This month marks two decades sine the emergence of a Bollywood diva.
Kareena Kapoor Khan’s debut, Refugee, was released in June, 2000. Since then, she hasn’t looked back and continues to steal many hearts with her beauty and talent.
The span of her 20-year film career speaks volumes of her capability to represent reality of the changing cultural and political landscape of India.
Her very first role as Nazneen, a stateless Muslim looking for a permanent home in Pakistan in Refugee, to the last one as Naina, a tough British police officer hounding suspected illegal migrants in Angrezi Medium released early this year, prove her strength and versatility as an actor.
In between these two films, Kareena has completed a journey of showcasing characters who could be anyone from an innocent sweetheart to a loyal wife to a villain to a historical figure.
Kareena has acted in more than 50 films. The list includes those in which she either made special appearances or played cameo roles.
However, the variety of powerful roles she has played help in understanding India’s transformation from a tolerant to an illiberal society.
To begin with, the story of Nazneen educated audiences about the plight of stateless Muslims from Bihar in eastern India.
Nazneen’s parents were uprooted when India and Pakistan were divided on religious lines in 1947. That followed the liberation of the country from British occupation, forcing Bihari Muslims in Hindu-dominated India to migrate to East Pakistan.
When East Pakistan separated from West Pakistan to become Bangladesh in 1971, these Bihari Muslims were forced to migrate again as they weren’t accepted in the fledgling Bengali-speaking nation. As a result, they had no choice but to go to Pakistan, as it was difficult to return to their roots in Bihar.
So they took an illegal root to travel to Pakistan with the help of human traffickers. Nazneen, who falls in love with one of them, gives birth to a child in the no man’s land between India and Pakistan, symbolizing the hollowness of false border lines.
This makes her role relevant not only for South Asian audiences, but for a global viewership in the light of the ongoing refugee crisis everywhere.
Refugee was released when tensions were rising between India and Pakistan. With India accusing Pakistan of sponsoring terrorism within its territory, the film delivered a message about how humanity continues to prevail in the hearts of ordinary people on both sides of the border.
It was a far better film than many others made during that time to mainly bash Pakistan and evoke narrow nationalism. The currently ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) was in power back then in India. And much like now, there was no dearth of filmmakers who tried to outdo each other to please the government in New Delhi.
The BJP is known for its anti-Muslim prejudices and often portrays Muslims in India as terrorists and Pakistani agents.
Refugee was first in a series of Kareena films revolving around the prickly subject of Indo-Pak relations in a highly polarized environment.
In 2003, another movie, LOC Kargil was released. This time, Kareena played Simran, a fiancé of an Indian soldier who died during the fight between Indian and Pakistani troops deployed along the Line of Actual Control (LOC) in the Kargil area of Kashmir.
The actual events took place in 1999. The movie was certainly not like Refugee in that it glorified the Indian soldiers while vilifying their Pakistani counterparts.
Simran was a courageous woman who is willing to marry and live with a soldier in spite of the threat of war. Her story is similar to real-life war widows, irrespective of being Indian or Pakistani, who know how to live with dignity.
Then there was Agent Vinod in 2012. Kareena plays a spy of Pakistani origin, Iram Parveen, who wants to live a peaceful life. But circumstances land her in espionage business.
More than being a diehard nationalist, Iram is someone who cares for humanity. She dies in pursuit of the truth without taking sides by helping Indians facing a potential terrorist attack planned by international conspirators.
Her supporting role in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, released in 2015, offers hope for a better future between the two countries. As Rasika, a Hindu woman, she comes to the rescue of a Muslim girl from Pakistan who's been separated from her mother during a train journey.
Despite being born to a rigidly religious family that hates Muslims, she encourages her lover to locate the girl's family and reunite her with her parents in Pakistan.
Moving beyond Indo-Pak-themed films, Kareena has, to her credit, played other significant roles shedding light on Islamophobia in both Indian and western societies.
She played as Aaliya, a survivor of an anti-Muslim pogrom in Dev (2004). Aaliya loses her family in the violence engineered by right-wing Hindu politicians and fearlessly testifies against those involved.
