Ashok Kumar (1930s - 40s): Ashok Kumar: One of India's most famous actors, Ashok Kumar was known as the 'ever green' hero of Hindi cinema. As a young assistant to filmmaker Himanshu Rai, he got his break in acting career by accident when he volunteered to substitute for the lead actor, who fell ill before production of the film Jeevan Nayya (1936) started. The same year and for the same reason, the producer offered him to play the lead in his next film, Achut Kanya, both opposite Devika Rani, the First Lady of the Indian cinema. His unique easy-style acting, quite a contrast to theatrical acting common then, was highly acclaimed. Both the films were also hits at the box-office and Ashok Kumar was in demand, not only for movies made by his mentor, Himanshu Rai, but also by other directors - Kangan (1939), Bandhan (1940), Naya Sansar (1941), Jhoola (1941), Najma (1943). Bollywood's first super hit Kismet (1943) that ran for three years in Bombay, gained him national fame for his charismatic performance. Ashok Kumar remained the most sought after star, even in character roles after he was over-age for lead roles, and appeared in 300 movies, most of these hits - Mahal (1949), Samadhi (1950), Afsana (1951), Parineeta (1953), Chalti Ka Naam Gadi (1958), Dhool Ka Phool (1959), Kanoon (1960), Mere Mehboob (1963), Bandini (1963), Jewel Thief (1967), Pakeeza (1971) and Victoria No. 203 (1972). In his private life, Ashok Kumar was a fine painter and an active practitioner of Homeopathy. Popularly known as Dadamoni - jewel of an elder brother - he never celebrated his birthday after his famous brother, Kishore Kumar, died in 1987 on his birthday.
(No favorites amongst female stars during the period.)
Dilip Kumar (1950s - 60s): The greatest actor ever to grace the Hindi cinema, he is also famous as the King of Tragedy. The audiences gave him standing ovation in packed cinema halls for his powerful performance and came out wiping tears at the tragic end to their hero's love story in the greatest tragedies made by Bollywood - Jugnu (1947), Shaheed and Mela (1948), Andaaz (1949), Babul and Jogan (1950), Deedar (1951), Udan Khatola and Devdas (1955), Madhumati (1958), Mugha-E-Azam (1960) and Ganga Jamuna (1961). In superhits of the 60s, Azaad, Kohinoor and Ram Aur Shyam, Dilip Kumar showed the lighter side of his reel life which was as rewarding for the viewers as his great tragedies of the 50s. His perfomance was not only applauded by Indian audiences, but it also attracted the attention of foreign film producers, at least two of them offering him important roles - 20th Century Fox in The Rains Came and David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia. Dilip Kumar declined both the offers - "In your own bazaar you enjoy a certain status. What's the point of venturing into fields unknown, where you have no say." Dilip Kumar's real life romance with Madhubala in the 50s was no different from his reel life Tragedies of the period - the couple could not unite at the end. He later married Saira Banu and is leading a happy life. As a man, Dilip Kumar is a very fine human, full of humility and compassion.
Madhubala: The most beautiful star of Hindi cinema, she was brilliant in both, comedy as well as in high dramatic performance. While she matched Kishore Kumar step by step in his madcap antics in Chalti Ka Naam Gadi, her performance as the doomed courtesan Anarkali in Mughal-E-Azam equalled that of Dilip Kumar as Prince Salim. Madhubala began her Bollywood life in Kidar Sharma's Neel Kamal (1947) opposite Raj Kapoor and became a superstar in Mahal (1949), a super super suspence thriller. A spate of hits followed - Amar, Howrah Bridge, Kala Paani, Phagun, Passport, Half Ticket and Sharabi. Madhubala's memorable career in Hindi films was cut short by her untimely death.
