indian cinema heritage foundation

Amrita Singh

  • Born: 9 February 1958 (..)
  • Primary Cinema: Hindi
  • Parents: Rukhsana Sultana and Shivinder Singh Virk
  • Spouse: Saif Ali Khan (divorced)
  • Children: Sara Ali Khan, Ibrahim Ali Khan

Regarded as one of the most popular and leading actress of the 1980s, Amrita Singh has been described as “A heroine who breathed fire and shushed up anyone who dared disagree with her flare-ups and fury.” Never the “delicate, dramatic and tearful heroine”, she carved a niche for herself after becoming an overnight success with her debut film Betaab (1983). Reigning for ten years as a leading lady, she created a new template of leading heroine onscreen with her “narrowed eyes and reverberating voice”. Known for her unconventional career choices, she would go on to transform from a popular heroine to the hateful anti-hero, even bringing a different flavour to each of her maternal roles onscreen. Her filmography is noteworthy. Featuring in a host of commercially successful films such as Mard (1985), Chameli Ki Shaadi (1986), Naam (1986), Khudgarz (1987), Thikana (1987), Waaris (1988), Toofan (1989), Dil Aashna Hai (1992), Aaina (1993) and Rang (1993), she took a break from acting and returned to the screen with interesting roles in films such as 23rd March 1931: Shaheed (2002), Kalyug (2005), Shootout at Lokhandwala (2007), 2 States (2014), Hindi Medium (2017) and Badla (2019). Admitting she enjoys playing fiery and aggressive roles, she has shared, “Though I'm not really any of these things in real life. I never was. That was an image. I’m never bad tempered and rash. But I enjoy playing such women.” While she made her impact in dramatic roles, her comic timing has also found appreciation. Awards she has won include the Filmfare award for best supporting actress for Aaina, and the Indian Telly award for best actress in a negative role (jury) for her television debut Kavyanjali (2005-2006).

Born on 9 February 1958 to Rukhsana Sultana and Shivinder Singh Virk, her father was an army officer, and her mother, a socialite turned social worker and political associate of Sanjay Gandhi in the 1970s. Through her paternal grandmother Mohinder Kaur, she is the great-granddaughter of Sir Sobha Singh, one of the builders of New Delhi, the grandniece of the late novelist Khushwant Singh, and great-grandniece of politician Ujjal Singh. She is also the grand-niece of erstwhile actress Begum Para. 

Attending Modern School in New Delhi, she was cast in Rahul Rawail’s Betaab (1983) at a very young age in an interesting way. A common friend of Rahul Rawail and Dharmendra, Ramesh Behl discovered Singh and suggested her as the lead for the film because he thought Singh would be a perfect fit for the character. Thus, she was casted in Betaab opposite Sunny Deol and made her debut in Hindi cinema. A romance genre film written by Javed Akhtar and directed by Rahul Rawail, the plot of Betaab revolves around a young man and woman who fall in love, but face obstacles from their families. The film’s cast included Shammi Kapoor, Nirupa Roy and Prem Chopra. A commercial success, it went on to become the second highest grossing Indian film of the year. 

She shone in a succession of hits, including the Raj Khosla-directed romantic drama Sunny (1984), Manmohan Desai’s action comedy drama Mard starring Amitabh Bachchan which was the biggest hit of 1985, Anil Ganguly’s Saaheb (1985) opposite Anil Kapoor, Basu Chatterjee’s romantic comedy Chameli Ki Shaadi (1986), Mahesh Bhatt’s crime drama Naam (1986), the Rakesh Roshan-directed drama Khudgarz (1987), and Ravindra Peepat’s Waaris (1988). 

A popular choice for filmmakers for the female lead role, she made a successful pair on screen with a range of actors from Sunny Deol, Sanjay Dutt, and Anil Kapoor, to Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna, Raj Babbar, and Jeetendra
With the passing years, she also played supporting negative roles in films such as Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1992), Suryavanshi (1992) and Aaina (1993). In the Aziz Mirza directed Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, she played Sapna Chhabria, the daughter of the owner of a big construction company, who falls in love with the young Raj Mathur (Shah Rukh Khan). They spend more and more time together and he soon gets caught up in the rich and glamorous lifestyle. However, Sapna is heartbroken when she finds out that he loves Renu (Juhi Chawla). 

Rakesh Kumar’s Suryavanshi saw her play the vengeful princess of ancient times – Suryalekha, while in the Yash Chopra-produced romantic drama film Aaina she played Roma Mathur, the older, competitive and spoiled daughter of a wealthy businessman, who is hell-bent on ruining the marriage of her sister and the man she herself loves. 

She was still fairly young when she took on the role of mother to Ayesha Jhulka and Divya Bharti’s characters in Rang (1993). The role saw her delve freely into the different sides of her character—a tough businesswoman, an obedient daughter and a loving mother. The Talat Jani-directed romantic drama was to mark the end of her first innings as an actress; she quit acting thereafter to retired into family life. 

In 2002, she returned to the big screen with the historical biopic 23rd March 1931: Shaheed, playing Vidyavati Kaur, the mother of freedom fighter Bhagat Singh (essayed by Bobby Deol). 

