18 Old Bollywood Icons I Bet You Didn’t Know About (But You Really Should)


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We know Old Hollywood — now it’s time to talk Old Bollywood.


Madhubala’s name is pretty much synonymous with Bollywood. Born in 1933, she is regarded as one of the most beautiful, talented, and influential personalities of Indian cinema. She’s known as the “Marilyn Monroe of Bollywood” (because we always need a Western comparison to understand the magnitude of the success of South Asians 😩).

OP Films

In most films, her name would come before the film’s lead male actor, which was unusual for that time but a testament to her popularity! She is associated most with her magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam (1960) as the ill-fated courtesan Anarkali.

Heartbreakingly, her life was cut short at the height of her stardom; she died in 1969 at age 36 from a prolonged illness due to a heart defect. An icon of the Golden Age of Bollywood (1940s-1960s), she is well-loved and revered even today. In 2018, The New York Times published a belated obituary and in 2019, Google commemorated her with a Doodle.


Regarded as the “Meryl Streep of India” and the first true female superstar of Indian cinema, Sridevi’s career spanned five decades. Born in 1963, she was known for her portrayals of strong lively women and her large expressive eyes, and she was highly regarded for her acting range.

Yash Raj Films, MAD Films

She was the recipient of a National Film Award and five(!) Filmfare Awards.

Her untimely death in 2018 from accidental drowning shocked the nation and made international headlines. She was one of the only two Indian stars honored in memoriam at the 90th Academy Awards. Her last film was Mom (2017), a thriller. It goes without saying that she’s missed greatly 😞.


Amitabh Bachchan is known as one of the greatest and most influential Bollywood actors — no list like this is complete without him. Born in 1942 and affectionately known as “Big B,” Bachchan is a reigning icon of Classic Bollywood (the 1970s-1980s). He is particularly famous for his “angry young man” persona because of his portrayals of the wronged hero against a corrupt system in the ’70s.

Trimurti Films, @amitabhbachchan / Via

This was seen as a sharp departure from the “romantic hero” and romance films dominant in Bollywood at the time. In other words, he dared to be different.

He has earned four National Film Awards and 16 Filmfare Awards for his work. Today, his son, Abhishek Bachchan, is a prominent Bollywood actor.


Raj Kapoor was quite a heartthrob during his time 😍. Born in1924, he’s known as the greatest showman in the history of Bollywood and the “Charlie Chaplin” of India due to his quirky acting style. He was nominated twice for the Palme d’Or grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival in the ’50s, received three National Film Awards, and won India’s highest award in cinema in 1987! Phew!

Rawal Films

Kapoor’s films — which he acted in, directed, and produced — are popular throughout Asia and Europe. He’s one of the most prominent members of the Kapoor family, aka “the first family of Indian cinema” (with five generations and almost 100 years in the film industry!).

His son Rishi Kapoor was famous throughout the ’70s, and his grandson Ranbir Kapoor and granddaughter Kareena Kapoor are two of the biggest superstars in Bollywood today. Another one of his grandsons married Amitabh Bachchan’s daughter! The connections are all over the place 😂.


Vyjayanthimala is one of the most iconic actresses in the golden era. Born in 1936, she is celebrated for being the first South Indian to become a Bollywood star. She broke barriers and was a key figure in introducing classical dance to the industry. She was also the first person to ever refuse a Filmfare Award. Lots of firsts here so kudos to her!

RK Films, The India Today Group / The India Today Group via Getty

Her poise and doe eyes were often pointed out by media. One of her most iconic films is Sangam (1964), which also starred our very own Raj Kapoor!

At the time, Sangam was the first Indian film shot in Europe, the longest-running film in India, the first-ever film to have two intervals, and considered Bollywood’s greatest love triangle. We stan an actress with so many firsts!


Known for her grace and warm screen presence, Nargis, born in 1929, was one of the biggest names in the industry. Many of her iconic films saw her paired with Raj Kapoor (over 16 films; their chemistry was incredible!). Plus, songs from these films are some of the most popular classic songs in Bollywood today.

