To keep pace with ever growing global population, progressive and sustained increase in rice production is necessary, especially in areas with extremely variable climatic conditions, where rice crop suffers from numerous abiotic stresses including salinity. Designing an effective phenotyping strategy requires thorough understanding of plant survival under stress. The investigation was carried out with four rice cultivars namely FR13A, IR42, Rashpanjor, and Pokkali that differed in salinity tolerance. The study showed that a genotype with initial vigour had some advantage in preserving shoot biomass under salt stress. Though both FR13A and IR42 showed sensitivity to salinity, FR13A with higher initial biomass maintained greater dry weight under saline condition. Increase of Na+:K+ ratio under salinity, due to accelerated absorption of Na+ and lesser absorption of K+ compared to control, was considerably higher in susceptible (118–200 %) than in tolerant (33–48 %) genotypes. While Na+ concentration in shoot increased significantly in both tolerant and susceptible genotypes, decrease in shoot K+ content was noticed only in susceptible genotypes. The imbalance of Na+ and K+ contents led to increased H2O2 production, causing greater peroxidation of membrane lipids and reduction in chlorophyll content and CO2 photosynthetic rate. Certain chlorophyll fluorescence parameters could distinguish between salinity tolerant and sensitive genotypes. To protect the plant from oxidative damage, several enzymatic and nonenzymatic antioxidants such as ascorbate were involved. The genotypes with capacity to assemble antioxidant enzymes in time could detoxify the reactive oxygen species more efficiently, leading to greater protection and reduced impact of salt stress.