Amitabh Bachchan (1970s - 80s): In the year 1973, a film was released - Zanjeer. The film saw a new kind of hero, the angry young man, who took the law in his own hands and fought the villain. The people saw him as their savior. The actor playing the lead role, is Amitabh Bachchan. With his tall and lean looks, Amitabh Bachchan became the emblematic of the new kind of action hero - Dewar and Sholay (1975), Trishul, Don and Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978), Shaan (980), Kala Patthar and Shakti (1982), Coolie (1983). He excels in all types of roles, be it action, drama or comedy - a one man variety entertainment show - Kabhi Kabhie (1976), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Mr. Natwarlal (1979), Suhaag (1979), Silsila and Laawaris (1981), Namak Halal (1982). The 'Superstar of the Millennium' (BBC poll), selected as the first celebrity from India to be immortalized at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, London, recipient of Padma Bhushan and numerous awards, Amitabh Bachchan is still the busiest star with roles specially written for him - Baghban (2003), Sarkar (2005) and many more.
Rekha: Superstar of South India, Gemini Ganesan's daughter Rekha entered Bollywood with a bang, with her first film Sawan Bhadon (1970) becoming a super hit. Her most memorable movie is Umrao Jaan in which she played the role of the poet-cum-court dancer with the charm that captivated the audience as never before. She won the National Award for the film. Her big hits include - Mr. Natwarlal, Khoon Pasina, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, Namak Haram, Suhag, Ram Balram, Kasme Vaade, Do Anjaane, Alaap. Khoobsoorat and Khoon Bhari Maang won her Filmfare Best Actress Awards. She also won Best Supporting Actress Award for Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi (1998). The icon of beauty and glamor in Bollywood, she credits Yoga and balanced diet as the secret of her ageless face and figure.
Salman Khan (1990s and onwards): The actor attained star status with Sooraj Barjatya's Maine Pyar Kiya. Phenomenal success of Hum Aapke Hein Kaun established Salman as one of the famous formidable Khan trio. Today he is a sought after hero, working with almost all the top banners. Often known as Bollywood's 'Bad Boy' for his knack of walking into trouble, this macho hunk has a heart made of pure gold. He does good deeds and disappears, just like spiderman. His transformations can be sensitive, vulnerable, funny, aggressive and charming, as his roles demand. One thing he does irrespective of the role is getting rid of his shirt to show his muscles. A health freak, he is voted 7th best looking man in the world by People Magazine. All his films have a fantastic opening and many of them prove great hits - Saajan, Andaz Apna Apna, Karan Arjun, Khamoshi, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Tere Naam, Mujhse Shaadi Karogi, Maine Pyaar Kyun Kiya and No Entry. With the last several back to back super hits, currently he is at the peak of his career.
Aishwarya Rai: Ever since Rai took the leading role of Mansi, an aspiring singer, in Subhash Ghai's musical Taal, I have been her fan. Through her successful acting career, she has established herself as one of the most popular and high-profile celebrities in India. Rai has received several awards, including two Filmfare Awards for her performances in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) and Devdas (2002). She is often cited as the "most beautiful woman in the world".
She garnered critical appreciation for portraying Binodini, in the Bengali film Chokher Bali (2003), a depressed woman in the relationship drama Raincoat (2004) and as Kiranjit Ahluwalia in the British drama film Provoked (2006). Rai's greatest commercial successes have been the romance Mohabbatein (2000), the adventure film Dhoom 2 (2006), the historical romance Jodhaa Akbar (2008), and the science fiction film Enthiran (2010). She also received praise for portraying a nurse in the drama Guzaarish (2010). Rai took a sabbatical from film acting in 2010, and made her comeback with the thriller Jazbaa (2015). After giving a powerful performance in Sarbjit, Rai is now filming for Karan Johar's romantic drama Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.
Footnote: Amongst the new millennium actors my favorite is Abhishek Bachchan, right from his first movie Refugee. We, Jeet and I loved this movie, especially its music, and must have watched many times. Guru was another great movie, especially for his powerful performance. In fact, Abhishek is, perhaps, the most underrated actor, in spite of giving several hits and winning awards. I’m sure, sooner than later, he will be counted amongst great actors by the critics and the audiences alike.