The film was produced two years after the Gujarat massacre of Muslims in 2002. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was chief minister of the state when the violence broke out under his watch. The storyline of the film clearly suggested that it was based on the ugly events that took place there.
In 2009, she played as Avantika in Kurbaan, which is about Jihadist terrorism and how Muslims are being mistreated all over the world.
Avantika marries a Muslim man in spite of the reservations of her Hindu family and ends up facing a situation of betrayal from her husband, who is part of an Islamic extremist group.
In her real life too, Kareena has stood up against Islamophobia. Married to a Muslim, she comes from a prominent Hindu family.
Her husband, Saif Ali Khan, is also an established actor and has acted with her in number of films, including Kurbaan. She faced a backlash from BJP supporters for marrying Saif and adopting Khan as her last name.
Later, she later came under attack when the couple named their child after an Islamic historical figure, whom right-wing Hindu leaders accuse of being a tyrant.
In 2018, when Kareena stood up in support of an eight-year-old-girl, Asifa Bano, who was raped and murdered by Hindu fundamentalists, she was widely trolled on social media. That risked the fate of her film Veere Dee Wedding.
Although she is not an activist, she has played one in at least two films worth watching to comprehend the problems faced by Indians due to corruption.
Incidentally, both Gori Tere Pyaar Mein and Satyagrah were released in 2013. She played as Diya and Yasmin, respectively, in the two movies that appeared around the time when people were marching in streets against corruption.
Yasmin is a journalist-turned-activist who expresses concern over anti-corruption campaigners supporting right-wing nationalist parties bent upon dividing the society.
Her role proved prophetic, as a year later Modi became the prime minister in 2014, riding on anti-corruption wave that completely blinded voters to his brand of divisive politics aimed at turning India into a Hindu theocracy.
Kareena’s role as a doctor in Udta Punjab (2016) warrants special recognition now, in the time of COVID-19, when health-care workers continue to face challenges.
She plays Preet Sahani, a doctor at a rehabilitation centre in Punjab, who tries to expose those involved in drug trade, She puts her life in jeopardy by speaking passionately for those who are struggling with their addiction.
The movie was censored in parts due to political pressure, as it showed the inconvenient of the complicity of police and politicians in drug trafficking.
In addition, there is a long list of Kareena roles as a feminist and confident career woman, but her performances as a sex worker in Chameli (2004) and Talaash (2012) were outstanding. As Rosie in Talaash, she became a voice of thousands of sex workers who are killed with impunity all over the world.
The story has a special significance for Canada where so many women have gone missing and the police have remained indifferent.
Likewise, Kareeena has acted as a rebellious lover, who goes against the wishes of her family to choose a husband or a life partner in Jeena Sirf Mere Liye (2002), Talaash: The Hunt Begins (2003), Mein Prem Ki Diwani Hoon (2003), Jab We Met (2007), Yuva (2004), Kyon Ki (2005) 3 Idiots (2009), and Heroine (2012), while rejecting the social and class boundaries.
It would be an injustice not to consider her roles as Kaurwaki in Asoka (2001) and Dolly Misra in Omkara (2006).
Kaurwaki was a historical figure—the second queen of King Asoka of India. Kareena amazed audiences by playing Kaurwaki, who influenced Asoka to give up his lifestyle as a reckless warrior and become a Buddhist.
Omkara was the adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. Kareena's Dolly Misra charater was based on William Shakespeare's character Desdemona, who was murdered by her husband after he's made to suspect her loyalties by his detractors, including her estranged father.
Kareena’s performance in the context of Indian society, strictly governed by patriarchy and a brutal caste system, left viewers completely overwhelmed.
Her exceptional performances as a villain in Fida (2004) and a person with speech disability in Chup Chup Ke (2006) were equally commendable.
As she completes 20 years in Bollywood, a lot has changed. With the beginning of 2020s, we can expect Kareena to bring us more insights and entertainment in the backdrop of new challenges facing Indian society.