Tamil Cinema has been a torchbearer of Indian cinema which carved its place amidst the burgeoning cinema in Hindi and Telugu. Madras city was the beehive of Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam film industries in the early days and attracted aspiring actors, actresses, and technicians to the hustle-bustle of its studios. Leading ladies have established their magnificence in Tamil cinema and many of them worked concurrently in Telugu and Hindi cinema. A list celebrating these actresses cannot do justice to the brilliance that these women brought to the Tamil silver screen.
Thiruvaiyaru Panchapakesa Rajalakshmi
Considered the first actress of Tamil cinema, Rajalakshmi was the first to foray into films in Madras in the 1930s. Starting her career as a theatre artist, she got her big break in the Tamil film Kalidas (1931) though she was credited in three films before 1931 in Kovalan (1929), Usha Sundari (1930), and Rajeshwari (1930). She worked in prominent films in the 1930s like Draupadi Vastrapaharanam (1934), Miss Kamala (1936), Seemanthini (1936), and Nandakumar (1938).
P. Bhanumathi Ramakrishna
Debuting in Tamil in Santhanadevan (1939), P. Bhanumathi Ramakrishna was a doyen of the south Indian film industry as an actress, producer, director, singer, novelist, and lyricist. A multi-faceted personality, Bhanumathi essayed myriad roles in her extensive career and was bestowed with state and national awards for her contribution to cinema.
Known as one of the ‘Travancore sisters’ actress Padmini was a top actress in Tamil cinema. Debuting in the multi-star cast Tamil film Ezhai Padum Padu (1950), Padmini carved a niche for herself in the 1950s decade with memorable films like Sampoorna Ramayana (1958), Anbu (1953), Thanga Padhumai (1959), Veerapandiya Kattabomman (1959), Kaattu Roja (1963) and Thillana Mohanambal (1968).
Known as the first female superstar of South India, thespian Savitri Ganesan was a doyen in the Tamil and Telugu film industries. Savitri was an institution of acting and aspiring actresses of the time were inspired by Savitri’s magnificent presence to join films as a career. Starting her acting career as a child artist in theatre, she quickly rose to transform herself as a leading lady in the south Indian film industry. Her first role was in the Tamil and Telugu bilingual Pathala Bhairavi (1951) as a dancer. Her first lead role was in the bilingual Kalyanam Panni Paar (1952). In the 1950s and 60s decades, she worked in various roles to enchant the audience with her acting brilliance.
Credited as the longest-serving actor with the longest span of her career, Sowcar Janaki is a legend at the age of 88 years. Still active in her career, Janaki debuted in Tamil in the film Valayapathi (1952) and continued to dazzle the audience for the next two decades as a lead heroine of Tamil films. She transformed into a supporting actress in 1975 and since then has been working tirelessly across Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada films.
Debuting in the title role of a village girl in the Tamil film Karpagam (1963), actress K.R Vijaya began her career as a stage show dancer when she was noticed by the thespian Gemini Ganesan. Vijaya won her first Tamil state award for her portrayal of Shanthi in the Tamil film Iru Malargal (1967) and a special award for the Tamil film Dheerga Sumangali (1974). She found her forte playing mythological characters on screen which became her claim to fame. As Goddess Shakti in the Tamil film Mel Maruvathoor Arpudhangal (1986), Vijaya demonstrates her acting prowess in this devotional film.
Before J. Jayalalithaa became the supremo of the Tamil Nadu political party AIADMK and the 5-time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, she was a sparkling heroine of the silver screen in Tamil cinema. Trained in various forms of dance and music, Jayalalithaa joined the Tamil film industry as a child artist in the Kannada film Sri Shaila Mahathme (1961). Known as a child theatre artist, Jayalalithaa debuted in Tamil plays in 1964 and did her debut in the Tamil film Vennira Aadai (1965). Initially making a winning combination with actor Jayshankar in films like Nee (1965), Yaar Nee? (1966), Raja Veetu Pillai (1967), Muthu Chippi (1968) and Bommalattam (1968), Jayalalithaa partnered with the legendary Maruthur Gopala Ramachandran (MGR) in Aayilrathil Oruvan (1965), Adimai Penn (1969), Kudiyirundha Koyil (1968), Naam Nadu (1969) and Engal Thangam(1970). She also made a successful pairing with actors Ravichandran and Shivaji Ganesan till 1980 and then quit the film industry to join politics.