She essayed another negative role in Kalyug (2005), playing businesswoman Simi Roy, who secretly is a porn-website creator living in Zürich, Switzerland. Singh had revealed, “When Mukesh (Bhatt) offered me Kalyug, I very arrogantly asked him if it was worth my while. He said he wouldn't have offered me the role otherwise!” Playing a cruel, ruthless mercenary, who has no time to see the deteriorating mental health of her daughter, she plunged into the villainous and tortured role of a broken mother, having an affair with a younger man. Speaking about her role, Singh said, “I was initially very uncomfortable with the idea of playing the businesswoman who runs a porno portal. Obviously this woman Simi Roy (in the film) was far removed from me. But I guess the topicality tilted the scale in the role's favour. I guess the challenge for me at the moment is to play characters that allow me to be what I am not.” She also maintained, “I enjoy the challenge of playing unusual women now when I've nothing to prove and nothing to lose. Working in a film like Kalyug gives me a chance to do something I believe in.” Receiving critical acclaim, her performance earned her a nomination for the Filmfare award for best performance in a negative role.

Joining the television industry with Ekta Kapoor's family drama Kavyanjali, which aired on StarPlus in 2005, she gained immense popularity for the negative role that soon gained immense popularity. She essayed the venomous, sly mother Nitya Nanda in the popular series. In an interview at the time she had said, “My television serial Kavyanjali started badly. I got scared. Was I going to be a flop right at the start of my fresh lease as an actress? Fortunately I had a gritty producer Ekta Kapoor who took it upon herself to turn the show around. And now Kavyanjali is rocking in the TRPs.” Speaking about playing the shrew, she said, “She's such a comic bitch, I'm thoroughly enjoying playing her.”

In 2007, she played the role of gangster Maya Dolas (Vivek Oberoi)'s mother, Ratnaprabha Dolas, in the Sanjay Gupta film Shootout at Lokhandwala, directed by Apoorva Lakhia. The film was an account of the gangster Maya Dolas and his gang which terrorised Mumbai city, and the ensuing standoff between the Mumbai police and the gang on 16 November 1991.

Other films she featured in include the anthology film Dus Kahaniyaan (2007), where she appeared in the short story Poornmasi. Directed by Meghna Gulzar and based on a short story by Kartar Singh Duggal, Singh played Mala, a neglected wife, who pays a heavy price for a night of passion. 

She also acted in the Pooja Bhatt directorial Kajraare (2010) about a popular singer with two identities who falls in love with a prostitute, as well as Aurangzeb (2012) under the Yash Raj Films banner, in which she was paired with Jackie Shroff after almost two decades, after they featured together in Aaina.

Her performance in the critical and commercial success 2 States (2014), produced by Dharma Productions, earned her, her second nomination for the Filmfare award for best supporting actress. A faithful adaption of Chetan Bhagat’s book, she played Kavita Mehra Malhotra, a Punjabi mother, unwilling to accept that her son (Arjun Kapoor) has fallen in love with a Tamilian woman (Alia Bhatt). Singh brought a delicious bite to her role, which, though not outwardly that of a despicable villain, was vicious all the same. It was followed by her playing the mother of Aman Dhillon, a teenager (Tiger Shroff) who gains superpowers from a divine tree in A Flying Jatt (2016).

In 2017, she appeared in the comedy-drama Hindi Medium as a school principal in the Saket Chaudhary-directed comedy drama starring Irrfan Khan and Saba Qamar revolving around a couple from Chandni Chowk who aspire to give their daughter the best education and thus be a part of and accepted by the elite of Delhi.

In 2019, Singh appeared in Sujoy Ghosh's psychological mystery thriller Badla, reuniting with Amitabh Bachchan after 18 years. Her performance as Rani Kaur Toor was notable in the film that received widespread critical acclaim as well as commercial success upon its release. Her performance also earned her a third nomination for the Filmfare award for best supporting actress.

Her more recent releases include A New Christmas (2019) and Heropanti 2 (2022), in which she plays the mother of Babloo Ranawat (Tiger Shroff), a genius hacker, who is tasked with tracking down Laila, the mastermind behind the world's largest cyber-crime yet to occur. 

On the personal front, she has been refreshingly open about her relationships, stating that had lived by her own rules and not those laid by anyone, while always maintaining her dignity. In an interview, she declared, “Every time I’ve been involved in a relationship, whether it was with Sunny (Deol), Ravi (Shastri, cricketer), or Vinod (Khanna), I gave in 100%. And when it ends, I feel that I have been cut out of an eternal piece of my body.” Refusing to react to the gossip about her, she has maintained, “I'm a product and if anyone gets mileage out of mentioning my name, so be it.” She had also once laughingly told talk show host Simi Garewal, “I was never the bikini wearing type bindaas, I am the behenji,” adding that she enjoyed being the ‘brash behenji’ to ‘protect herself’ from people. 

In January 1991, she married actor Saif Ali Khan, 12 years her junior. Raised as a Sikh, she reportedly converted to Islam before her Islamic wedding. Her father-in-law was the former Indian test cricket captain Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, the ninth Nawab of Pataudi, and her mother-in-law, actress Sharmila Tagore. She gave up acting after her marriage to Khan, and despite controversies, they remained married for 13 years till they divorced in 2004. They are parents to daughter Sara Ali Khan, who was born on 12 August 1995, and son Ibrahim Ali Khan, born 5 March 2001. Sara made her film debut in 2018 and Ibrahim is also expected to debut as an actor.

Speaking in retrospective mode about her career in films, she said, “I saw it as a chance to have my own identity, and loads and loads of money. …Movies gave me bread, butter, jam, caviar... the works! I've seen so many generations of actors come and go. I left at the right time. I had done my bit, worked with the best. I was quite tired of working. I wanted to get married and have my own kids... I don't regret any decision in my life... not my career, not marriage.... Every experience has been so fulfilling in so many ways.”