Move Over Alia, Sharmila Tagore is Still Our Fave Bikini Babe

On Sharmila Tagore’s birthday, here’s tracing the history of the bikini through the lens of Bollywood.

5 min read
Sharmila Tagore from the 1967 movie <i>An Evening In Paris </i>and Alia Bhatt in her upcoming film <i>Shaandaar.</i>

(If there has been one Bollywood actor easy to love – both by her peers and the next-gen crop – it has to be Sharmila Tagore. The effervescent Bengali beauty won hearts as much then and she does now, with her effortless charm, that soft yet firm voice and those enviable acting chops. Yet, perhaps one of the things that she became most memorable for – was her bikini act, years ago, at a time when few ladies dared to don it on screen.

Sharmila rocked the two-piece and how! She also made way for a number of feisty Bollywood ladies after her to flaunt their bodies in pride.

On this spunky lady’s 70th birthday, let The Quint take you back to an article it published months ago when young Alia Bhatt’s bikini look for Shaandaar surfaced. But Sharmila, you will always remain our favourite! Happy birthday!)

From Sharmila Tagore’s daring act in a two-piece bathing suit on the cover of Filmfare, Sunny Leone’s scorching numbers in stringy costumes to Alia Bhatt’s casual stroll at the beach in a neon pink bikini, the skimpy swimwear has had us in shock and awe! With the Shaandaar trailer’s recent release, Alia’s bikini-perfect-toned body has become the film’s highest selling point so far.

Aalia Bhatt shows off her toned body in a bikini in Shaandar&nbsp;(Source: <a href="">YouTube/Dharma Productions</a>)
Aalia Bhatt shows off her toned body in a bikini in Shaandar (Source: YouTube/Dharma Productions)

But how did the bikini’s torrid love affair with Bollywood begin? And why does the bathing suit still create a stir in the hearts and minds of Indian audiences? Bollywood has come a long way from the time when parents avoided taking kids to films that featured a bikini-clad woman, to Alia making it look like the most comfortable, no fuss slip-on in Shaandaar. But here’s how it all started-

The Beginning of the Bikini Fever

Well the fight for wearing bathing suits on screen in India dates back to the 1930s. Meenakshi Shirodkar (Shilpa and Namrata Shirodkar’s grandmother!) challenged Indian mindsets when she dared to wear a swimsuit in the Marathi film Brahmachari (1938) to seduce Master Vinayak (father of actress Nanda).

Meenakshi Shirodkar in the 1938 Marathi film <i>Brahmachari </i>(Source: <a href="">YouTube</a>)
Meenakshi Shirodkar in the 1938 Marathi film Brahmachari (Source: YouTube)

The concept of sporting a swimsuit itself created a huge furore in our country.

But the bolder two-piece bikini wasn’t even launched then.

French fashion designer Louis Réard launched the two-piece swimsuit in 1946 and called it the bikini, borrowing the name from the Bikini Atoll. It was here that the United States conducted a series of nuclear explosions. Réard hoped his costume would have the same “explosive commercial and cultural reaction”.

A two-piece bathing suit had in fact been introduced by Jacques Heim in May 1946, and advertised as the world’s smallest bathing suit. But two months later, Reard introduced the ‘smaller than the smallest bathing suit in the world’ and called it the ‘Bikini’.

Sharmila Tagore was the first Indian actress to wear the bikini for the cover of Filmfare. A more “modest” swimsuit was chosen for Tagore in the movie An Evening In Paris (1967).

The nation watched in awe, as the bold costume challenged Victorian norms.

Bikini clad Sharmila Tagore for Filmfare cover&nbsp;
Bikini clad Sharmila Tagore for Filmfare cover 

Bikini Goes Mainstream

It took a few years for the Indian film industry to accept the bikini. In the 1970s, actresses like Dimple Kapadia and Zeenat Aman started wearing them in movies.

In her debut film Bobby, Dimple Kapadia stepped out in an orange bikini and won fans overnight.

Dimple Kapadia from the 1973 movie <i>Bobby</i> (Source: <a href="">YouTube/RK Films</a>)
Dimple Kapadia from the 1973 movie Bobby (Source: YouTube/RK Films)

Challenging Mindsets

The trend continued well into the ‘80s. Zeenat Aman (below), was one of the few actresses to slip into the two-piece swimsuit with elan. While she did receive her share of flak, there was no denying the fact that she captured the audience’s imagination.

Feroz Khan &amp; Zeenat Aman in a scene from the 1980 film <i>Qurbani</i> (Source: <a href="">YouTube/Ultra Hindi</a>)
Feroz Khan & Zeenat Aman in a scene from the 1980 film Qurbani (Source: YouTube/Ultra Hindi)


By and large however, actresses were not comfortable wearing the bikini. And when they did, they opted for the one-piece, midriff-covering swimsuit.

Sridevi from the 1983 movie <i>Himmatwala </i>(Source: <a href="">YouTube/Ultra Hindi</a>)
Sridevi from the 1983 movie Himmatwala (Source: YouTube/Ultra Hindi)
Sonu Walia from the 1988 movie <i>Khoon Bhari Maang </i>(Source: <a href="">YouTube/Eros Now</a>)
Sonu Walia from the 1988 movie Khoon Bhari Maang (Source: YouTube/Eros Now)
Amrish Puri letching at Sarika through his binoculars in the scene from the 1982 movie <i>Vidhaata </i>(Source: <a href="">YouTube</a>)
Amrish Puri letching at Sarika through his binoculars in the scene from the 1982 movie Vidhaata (Source: YouTube)

The ‘90s marked the era of beauty pageants with Sushmita Sen becoming the first Indian to win the Miss Universe crown.

The swimsuit round became the most talked-about of all the rounds, and notions changed.

Here is a video of the swimsuit round at the Miss World 1994 contest, which Aishwarya Rai went on to win famously.


With two Indian beauties bagging laurels abroad and shining in the swimsuit round, there was almost an overnight change in perception towards the now-common bikini.

There was no looking back. Indian designers cashed in on the trend and experimental bikinis became the talk of the town. So there the frills, knots and strings and we lapped it all up.

Bipasha Basu wears the bikini for the first time in her Bollywood career in the 2006 film <i>Dhoom 2 </i>(Source: <a href="">YouTube</a>)
Bipasha Basu wears the bikini for the first time in her Bollywood career in the 2006 film Dhoom 2 (Source: YouTube)

Not Controversial, But Still Not Commonplace

Sunny Leone, the former adult film star who has now got wide acceptance in India, has been in at least one bikini number in each of her films.

What’s more, scores of Indians are now travelling abroad and happily slipping into a bikini on the beach. But while women in bikinis are common on screen now, there’s still a long way to go before the average Indian woman can wear a bikini on a beach here.

(Picture: Sunny Leone from the poster of the 2015 film <i>Ek Paheli Leela</i>)
(Picture: Sunny Leone from the poster of the 2015 film Ek Paheli Leela)

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