Despite the fact that Bollywood exceeds Hollywood in film output, Bollywood has a much smaller star system, which means Indian actors appear in far more films than their American counterparts-some doing as many as five movies a year. Luckily, that makes it easier for new fans to figure out who's who. The following, while by no means comprehensive, is a rundown of the biggest and brightest female stars in the Bollywood universe.
The year 2000 was a big one for Indian beauty pageant contestants-Lara Dutta and Dia Mirza won Miss Universe and Miss Asia Pacific respectively (and both went on to become Bollywood actresses) and Priyanka won Miss World, becoming the fifth Indian ever to win the title, and it's easy to see why-she's the picture of perfection. She debuted in 2003, and for her performance in Aitraaz the following year, she won the Filmfare Best Villain Award (don't you wish the Oscars had categories like that?)-and she's only the second woman ever to win that award. She appeared with Shahrukh Khan in the hit remake of the Hindi classic Don (2006), played the ambitious starlet in the wonderful Salaam-E-Ishq (2007) opposite Salman Khan, and won the Filmfare Best Actress Award for her turn as a troubled model in Fashion (2008). She will undoubtedly win more awards for her performance as an unglamorous spitfire in her 2009 film, the edgy drama Kaminey. She has been romantically linked with her Kaminey co-star Shahid Kapoor.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan
Often called "the most beautiful woman in the world," Aishwarya, also known as "Ash," is a former Miss World. She appeared in Tamil-language films before making her Bollywood debut in 1999 in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, opposite Salman Khan, for which she won the Filmfare Best Actress Award. In 2002, she appeared in Devdas, which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival, and she became the first Indian actress to serve as a Cannes jury member. She went on to appear in such hits as Dhoom 2 (2006) and Jodhaa Akbar (2008). She is the first Indian actor to significantly crossover in the West, appearing in The Mistress of Spices (2005) with Dylan McDermott, The Last Legion (2007) with Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley, and Pink Panther 2 (2009) with Steve Martin. She has also garnered more high-profile publicity in the West than any other Bollywood actor, having appeared on Oprah, the Late Show with David Letterman, and 60 Minutes. Following turbulent relationships with actors Salman Khan and Vivek Oberoi, Aishwarya married into Bollywood royalty in 2007 when she wed India's most eligible bachelor, Abhishek Bachchan, son of screen legend Amitabh Bachchan.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, Shahrukh Khan and Kajol-the most beloved onscreen couples of all time. And Kajol is a one-of-a-kind who needs no last name. She starred in her first film, Bekhudi, in 1992, and first appeared with Shahrukh in Baazigar in 1993. Two years later, the pair made history together in the landmark film, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. She later co-starred with actors Salman Khan, Sanjay Dutt, Anil Kapoor, and Ajay Devgan, whom she married in 1999. Kajol appeared with Shahrukh again in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in 1998 and in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham in 2001. She then took a five-year break from acting and had a daughter in 2003. She made a successful comeback in 2006 in Fanaa, opposite Aamir Khan, and won her fourth Filmfare Best Actress Award for her performance. In 2008, she appeared in U, Me Aur Hum, her husband's directorial debut. She will reunite with Shahrukh for the first time in nearly a decade in their highly-anticipated film, My Name is Khan, in early 2010. From the feisty tomboy of her early career to the radiant woman she is today, Kajol keeps getting better with time.
Shahrukh Khan has said that he owes much of his success to two of his famous co-stars-Kajol and Rani (who is Kajol's second cousin). Therefore, it's only fitting that one of King Khan's favorites has a first name that means "queen." However, while Rani is a leading Bollywood actress, she's always had a shaky claim to the top. She started in film in 1996 and had her first big hit in 1998 with Shahrukh and Kajol in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Her other successes include Saathiya (2002), Chalte Chalte (2003), Veer-Zaara (2004), Bunty Aur Babli (2005), and Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006). She's been critically praised for her exceptional performances in such films as Yuva (2004) and Black (2005), and she's won many awards throughout her career. However, she's had her fair share of bombs as well. The spirited, adorable actress has been romantically linked with many, but she refuses to discuss her private life.
Kareena, or Bebo as she's known, comes from a storied film family. She's the granddaughter of legendary actor Raj Kapoor and the niece of actor Rishi Kapoor. Both of her parents were actors as well, but her father didn't believe acting was a seemly profession for women and he disapproved of Kareena and her older sister Karisma carrying on the family tradition, so her mother left him and the two girls became stars (Karisma is now retired). Kareena made her acting debut in 2000 in Refugee, alongside then-newcomer Abhishek Bachchan (who was once engaged to Karisma), which she followed up with roles in Asoka, with Shahrukh Khan, and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, opposite Hrithik Roshan-both in 2001. After a string of unremarkable films, she delivered acclaimed performances in Dev (2004) and Omkara (2006). She won a Filmfare Best Actress Award in 2007 for her role in the blockbuster Jab We Met (2007), in which she was paired with her then-boyfriend Shahid Kapoor. She's currently dating Saif Ali Khan, her co-star in Tashan (2008).