RK Films

Interesting fact: Nargis was friends with Madhubala and helped prepare Madhubala’s body for her funeral 😔. She herself died of pancreatic cancer just three days before her son Sanjay Dutt made his acting debut.

Today, Sanjay Dutt is also a well-known name in the industry!


Rekha, born in 1954, is lauded for breaking away from traditional roles and playing strong, independent, and tempestuous female characters — ones that can hold their own against the male lead.

Yash Raj Films, AFP / Getty Images

She is also known for her work ethic. Early in her career, she was criticized heavily for her looks. Determined to prove the industry wrong, Rekha underwent a stunning transformation, honing her acting technique and her appearance, to then emerge in the ’80s as one of the most coveted screen personalities of the era.

This ability of hers to successfully reinvent herself at different points in her career is well-noted!


Sharmila Tagore is acclaimed as a key influence during the Bengali Renaissance and has worked in both Hindi and Bengali cinema. Oh yeah, she’s up there. Born in 1944, her ’60s aesthetic is iconic — as is her trademark eyeliner and dimple.

Shakti Films, Times of India

She has won two National Film Awards. Her son is Saif Ali Khan, one of the most prominent Bollywood actors today, and her granddaughter (Saif Ali Khan’s daughter) is Sara Ali Khan, who made her film debut in 2018.

She’s also related to Rabindranath Tagore, the writer who heavily reformed Bengali literature and music!


Like Sridevi, Rajesh Khanna is referred to as the first true male superstar of Indian cinema and the first romantic hero in Bollywood! Born in 1942, his films were known for their superhit songs, many of which are now classics. (This song is where the above screenshot of Sharmila Tagore comes from!) The extraordinarily large fan following he amassed has been noted by his fellow actors for being unusual and the first of its kind in the industry.


Contemporary actors have said this kind of craze remains unmatched by even the biggest stars today. His co-stars, including Sharmila Tagore, have spoken about how fans would kiss his car and how he needed police protection in public!

He starred in 15 consecutive hits from 1969 to 1971, a record that remains unbroken. After his death in 2012, he was honored with a statue. His son-in-law is Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar.


A legend at this point, Dilip Kumar is known as “The Tragedy King” and “the ultimate method actor.” Born in 1922, he has been credited for pioneering a method acting technique that predated Hollywood method actors. He holds the Guinness World Record for most awards won by an Indian actor 😱! And at almost 100 years old(!!!) as of 2021, Kumar is one of the last surviving stars of the Golden Age 🥺.

Filmfare, @thedilipkumar / Via Twitter: @TheDilipKumar

Kumar’s career spanned five decades. He has been called an influence by almost every Bollywood actor, from Amitabh Bachchan in the classic era to Shah Rukh Khan in the present.

Throughout his career, he was most often paired with Vyjayanthimala because the two had great chemistry! He also starred as the prince opposite Madhubala in milestone film Mughal-e-Azam (1960).


Known for her unconventional roles — which were considered pathbreaking — and her understated yet impactful acting style, Nutan was one of the few said to share equal footing with her male counterpart onscreen. Born in 1936, she’s noted for not fitting the conventional ideas of beauty. She was thin and gangly at a time when the industry preferred plump and petite (but um, have you seen her? She was beautiful).

Feminism India

Her performance in 1963 film Bandini is regarded as one of the finest performances in the history of Indian cinema, and her character is considered one of Bollywood’s strongest female characters!

She held the record of five wins of the Best Actress Filmfare Award for over 30 years(!). Her record was broken by her own niece, Kajol, one of the biggest Bollywood stars today.

Nutan also holds the title for oldest recipient of the Best Actress Filmfare Award (she was 42) and is the only actress of her generation who took on leading roles in her 40s with success. Google commemorated her in 2018 with a Doodle. Today, her son, Mohnish Bahl, is an actor as well.


