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Readers Choice: The Greatest Actresses of all time

Last updated on: June 29, 2011 17:32 IST

Image: Nandita Das
Photographs: Jag Gundu/ Getty Images Raja Sen in Mumbai

Once again, dear readers, take a bow.

We asked you to do the impossible, to look up and down Indian cinema and pick the ten finest Indian actresses of all-time, and as usual, you did the impossible with aplomb.

The following list is an inevitably debatable one, one which will cause many a squabble over who is ranked over who and who has been left out in the cold, but one thing we must celebrate is the fact that these are ten truly special actresses, actresses who need to be commended, celebrated, and remembered. Here, readers, is your top ten:

10. Nandita Das

A highly talented performer who often scorches the screen with her intensity, Das is as well known for her smoldering sensuality as for her eclectic filmography. Last seen in Onir's I Am, the actress has had a short but always exciting career, with films like Fire, Earth, Bawandar and Amaar Bhuvan ranking as her own very best.

9. Rekha

Image: Rekha in Umrao Jaan

It's hard not to be bowled over by Rekha's longevity, or her ability to reinvent herself.

With a brunt of her work comprising of 'female-oriented' cinema, the actress took on a man's job and did it stunningly well, holding her own against all the top actors and being remembered despite them. The jewel in her crown remains her performance as a courtesan in Umrao Jaan.

8. Sadhana

Image: Sadhana

A chorus-girl in Raj Kapoor's Shri 420, the beautiful Sadhana rose to prominence when picked for Love In Simla, for which the director gave her a fringe haircut. Soon, the Sadhana-cut was sweeping the nation.

But under the hairstyle lay a very fine, heartbreakingly good actress. Sadhana's best roles were in films as disparate as Hum Dono, Woh Kaun Thi, Waqt and Mera Saaya.

7. Shabana Azmi

Image: Shabana Azmi

Some actresses stun right from the word go. Shabana Azmi made her debut in Shyam Benegal's Ankur, playing a married villager who falls in love with a college student.

Immediately the film industry realised that here was a performer of extraordinary talent, and heralded her arrival with the Indian New Wave, arthouse directors clamouring around her as chubby producers might do A-listers.

6. Madhuri Dixit

Image: Madhuri Dixit in Dil Toh Pagal Hai

And it doesn't get any more A-list than this lady right here.

The biggest, brightiest and single-smiliest star in Bollywood's firmament, it took nine films for her to find her blockbuster stride with Tezaab, but there was no looking back after that as the lady became our biggest ever, at par with and even outranking her leading men.

As an actress, she's done it all -- from Parinda to Beta to Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! to Mrityudand to Gajagamini.

5. Waheeda Rahman

Image: Waheeda Rahman in Ulfat Ki Nayee Manzilen

It all began when Guru Dutt handpicked her to play a vamp. The film was Raj Khosla's CID, and nobody, but nobody, had ever seen a femme as fatale as Rehman, an ethereally luscious angel with eyes sparkling wickedly.

She went from strength to strength, acting increasingly better and with an irresistible screen charm. Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool, Chaudhvi Ka Chand, Guide, Neel Kamal... Waheedaji was pure poetry.

4. Meena Kumari

Image: Meena Kumari in Pakeezah

Frequently referred to as the tragedy queen, Kumari was an actress we lost ironically early, dying from cirrhosis of the liver when she was just 39.

Her most iconic performance, that of Chhoti Bahu in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, is one of the finest by any leading lady in any motion picture, one where the craft is so perfect that it becomes impossible to draw a line between actress and character. Sublime.

3. Nutan

Image: Nutan in Bandini

If the Filmfare Awards mean anything -- and, lets face it, back in the day they kinda did -- the luminous Nutan could be called the most talented of our mainstream heroines.

She won five richly deserved Best Actress awards -- Seema, Sujata, Bandini, Milan, Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki -- and one for Best Supporting Actress (Meri Jung), and was nominated five other times. That just speaks for itself, really.

2. Smita Patil

Image: Smita Patil in Mirch Masala

Cinema's radicals might have found an actress to celebrate with Shabana Azmi, but the more striking side of the coin was Patil, a compellingly intelligent presence that stood for both empowerment and sensitivity.

Patil won the Best Actress National Award twice, for Bhumika and Chakra, and won the Padma Shri in 1985. Sadly, the actress passed away far too young, at the age of 31.

1. Nargis

Image: Nargis in Shri 420

A contentious choice, but definitely one of the greats, dear readers. And, it must be said, decidedly one of the most beautiful women to ever grace our screens.

The first film personality to win the Padma Shri, Nargis had quite the filmography -- from Andaz to Awaara, from Shree 420 to Chori Chori -- and hit peak with Mother India, for which she won the Best Actress prize at Czechoslovakia's celebrated Karlovy Very film festival.

An actress with range, style, grace and an incredibly warm screen presence, Nargis is truly a leading lady to celebrate.