Known as the greatest actress and the first female megastar of Indian cinema, Sridevi redefined the contours of the Indian film industry for actresses. Starting her career as a child artist in Tamil cinema in 1969, Sridevi worked with the biggest actors of each decade in Tamil to achieve a matinee idol status. Her films Naam Nadu (1969), Aathi Parasakthi (1971), Babu (1971), Moondru Mudichu (1976), 16 Vayathinile (1977), Sigappu Rojakkal (1977), Johnny (1980), Meendum Kokila (1981), Moondram Pirai (1982) and Vaazhvey Maayam (1982) are considered landmark films in Tamil cinema. Before her unfortunate demise, she worked in the Tamil version of English Vinglish (2012) with superstar Ajith (in a cameo) and worked in a fantasy Tamil film Puli (2015) as Queen Yavanarani with superstar Vijay.
Winning the National Award for Best Actress in the titular role as Sindhu for the Tamil film Sindhu Bhairavi, Suhasini Maniratnam was a popular name in Tamil cinema in the 1980s. For her debut role as Viji in the Tamil film Nenjathai Killathe (1980), she won the Tamil Nadu State Award for Best Actress. She runs a successful production company Madras Talkies along with her husband Mani Ratnam and has had an extensive career over the decades.
Winner of the National Award for Best Actress for her incredible portrayal as Sudha in the Tamil film Veedu (1988), actress Archana has contributed to Tamil films with her powerful performances. A trained dancer in Kuchipudi and Kathak, Archana began her career in Tamil in Thai Ponggal (1980). She won the Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Velayi Onbadhu Roobai Nottu (2007).
An actress and director of substance, Revathi started her career in the Tamil romantic film Mann Vasanai (1983) which was declared a blockbuster. In a powerful performance in Kai Kodukkum Kai (1984), she played the role of a rape victim Seetha opposite Rajnikanth. A trained dancer in Bharatanatyam, Revathi won the National Film Award for Best Supporting Actress for the Tamil film Thevar Magan (1992).
Debuting in with the Tamil blockbuster M. Kumaran Son of Mahalakshmi (2004), Asin Thottumkal was known for her Midas touch. In her breakthrough performance in Tamil film Ghajini (2005), Asin played the memorable character of Kalpana (which became more famous in the Hindi remake with Aamir Khan). Asin wrote the 2000s decade in her name with multiple super hit films to her credit like Varalaru: History of Godfather (2006), Pokkiri (2007), Vel (2007), and Kaavalan (2011).
Debuting in the Ajith starrer Tamil blockbuster Vaali (1999), Jyotika became a successful name in Tamil cinema with prominent films Khushi (2000), Perazhagan (2004), Chandramukhi (2005), and Mozhi (2007). She made a comeback after her marriage with superstar Suriya in women-centric films Magalir Mattum (2017), Naachiyaar (2018), Kaatrin Mozhi (2018), and Raatchasi (2019).
Gaining huge recognition in the village story in the Tamil film Paruthiveeran (2007), actress Priyamani won the National Film Award for Best Actress for her debut Tamil performance as Muththazhagu in the film. Priyamani is considered a top actress in Tamil cinema for the past decade essaying incredible performances in films Adhu Oru Kana Kaalam (2005) where she played the character of a maid’s daughter Thulasi. She worked in acclaimed films Raavanan (2010) and the horror film Chaarulatha (2012).
Debuting in the Tamil romantic thriller Kedi (2006), Tamanna Bhatia, established herself as a leading lady in Tamil films. Born in Bombay and foraying into the South Indian film industry, Tamanna gave a breakthrough performance as a journalist Savithri in the Tamil film Viyabari (2007). Working in acclaimed Tamil films Kalloori (2007), Netru Indru Naalai (2008), Padikkadavan (2009), Ananda Thandavam (2009), Kanden Kadhalai (2009), Paiyaa (2010), Veeram (2014), Sketch (2018), and Action (2019), Tamanna Bhatia is an actress who is consistently on the watchlist of critics for her performances.
Known as the lady superstar in Tamil cinema, Nayanthara has worked in more than 75 films in her career spanning diverse roles. Debuting in the Tamil film Ayya (2005), Nayanthara became a profitable actress churning hits as a box office machine. Her films Billa (2007), Yaaradi Nee Mohini (2008), Aadhavan (2009), Raja Rani (2013), Maya (2015), Dora (2017), Kolamaavu Kokila (2018), Viswasam (2019), and Bigil (2019) have established her as the numero uno of Tamil film industry.