Hema Malini, born in 1948, is known as “Dream Girl” in Bollywood (fitting too — just look at her!). Her “Dream Girl” persona became so famous that she even starred in a film of the same name in 1977! She also played the female lead in iconic film Sholay (1975), known as one of India’s top 10 best films of all time, in which she starred alongside her future husband, Dharmendra!

Trimurti Films, @dreamgirlhemamalini / Via

She’s also a trained Bharatanatyam dancer. Today, she supports many social causes, such as animal rights.


Known as Bollywood’s first “He-Man” and action king, Dharmendra’s rugged look made him voted among the top 10 most handsome men in Bollywood in the ’70s. Born in 1935, he is best known for iconic film Sholay (1975), truly a defining film of the era, in which he starred alongside Amitabh Bachchan, and as mentioned above, his future wife, Hema Malini!

@aapkadharam / Via, Hema Malini / Twitter / Via Twitter: @dreamgirlhema

Yep, he’s the lucky guy married to Bollywood’s Dream Girl! His most successful pairing was with her, and they starred in countless films together until they finally got married.

Today, his sons Sunny and Bobby Deol (from a previous marriage before Malini), are well-known Bollywood actors.


Coined the Tragedy Queen, Meena Kumari has been called “a historically incomparable” actress in Indian cinema. Born in 1933, she was also a poet and fashion trendsetter in the ’50s. In other words, she was a BOSS. In an industry dominated by men, Kumari was noted to be powerful.

KA Films

She was heavily admired by her contemporaries. Apparently, even Dilip Kumar would get nervous in front of her! She made history at the 10th Filmfare Awards (1963) where she received all three Best Actress nominations (and won, too!).

In a turn eerily similar to Madhubala, Kumari died at the height of her stardom at age 38 from liver cirrhosis after suffering for four years. Her tragic life often draws comparisons to Marilyn Monroe. Many of today’s stars have stated that while there may be great actresses, there will never be another Meena Kumari.


The oldest star in this post, Prithviraj Kapoor, born in 1906, is special because he began his career during the silent era of Hindi cinema! He starred in India’s very first sound film in 1931 (Alam Ara)! Thus, he’s known as a pioneer of Indian theater and film. And he really is one in every sense of the word because guess what? He’s Raj Kapoor’s father and the patriarch of the cinematic Kapoor family!

Yep, he’s the one who gave the industry four generations of amazing, influential actors (two generations of which are still active today). He’s where it all started!

Later in life, he played the domineering emperor in Mughal-e-Azam (1960), alongside Dilip Kumar and Madhubala. Though he isn’t the most popular member of the Kapoor fam, he’s certainly the most important for laying down the roots!


Born in 1947, Mumtaz is famous for her style and versatility throughout the late ’60s to ’70s. She was also a prominent sex symbol, and many of her looks in the ’70s became iconic. Just look at that hair!


Why, say hello to the “Elvis Presley” of India! That’s right, Shammi Kapoor was dubbed that due to his ability to entertain the masses and his “playboy” and “dancing hero” image in his films. Born in 1931, he is part of the Kapoor fam and is Raj Kapoor’s second youngest brother!


Fun fact: he had proposed marriage to Mumtaz after they became close while filming a movie together, but she politely refused because he wanted her to give up her film career.


Devika Rani, born in 1908, is considered the very first lady of Indian cinema! She was socially unconventional, highly educated, and — unusual for the time — involved in every aspect of filmmaking, from acting to directing. Her film Karma (1933) was the earliest Indian film to feature a kissing scene (scandalous!). It lasted four minutes, a record for the duration of a kissing scene that remains unbroken in Indian cinema even today! LOL.

She ran a production studio with her husband, with which she launched then-newcomers (and future legends) Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, and Madhubala!

Rani is also called the “Dragon Lady” because she was spunky, and, in general, a rulebreaker — as in, her attire was considered “risque,” she had a hot temper, she eloped with someone else while married, and then after her husband’s death, she retired and randomly married a Russian painter. Can you imagine all that in a hyper-conservative Indian society? Like, she literally did not give a damn. Love it!

There are plenty more golden-age Bollywood stars I know I missed! Let me know your fave in the comments 🙂


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