawant would fall at the two ends. But with her inimitable style and a carefully cultivated art of sounding stupid, Rakhi Sawant managed to enthrall audience show after show. An episode in the first season of Bigg Boss, where she cried to the point of fainting because her ‘favorite mug’ was broken accidentally by another housemate, remains one of most dramatic Bigg Boss episodes till date. She could do crazy things like walk out of a reality show finale (Nach Baliye) if she did not win. Rakhi Ka Swayamwar remains the high point of her eventful TV career.


Gauhar Khan: Gauhar Khan’s true impact on Indian television will be known in a few years’ time. But she makes it to this list for being topical. She exuded immense confidence and personal character in the recently concluded Bigg Boss season. She could take on Salman Khan and even come out as the more reasonable person in the argument. The shrill voice and non-stop chatter may have put off some viewers, but Gauhar Khan made an impact because she emerged as the face of the modern urban Indian woman in this digital generation. She remains the only Bigg Boss contestant across seasons to have crossed Salman Khan’s popularity (Source: Ormax Characters India Loves).


TV Trails is a weekly column written by Shailesh Kapoor, founder and CEO of media insights firm Ormax Media. He spent nine years in the television industry before turning entrepreneur. The views expressed here are his own. He can be reached at his Twitter handle @shaileshkapoor


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