One of India's top stars doesn't even hail from India. Katrina, who has a Kashmiri father and a British mother, was born in Hong Kong and raised in Hawaii and London, where her family currently lives (she is one of eight children). She was modeling in London when she was discovered by a Bollywood filmmaker who cast her in Boom in 2003. She moved to Mumbai to pursue a film career, even though she couldn't speak Hindi (she learned it on the fly). She had a small role in the Godfather-remake Sarkar (2005) and then appeared as the lead in Maine Pyaar Kyun Kiya (2005), opposite Salman Khan, with whom she has a rocky romantic relationship. She has since appeared with Akshay Kumar in Namastey London (2007) and Singh is Kinng (2008), Saif Ali Khan and Akshaye Khanna in Race (2008), John Abraham in New York (2009), and boyfriend Salman Khan in Partner (2007) and Yuvvraaj (2008). She is the model for Mattel's Bollywood Barbie.
Deepika exploded on the scene in 2007 with her debut in Om Shanti Om, playing opposite Shahrukh Khan. She has since appeared in Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008) with her offscreen boyfriend Ranbir Kapoor, and Love Aaj Kal (2009), alongside Saif Ali Khan. She is one of Bollywood's top "it" girls at the moment. Her father is a famous badminton player, and in her teens, Deepika was a tough competitor in the sport, which she abandoned for a career in modeling that then led to acting.
One of the sexiest women in the world and unafraid to take on racy roles, Bipasha, or Bips as she's known, has been burning up the screen since her debut in Ajnabee in 2001, playing a married woman on an adulterous mission. From Jism in 2003 (in which she appeared with her boyfriend John Abraham) to Race in 2008 (opposite Saif Ali Khan), Bipasha doesn't flinch from getting hot and heavy with her co-stars (by Bollywood standards, that is). She's tried her hand at sweet and innocent characters and troubled damsels in distress, but those are hard to pull off when you're as strong and smoking as she is. She was born for roles like the one she played in Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008), that of a driven superstar who might be hurt by heartache but can't be stopped by anything.
Preity is much like many of the characters she plays: a proud, independent woman of great warmth and depth. She made her acting debut in Dil Se (1998) and won her first Filmfare Best Actress Award for Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), both opposite Shahrukh Khan. Her hits include Koi...Mil Gaya (2003), Salaam Namaste (2005), and Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006). In 2003, she testified against the mob after receiving extortion threats-she was the only one of 13 prosecution witnesses, including other celebrities, who did not retract earlier statements, and she was commended by the public for her courage. Recently, she has ventured into art film, appearing with Amitabh Bachchan in The Last Lear, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2007. She won the Best Actress award at the 2008 Chicago International Film Festival for her role in the Canadian film, Heaven on Earth, which was based on the true story of a battered wife in Canada's Punjabi community. When, in 2008, she purchased an ownership stake in the professional Indian cricket team, the Kings XI Punjab, she was the youngest owner (she was born in 1975) and the only female owner in the league. In 2009, she ended a four-year relationship with businessman Ness Wadia.
Vidya's girl-next-door looks and vulnerable sweetness have made her a well-loved actress. She started out doing TV commercials and soap operas, got into film with a Bengali-language movie in 2003, and then had a strong Bollywood debut in the award-winning drama Parineeta (2005), in which she played the female lead opposite Saif Ali Khan. She followed it up with the hit comedy, Lage Raho Munna Bhai, with Sanjay Dutt, in 2006. The year 2007 was a busy one for her: she was critically praised for her performances in Guru, Salaam-E-Ishq, and Eklavya, and she appeared in two hits, Heyy Babyy and Bhool Bhulaiyaa. Her last big movie, Kismat Konnection (2008), alongside Shahid Kapoor (with whom she was romantically linked at the time), failed to do well, despite high expectations.
In an industry filled with talented dancers, Madhuri is a cut-above the rest-and she can act to boot. She debuted in 1984 and became a star as the lead in Tezaab in 1988. She won her first Filmfare Best Actress Award for her performance opposite Aamir Khan in the smash-hit romantic drama Dil in 1990-and many more hits and awards followed. She has danced to many of the most famous Bollywood songs ever, including "Maar Daala" from the lush drama Devdas (2002), in which she appeared with Shahrukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai. She married an Indian-American doctor in 1999 and moved to Denver, where she currently lives with her husband and two sons. After a long hiatus, the 40-something actress made a comeback in 2007 in Aaja Nachle-a mediocre film, but in it, she proved she's still got the moves.
Controversy seems to follow this Bollywood beauty, often overshadowing her film career. In 2003, her parents were allegedly linked to members of organized crime. In 2007, American actor Richard Gere caused an international uproar when he kissed Shilpa at an AIDS awareness event, prompting protests and legal action because such public displays are considered obscene by many. Later in 2007, she appeared on the British reality TV show, Celebrity Big Brother, and her fellow contestant Jade Goody was accused of racism toward Shilpa and evicted from the show. (Shilpa was voted the winner.) Through it all, she's maintained a respectable track record in film. Some of her notable pictures include her debut Baazigar (1993), with Shahrukh Khan and Kajol, Phir Milenge (2004), and Life in a...Metro (2007). In 2009, Shilpa became a part-owner of the professional Indian cricket team, the Rajasthan Royals. She once dated Akshay Kumar and is now engaged to British-Indian businessman Raj Kundra. Her younger sister Shamita Shetty is also an actress.
Sonam is the daughter of veteran actor Anil Kapoor. The fledgling actress has only appeared in two films so far-Saawariya (2007) and Delhi-6 (2009)-but her promising potential is already apparent. She was recently chosen as the face of cosmetic giant L'Oreal in India, replacing Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, whom Sonam has ruffled by referring to her in the press as "aunty-ji"-an Indian term of respect for one's elders.