Article Hindi

10 years of Kahaani: How the trailblazing Vidya Balan-starrer set the stage for female-centric films

As the Sujoy Ghosh-helmed thriller completes a decade, Cinestaan looks at its impact on the careers of women in the Hindi film industry.

Vidya Balan in Kahaani

Keyur Seta

The term ‘female-centric film’ was coined roughly a decade ago. Although female protagonists were not unheard of in mainstream Hindi cinema, it was only 10 years into the new millennium that films revolving around them, instead of male stars aka heroes, started making a splash at the box office.

Vidya Balan has been a poster girl for films of this type. She and Rani Mukerji got critical acclaim for their work in the blockbuster No One Killed Jessica (2011). It was rare at the time for a film without a prominent male star to make a dent at the box office. The Raj Kumar Gupta film was based on the infamous Jessica Lal murder case. Vidya played Jessica's sister while Mukerji essayed the role of an honest, fearless journalist.

The same year, Vidya pulled another rabbit out of her hat with her storied performance in The Dirty Picture (2011), inspired by the life of the late soft-porn star Silk Smitha. Although the film also featured a male hero figure, played by Emraan Hashmi, a popular actor back then, it was Vidya who was the undisputed star of the film. 

The success of Vidya’s next film Kahaani (2012) gave female-centric Hindi films a shot in the arm. The movie completes 10 years today (it was released on 9 March 2012).

Parambrata Chatterjee and Vidya Balan in Kahaani

Directed by Sujoy Ghosh, the thriller sees Vidya play a pregnant woman, Vidya Bagchi. She is an NRI (non-resident Indian) living in London who visits Kolkata during Durga Puja to look for her missing husband Arnab Bagchi. Her search leads her to a web of mystery with an unlikely killer, Bob Biswas (Saswata Chatterjee), attempting to eliminate her. Vidya finds support in the cop Satyoki Sinha aka Rana (Parambrata Chatterjee).

Kahaani received positive reviews and good word-of-mouth publicity but the film had an average start at the box office. It only started finding its footing over the next few weeks. Produced by Ghosh himself and Jayantilal Gada’s Pen Movies, the film finished its box-office journey in India with almost Rs60 crore nett against its modest budget of Rs20 crore.

The success of Kahaani set the stage for a slew of films with female central characters. The year 2012 itself saw Kareena Kapoor Khan, Sridevi and Rani Mukerji shine in Heroine, English Vinglish and Aiyyaa, respectively. The last two were released in successive weeks, on 5 and 12 October, respectively.

The Kangana Ranaut-starrer Queen (2014), a seminal woman-led film, was a surprise hit as the actress wasn’t a big star back then and expectations from the project were not great. The same year, Priyanka Chopra essayed the role of boxing champion Mary Kom in the biopic of the same name.

Kangana Ranaut in Queen (2014)

Chopra then donned khaki as a central character in Prakash Jha’s Jai Gangaajal (2016). Although the film didn’t click at the box office, the actress began to carve a niche for herself in the West from this point on.

Deepika Padukone and Taapsee Pannu attained success as the leads of Chhapaak (2020) and Thappad (2020), respectively. Other films headlined by strong woman protagonists include Gunjan Saxena (2020), Madam Chief Minister (2021), Pagglait (2021), Saina (2021), Mimi (2021) and Rashmi Rocket (2021).

Over the years, however, Vidya has emerged as the torch-bearer for female-centric films. In fact, following the success of Kahaani, most of her projects have seen her take the lead. These include Bobby Jasoos (2014), Kahaani 2 (2016), Begum Jaan (2017), Tumhari Sulu (2017), Shakuntala Devi (2020) and Sherni (2021). Not all of these films clicked at the box office, and some were released directly on OTT platforms during the pandemic, but they helped Vidya secure her place as the female hero of Hindi cinema. 

During a group media interview with Vidya in 2016 for her film Te3n, it was pointed out that upcoming actresses had thanked her for doing Kahaani and ensuring that it became a success at the box office. She had responded, “It’s wonderful that people give me that credit and I am grateful to them. Someone had to take the first step. It’s very sweet when people say they are thankful to me. But I think they are just being sweet."

By the time Shakuntala Devi was released in July 2020, Vidya had acquired the image of someone who mostly does female-centric films. During another group interview, she had said, “I just want to play different characters on screen. These days, writers are writing interesting stories for female actors where they are the protagonist. And these films are doing well, so they are made more [often]. I think it’s a combination of everything. They are also expanding the scope of these films. And I feel so happy. I think it’s the best time to be a female actor in Hindi cinema.” 

On the occasion of International Women’s Day yesterday, Vidya appeared in advertisements for Google where she revealed how she was told that a film led by a woman would never work at the box office when she was a newcomer. She shared two such hoardings on Twitter yesterday.

Alia Bhatt in Gangubai Kathiawadi

After Vidya, it is Kangana Ranaut who has championed woman-centric films. She followed up the sleeper hit Queen with Revolver Rani (2014), Simran (2017), Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi (2019), Panga (2020) and Thalaivii (2021).

After Aiyya, Rani Mukerji has starred in Mardaani (2014), Hichki (2018) and Mardaani 2 (2019). She also has Mrs Chatterjee v/s Norway up for release.

From the current generation of actresses, it seems Alia Bhatt is set to carry the legacy of Kahaani forward. She has already had two successful films that she carried entirely on her shoulders, Raazi (2018) and the recently -released Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022). We can include Dear Zindagi (2016) in the list, though it had Shah Rukh Khan in an important role.

Just yesterday, Bhatt’s international debut made headlines. The actress has bagged a role in Netflix’s Heart Of Stone in which she will be starring alongside Gal Godot and Jamie Dornan.